Prior to the Civil War, the most popular lamp fuel in the country was a “burning fluid” called camphene, a volatile combination of turpentine and alcohol with camphor oil added for aroma. Until replaced by kerosene and its much safer lamps, two-wicked camphene lamps provided a cheap, bright light. The fuel’s explosive nature required a double burner, according to Ron Miller, a self-taught tinsmith and “hands-on historian.” He became so fascinated by America’s early illuminating lamps that recreated them.
“This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in early America,” explained Miller in his 2012 For the love of History blog. “Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.”
The key to learning about early to mid-19th century oil lamps was to study their burners, Miller noted, adding that “each type of fuel needed a specific style of burner to give the best light.”
Although most of the fuels have become obsolete, Miller “wanted to faithfully replicate the burners, in order to understand how they evolved,” he said, adding, “For the time being, substitute fuels would have to do.”
Miller fashioned tin into period lamp designs, including one fueled by fat – a “Betty Lamp” that “has an ancestry extending clear back to the Romans but had been improved on over time.” He also recreated a whale oil lamp, circa 1850, and a patented lard oil burner of 1842 (the lard needed to be warmed, to improve its fluidity).
After completing his first three tin lamp reproductions, the amateur tinsmith tackled the two-wicked camphene lamp. According to Miller, lamps fueled by camphene needed the two tapered, tubed burners angled out from each other to dissipate heat of the flames.
“These tubes never extend down past the mounting plate and never have slots for wick adjustment. Apparently, any heat added to the fuel caused an accumulation of gases and the possibility of an explosion,” he noted. Most surviving original burners have little covers to snuff out the flame and keep the fuel from evaporating.
“The style of lamp I chose to replicate is sometimes called a petticoat lamp by collectors for the flared shape of the base. Camphene lamps are often mislabeled as Whale Oil lamps but the difference is obvious once you know your burners,” Miller concluded about his replica. “In case you wondered, my lamp burns modern lamp oil as I don’t need to kill myself in the pursuit of history,” the tinsmith added.
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