M930.50.5.560.1-4 | Catalogue illustration of oil lamps

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Catalogue illustration of oil lamps
John Henry Walker (1831-1899)
1850-1885, 19th century
Ink on paper on supporting paper - Wood engraving
10.1 x 11.7 cm
Gift of Mr. David Ross McCord
© McCord Museum
Keywords:  catalogue illustration (337) , Print (10661) , Sign and symbol (2669)
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Keys to History

Lighting Systems
Combustible Materials
In the middle of the 19th century, the lighthouses that marked the St. Lawrence were equipped with oil lamps. These burned whale oil, which was becoming more and more expensive because of shortages due to the overharvesting of whales. The government therefore decided in 1860 to convert to kerosene, which was less expensive and more efficient. Pilots in the Upper St. Lawrence, according to a government report, had great praise for kerosene lamps. And by 1866, expenditures on whale oil for lighthouses had fallen to zero, while that on kerosene had risen to $3472.43.

The original kerosene lamps were quite similar to the ones that were still in use in the early 20th century. For example, the controller for the lighthouses downstream from Montreal indicated in his 1876 report that the Pointe-au-Beaudet Lighthouse (on Lake St. Francis) was equipped with "two large flat-wicked lamps."

  • What

    The oil lamps for the early lighthouses had woven circular sleeve-like wicks. Air was able to flow through the wick, improving the flame.

  • Where

    Oil lamps were installed in all kinds of lighthouse lanterns (the upper section). They were set either in front of a parabolic mirror (catoptric) or behind a glass lens (dioptric).

  • When

    The use of gas and oil lamps in lighthouses was gradually discontinued in Canada after the beginning of the 20th century. The conversion to electricity took place over a number of years, as regions were electrified. The years between the First and Second World Wars saw rapid conversion to electricity.

  • Who

    Modern oil lamps, whose wicks do not smoke (allowing for more intense light), are known as Argand lamps, after Ami Argand, their Swiss inventor. Argand lamps have tall glass chimneys.