Getting 18th Century “Lit”: Argand Lamps

Image: Argand Lamp from the Baltimore Parlor Room; 1961.1070.002. Courtesy Winterthur Museum

Reading is central to our lives here at Winterthur and for me lighting is always an issue when it comes to late night studying. I usually use a headlamp but unfortunately for early Americans there was no way to strap a flashlight to one’s head. The lighting technology that evolved to brighten the pages of eighteenth-century books was the argand burner. There are a number of lamps in the Winterthur collection that feature an argand burner; the one pictured above is from the Baltimore Parlor.

The argand burner was first patented in 1780 by Aime Argand, a Swiss physicist and chemist. The argand burner allowed for an output that was six to ten candela — brighter than that of earlier oil lamps. It was designed for study and allowed for individuals to read with greater ease.

The burner consists of a cylindrical wick housed between two metal tubes. The inner tube provides a passage through which air can be fed directly into the flame resulting in a brighter light. The font or oil reservoir is positioned above or beside the burner, with air holes surrounding it, to allow more air to pass through to the flame. Furthermore, a ground-glass shade rests on the oil-vessel and completely surrounds the chimney scattering light in all directions.

Image: Schematic drawing of an Argand burner from the United Light House Society

Argand lamps are also early examples of a fluid-burning lamp. Fluid burning lamps were used with increased regularity throughout the 1840s and 1850s. While whale oil would continue to be used well into the late nineteenth century, patented burning fluids were being consumed at a greater rate. These mixtures were various proportions of turpentine and alcohol and produced much brighter light than traditional whale oil. However, the fluids were very volatile so they increased the lamps nature as a safety hazard.

Soon after their invention, argand burners were available in the United States, but they remained expensive. Argand lamps were usually made entirely of metal except for their glass chimneys and shades; because of the glass shades, they were top-heavy and frequently broke.We are therefore lucky to have so many here at Winterthur and it is a delight to see how eighteenth-century Americans facilitated their studies, the same way we do today! Get Lit everybody!!


Carrie Greif, WPAMC Class of 2019.

2 responses to “Getting 18th Century “Lit”: Argand Lamps”

  1. John K Robinson says:

    I believe our 1860 church had argand lamps in the ceiling to illuminate the worship room. Is this even possible? I cannot confirm this but could send a photo of what the ceiling looked like. Thank you!

    • Katharine Fitzgerald says:

      Hi John,

      Here’s a reply to your question from Carrie Greif, author of this post:

      “Yes! Argand lamps were expensive objects in the 19th century and were frequently used in public spaces like churches. It is very likely that the lamp in your church was an Argand lamp.”

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