EnLIGHTening Interpretation

One of the requirements of fellows in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture is to guide visitors through select rooms in the Winterthur Museum. On a typical tour, we lead visitors through the rooms on the 5th floor, including the du Pont Dining Room, the Chestertown Room, the Chinese Parlor, and the Marlboro Room. Interpretation of each room combines conveying the story of the du Pont family’s life at Winterthur and contextualizing the decorative and fine arts that fill each space. Another room on the 5th floor that is included on the tour route is the Baltimore Drawing Room. In that particular space, we often discuss late-18th and early-19th century interior lighting technology with visitors.

Displayed on side tables and on the mantel in the Baltimore Drawing Room are Argand lamps, a type of lamp developed by French-Swiss chemist Aimé Argand in the 1780s. Combining a tubular wick, a tubular burner, and an oil reservoir, these lamps produced a much brighter, more consistent flame than wax candles or simpler oil lamps.

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An English Argand Lamp in Winterthur’s Collection

(Silverplate on copper (fused plate); Silver; Glass), 1958.2460 A- G

During our recent trip to New York and New England, my classmates and I had the rare opportunity to see Argand and other early-19th century lamps in action. As part of our visit to Cooperstown, Jonathan Maney, Executive  Director of Hyde Hall, treated us to a demonstration of historic lighting technology. Perched on Mt. Wellington, Hyde Hall, the home of the Clark Family, is located within Glimmerglass State Park. Looking out across picturesque Otsego Lake, visitors to the house can make out the church steeples of Cooperstown.

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IMG_1544Hyde Hall and the view from Mt. Wellington

What made Jonathan’s demonstration noteworthy is that we got to see antique lamps producing actual flames. Using burning fluid, which is 5 parts alcohol and 1 part turpentine, Jonathan and his assistant lit simple oil lamps, Argand lamps, sinumbra lamps, and a vapor light chandelier in Hyde Hall’s dining room. Most of my classmates, including myself, had never seen such lamps lit before. We were more accustomed to static displays of the lighting devices in museum galleries or historic houses.

IMG_1565Hyde Hall’s demonstration lamps

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Jonathan Maney holding a lit sinumbra lamp

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A simple glass oil lamp

Moments like these are what make the field-based learning we do through our program so worthwhile. Reading about the bright flame of Argand lamps provided me with a much different conception of what the flame would look like compared to seeing such a lamp actually lit. I imagined a bright white, long, slender flame being produced by a tubular wick and burner. However, the flame we saw was rather squat as it perched on the wick. It also produced an orange flame, though I believe this could be changed by increasing the draft of the lamp. As my classmates and I return to Winterthur to complete our guiding shifts, we will enter the Baltimore Drawing Room and other rooms at the Museum with a greater understanding of historical lighting devices that we can convey to visitors.

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The glow of the Argand lamp

Thank you to Gib Vincent (WPEAC 1972), chairman of the Hyde Hall Board of Trustees, Jonathan Maney, and the rest of the staff at Hyde Hall for a wonderful tour of a fascinating site!

By Matthew Skic, WPAMC class of 2016



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