The Kerosene Lantern in Camp


Kerosene lantern in an early camp, from “Camp Life and Camp Kits”, by Charles Steadman Hanks, Scribners (1915)

Now let’s consider another of my favorite traditional camping lights – the tubular kerosene lantern, often seen in many old photographs of early camps.  Though they weren’t used much (if at all) on hikes, they were popular with outdoorsmen traveling on horseback and canoe and were used in all fixed camps.  Everyone knows what these kinds of lanterns look like but most today have never actually used one.

The introduction of the kerosene lamp in the 1850’s was a remarkable achievement.  Before that, illumination was provided by candles or “wick” lamps fueled by vegetable oil, lard, whale oil, or “camphene”, a mixture of alcohol, turpentine and camphor.  However, all were imperfect, being either too thick to wick easily, too expensive (Whale oil cost the equivalent of $200.00 a gallon in today’s money), too dangerous (camphene’s inflammability led to many deadly fires), too dim and/or produced disagreeable fumes and soot.  By comparison, kerosene was revolutionary.  It burned brighter than any fuel but whale oil, was not easily ignited and proved very safe to use.  It didn’t smoke unless the lamp was improperly used or not maintained, and was less inexpensive than even vegetable oil.  However, in single wick lamp form it produced a flame just slightly brighter than a single candle (due to the larger flat wick).

Invented by John H. Irwin (1839-1890) in the late 1860’s, and popularized by lamp merchant and manufacturer Robert Edwin Dietz (1818-1897), the tubular kerosene lantern revolutionized illumination technology through the principles of injecting either recirculated, heated air (hot-blast lantern) or fresh, cool air (cold-blast lantern), to a burner to improve brightness (both principles are based on carburetion).  This boosted brightness from 4 to 14 candle power, depending on the height of the lantern chimney and width of the wick – a significant improvement over the “dead flame” lanterns of the period (the Stonebridge lantern is one example of a dead flame lantern).  Dead flame lanterns provide air circulation to the flame through the use of low and high vents but do not burn much brighter than a single candle flame as they do not employ carburetion.  Of the two types of kerosene lanterns, the hot blast models are the most fuel efficient and provide for more complete combustion of the vapor, making them distinctly better for use in enclosed areas.  However, cold blast lanterns quickly dominated the market because they produce a white flame that’s twice as bright as hot blast models.   Tubular lanterns are remarkably safe (if tipped over, they self extinguish in a few seconds) and if fueled correctly, provide dependable light that will burn all night long, even in very windy conditions.

The advent of rural electrical service after WWII spelled the end (mostly) for the kerosene lantern in the U.S. and other developed nations but much of the third world continues to be illuminated by them.  In the 1950’s, as lantern sales began to decline in the U.S., the Dietz company founded a branch in Hong Kong to establish a presence in Asia.  Even after Dietz finally ended domestic production (1971), the R. E. Dietz Co., LTD of Hong Kong (factory in Guangzhou, China) carried on to become the largest maker of kerosene lanterns in the world.

Luckily, you can still purchase new Dietz lantern models that are unchanged from those made 100 years ago (their hot blast “Monarch” has been in continuous production since 1900).  My favorite Dietz dealer is W. T. “Woody” Kirkman, the acknowledged lantern guru of America.  Kirkman stocks the entire line of Dietz lanterns in every color and finish and offers them at very reasonable prices.  In addition to selling Dietz products, Kirkman also markets his own line of premium lanterns (made by Dietz).  These are an improvement over the standard Dietz models as they feature old-style “wing-lock” burners that offer superior wind resistance, bodies are galvanized for superior rust resistance (some are offered with paint over the galvanized finish) and globes are made from thick, heavy, weight-pressed glass just as lantern globes used to be made.  Kirkman has produced three models thus far, all historic types that come the closest to lanterns that date from the turn of the century.  Kirkman also produces an American-made 1870–1890 style “square tube” hot blast lantern in brass, the only one of this type produced in the world.

Kirkman’s also distributes the German-made Feuerhand, brand lantern, the last remaining tubular lantern manufactured in the western world.  Sadly, though the company made many different models in the past, they now market only the model 276 “Baby Special” lantern (as far as I can tell).  These lanterns come with a leak-proof-tank guarantee and are fitted with German-made Schott brand Suprax (same as Pyrex) glass globes.  Offered in painted and tin plated versions, the tin plated version looks nearly identical to the 276 first produced in 1934.  Another U.S. distributor of the Feuerhand lanterns is Garrett Wade.  Although the company does not indicate that these are Feuerhand lanterns on their website, I have confirmed that they are indeed Model 276’s.  The Garrett Wade price of $32.95 seems a bit high (they cost about $19.00 in Europe) but they are German made.  Another good lantern is the Dietz made, German distributed Petromax hl 1 Storm lantern (NOTE: Now appears to be discontinued.  More about this model in my next post).

For much more information on kerosene lantern history, use and maintenance, please see Kirkman’s FAQ page here.

In my next post I’ll highlight the tubular kerosene lantern models I consider most appropriate for traditional camping.

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6 Responses to “The Kerosene Lantern in Camp”

  1. sharon broad Says:

    Hello, I wonder if you had any information on a lantern I have It has Monarch No 250 Made inn Germany, It has a daisy like pattern on the fuel cap and also the wick turner.
    The glass is lifted from a little wood handle at the top of the lantern. Most I’ve looked at have that at the bottom of the glass, It also has a dual covering around the base or reservoir. any information would be greatly appreciated.
    Sharon Broad

  2. Brent Payne Says:

    The only lantern named Monarch that I know of is the Dietz Monarch hot blast lantern. The Monarch was produced in America, in four different versions, beginning in 1900 and ending sometime in the 1960’s. R.E. Dietz Ltd, of China still makes a version of this lantern but interestingly, it is not the last version sold in the 1960’s but the model made between 1915 and the early 1940’s.

    Brent Payne

  3. sharon broad Says:

    Thanks Brent, We cleaned all the rust of it and got it going, works well for what it is.
    It was obviously made for export market with English writing in it. It definitely hasn’t got Dietz or any other marks, so made before the 2nd world war you think.
    Thank you fro your reply.
    Regards Sharon

  4. David Says:

    Just to make a pedantic comment, “cold blast” lanterns do not feed cool air to the flame. The term is a misnomer. The chimney is a heat exchanger which heats fresh air which then warms the fuel and is fed to the flame. If the air were cold, it would be no more efficient than a dead flame lantern.

  5. Pól Says:

    I have to out-pedant you and put you right Pedantic David – The inefficiency of the hot blast lantern relative to the cold blast design comes from the fact that the hot air circulating through the tubes is of similar density to the column of heated air rising through the globe. The air therefore circulates quite slowly and with a proportion of its oxygen already depleted through prior combustion.

    The cooler air drawn into the ‘cold blast’ design is denser and therefore heavier and so it descends through the tubes faster creating a more powerful draft of fresher, better oxygenated air. It is this that makes the cold blast lantern burn significantly brighter yet with only slightly increased fuel consumption. Overall its improved output is due to more efficient oxygen delivery rather than ‘warmed fuel’; The fuel swiftly achieves its flashpoint at the tip of the wick regardless of the temperature of the fuel in the font.

  6. Joe Says:

    I was wondering about the term carbureation. Perhaps that can be explained as it relates to the lanterns. Can you say why the flame is extinguished on a tube type lantern so quickly. Has it something to do with airflow?

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