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SCHERINGS FORMALIN LAMP
Patented Home Remedy Apparatus

(H1-88:  Considered to be scarce)

by Barry Schwartz

 

 

 

Although listed and shown in Marjorie Hulsebus' book "Miniature Vistorian Lamps" (in Figure 88), this little brass and glass fluid burning lamp is more appropriately classified as an antique scientific/medical product intended for home use.

On August 8, 1899, the U.S. Patent Office issued patent number 630, 782 to Albrecht Schmidt of Berlin, Germany. The patent was titled "Disinfecting By Means of Formaldehyde" and the rights to the patent were assigned to Chemische Fabrik Auf Actien (a German stock issuing company which manufactured chemicals) which later became Schering A.G.  In 1876, the German parent company formed a U.S. subsidary with the name Schering & Glatz.  Schering & Glatz continued to operate in the United States until World War I.  During the war, the U.S. Government dissolved the company because of its affiliation with Germany. 

Schmidt's patent contains a rather technical discussion of the chemical properties of formaldehyde and its use as a disinfecting agent.  The patent shows a diagram of what is essentially this lamp -an apparatus designed to most effecitvely vaporize solid tablets of formaldehyde and disperse those vapors, effectively disinfecting the surrounding environment. (For those interested, the patent can be found at www.google.com/patents, by searching for the patent nmber 630, 782.)

According to the box, which is occasionally found with this lamp:

"Schering's Formalin Disinfectant and Deodorising Lamp... A PERFECT AND MOST CONVENIENT APPARATUS FOR THE GENERATION OF FORMALIN GAS FROM DRY FORMALIN PASTILS... A great improvement over the vaporizers heretofore employed for the dissemination of disinfecting and deodorizing agents.
Unsurpassed in effectiveness and simplicity.  Absolutely safe and inexpensive.  A necessity for the Physician and for every household.  Recommended by medical authorities after thorough bacteriological and clinial trials.
Formalin has been found by eminent authorities to be the most efficient antiseptic and disinfectant and one of the most powerful anti-bacterial agents known.  It is used extensively for disinfectant purposes by Boards of Health both in Europe and the United States.
Formalin possesses far greater germicidal, disinfecting, deodorizing and antizymotic power than any other similar agent that is of practical use, and owing to its great penetrating power, its vapor reaches every nook and cranny of the fumigated area.
The Formalin Pastils, being insoluble, are entirely harmless if accidentally swallowed."

According to the box, the lamp with two boxes of pastils sold for $1.75 (which according to one inflation calculator on the web is equivalent to about $54 today) and additional boxes of pastils sold for $.30 (about $9.25 in today's dollars).  The lamp itself, which is intended to burn only alcohol or wood alcohol (and not kerosene or lamp oil) consists of five pieces.  The brass font has "Schering's Formalin Lamp" embossed on its shoulder and a paper label around its side reads "Patented August 8th, 1899.  See cautionary notice on the bottom".  That notice indicates that using anything other than Scherings Formalin Pastils in the lamp infringes on the patent and renders both the seller and the user liable.  A brass burner screws into the font.  The burner thumb wheel is embossed "U.S. PATENT 630, 782".  (We think this is somewhat unusual; most antiques that we have seen which bear patent information generally only carry the patent date and do not report the patent number itself).  A simple clear glass cylinder sits inside the burner gallery.  A metal cup with screening on its inside and a decorative brass exterior slips into the top of the glass cylinder.  For use as a disinfectant, a formalin pastil is placed inside this top cup.  The heat of the flame accompanied by moisture taken from the air entering the cup through the screening at its top causes the pastil to disssolve and disperses its vapors into the surrounding environment.  A second, smaller cup is placed inside the first cup when the intention is to use the lamp as a deidorizer.  This second cup slows the rate of evaporation of the pastil (making it last 4 to 8 hours, rather than the 3 to 4 hours when the inner cup isn't used) and dilutes the potency of the formaldehyde (to the point where it will deodorize but not disinfect).

 

We think that this is a fascinating relic of the Victorian Era.  Although it has the basic characteristics of a miniature, or night lamp, and is listed in a book on that topic, it is truly a scientific/medical home remedy apparatus.  While its claims appear to be supported by the underlying science, we wonder abut its efficacy.  Did this device really disinfect and deodorize as it claimed?  And was it safe to use?  One current source [Wikipedia] says "An aqueous solution of formaldehyde [i.e. formalin] can be useful as a disinfectant as it kills most bacteria and fungi (including their spores)." However, the same article goes on to note that "Formaldehyde can be toxic, allergenic and carcinogenic."  So while the lamp very well might have disinfected and deodorized and while the pastils may have been safe to swallow (as Schering & Glatz claim), it was probably not safe to breathe the fumes.  These little things one learns as a by-product of antiquing are both fascinating and satisfying!

Kay and Barry Schwartz are members of the Night Light Club and the Historical Lighting Society of Canada.  They may may be reached by email at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it  , and are power sellers on ebay, under the name of  kayschwartz.

 

   

 

 

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