Eye On Design: 19th Century Whale Oil Lamps

glass oil lamps photo by gail worley
All Photos By Gail

This collection of decorative glass whale oil lamps (1850 – 1900, artists unknown) are made from a variety of materials including pressed and free-blown glass, marble, brass tin and other metals. During the 1840s, considered the peak of whale commerce, US ships set sail from New England ports, hunting diverse whale species across oceans from the western arctic to Brazil.

green glass oil lamp photo by gail worley

Whale materials, considered the riches of the ocean, met demands for indoor lighting. Sperm whale oil especially had superb illumination qualities, burning brightly without smoke or odor. Other whale-derived products included spermaceti (a wax for candle making), baleen, (for corset stays and skirt hoops), and ambergris (used in perfume making).

Nineteenth-century homes combined lighting technologies, including candles, gas and oil lamps. Eventually, kerosene replace whale oil, and then later, oil lamps became electrified. Whaling — once considered an adventurous occupation due to the dangerous, turbulent ocean waters — became obsolete.

glass oil lamps photo by gail worley

Photographed in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC.

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