1997 Slivers of Light: Rich Cut Oil Lamps

Rich cut oil lamps had a short but spectacular life span. Their production began about 1885 and ended around 1904 or 1905, when electric lamps became readily available. During the same twenty year period, there were about two hundred and fifty known cutting shops operating, but less than ten of those firms are credited with producing rich cut oil lamps. Even more surprising, with all the millions of cut glass pieces marketed at that time, fewer than 200 of these lamps are known to survive.

Little information is available concerning the production of these lamps. To date, there is no data documenting the numbers of rich cut oil lamps offered for sale. What is apparent, is that of the remaining lamps, the majority were cut by C. Dorflinger & Sons of White Mills, Pennsylvania. The Dorflinger firm not only cut the bulk of the lamps, but also blew the uncut blanks for most of the existing lamps. Cutting shops purchased these blanks directly from Dorflinger. Besides Dorflinger, The Libbey Glass Company of Toledo, Ohio, made blanks for their own lamps and also sold blanks to other cutting shops.

Cutting firms that manufactured the rest of the lamps included J. Hoare & Company of Corning, New York, T.G. Hawkes & Company of Corning, New York, The J. D. Bergen Company of Meriden, Connecticut, L. Blackmere Company of New Bedford, Massachusetts and L. Strauss & Sons of New York, New York.

The sizes and shapes of rich cut oil lamps fall into three basic categories. Large lamps over twenty inches in height were called “Banquet” or sometimes called “Table” lamps. Small lamps under twenty inches were called “Boudoir” or “Princess” lamps. Small “Boudoir” lamps were often carried from room to room. Dorflinger called their smaller lamps “Princess” and were usually identified by their petticoat-shaped bases. Dorflinger also marketed double spherical lamps as “Globe Princess” lamps.

“Banquet” lamps could be over thirty-four inches in height. They were sold with a plain globe shade or with a matching cut globe. A Dorflinger “Banquet” lamp illustrated in their 1895 No. 11 catalog, sold for $50.00. The “same lamp with globe cut to match” sold for an added $15.00. Other cuttings complete with globe cut to match ranged in price from $45.00 to $130.00. These lamps were very expensive. Today, the equivalent prices would be $742.00 to $2,144.00. Globe shades did not have to match. Combining different cut globes and bases was an acceptable practice.

“Banquet” lamps were usually sold with a matching cut chimney. A “New York Times” article dating June 30, 1889, reported the impact these lamps made at a Paris exhibition. In discussing the Hawkes display, it reads, “The great sensation, however, has been the cut-glass lamps with the chimney to match, and the monster shades corresponding. Nothing of this kind has been ever seen here before and the Parisiennes (sic) have gone wild on the subject.”

Matching cut chimneys were placed in lamps for show. When the lamps were in use a plain thin-walled chimney was utilized. Chimneys were often broken when the lamps were filled or cleaned. Oil lamps had to be continuously dismantled and cleaned to remove the black soot left by the burning kerosene. Original cut chimneys are extremely rare. Some collectors today commission replacement cut chimneys to complete their lamps.

“Low Banquet” lamps were cut by more than one firm. Dorflinger again made the blanks for these large squat lamps. Blanks could be made in the same shape but in different sizes. Two “Low Banquet” lamps included in the exhibition were cut by Dorflinger in their No. 99 pattern. They demonstrate how a blank could be inverted and then cut giving a totally different effect.

Dorflinger illustrated their eighteen inch “Sultana” pattern “Princess” lamp in an advertisement. Also mentioned in the ad was the “Strawberry Diamond and Fan” lamp and the “Lorraine” lamp. Of the three patterns the “Sultana” was the most expensive at $36.00. The “Strawberry Diamond and Fan” and the “Lorraine” were $24.00 and $30.00 respectively. Shades for Dorflinger “Princess” lamps were available in the tulip shape or globe shape.

Small double spherical lamps were made by several companies. Dorflinger called their examples “Globe Princess” lamps while other firms such as J. D. Bergen Company simply identified the same style as just a “lamp” in their catalog.

Colored rich cut oil lamps are very rare. The Wilson collection contains only three colored lamps. The first, a solid green “Banquet” lamp was probably blown by Dorflinger but cut by Hawkes. What the original globe and chimney looked like is not known. The globe now on the lamp is a replacement. Surprisingly, the other colored oil lamps in the collection were cut in the same pattern. Probably blown and cut at Dorflinger, the lamps are different in color. The “Banquet” lamp is a burnt ruby cut to clear and the small lamp is an unusual burnt ruby cut to amber. There is also a clear example cut in the same design. The pattern name or number is not known. It combines two elements known to be cut at Dorflinger. The hammered cut background was utilized in several patterns. Similar engraved floral designs were cut on other pieces.

The glass cutting shops purchased a variety of styles of burners and oil pots from several different metal companies. They included the Plume and Atwood Manufacturing Company, the Edward Miller Company, Bradley and Hubbard, Hinks and Sons, and the W. & W. Company. The smaller lamps usually had single wick burners and the large lamps had double or duplex wick burners. Many of the lamps did not have oil pots attached to the burners to contain the oil. This meant that the clear cut glass font of a lamp would have become an unsightly yellow color from the oil. Two of the lamps in the exhibit had glass oil pots or fonts that were inserted into the base of the lamp. The shoulders of the oil chamber were usually cut to match the pattern. It was actually cheaper for a glass company to make their own glass oil pot than have to purchase one from a metal company.

When rich cut electric lamps became readily available around 1904 or 1905, production of cut oil lamps ceased. The owners of these expensive, dirty oil lamps would have been happy to replace them with the new spotless electric ones. In fact, with all the destructive handling and the eventual falling out of fashion, it is remarkable to have this exceptional collection of lamps to admire.