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"Baby" Miniature Oil Lantern


Rated "rare"

Manufactured by R.E. Deitz, ©1879

 "The Smallest Lantern in Existence"

By Barry Schwartz





Background & History


The "Baby Lantern", at 4 1/2" tall, is generally acknowledged to be the smallest lantern made by R. E. Dietz, who claimed (in an 1879 ad) that is was the smallest lantern in existence.  Robert Dietz, born in 1818, was, perhaps, the pre-eminent manufacturer of lanterns.  His various companies had an extensive product line and lanterns bearing his name are still being made (present day Dietz lanterns are made in China).  The "Baby" lantern was introduced in 1879 and according to Anthony Hobson ("Lanterns that Lit our World") continued to be made until 1906.  Judging from the two advertisements (shown below) which we found for the Baby lantern, Dietz must have been quite a flamboyant character.  In the first ad, Dietz apologizes for being unable "to welcome Grant, to attend the State Conventions, to dine with the President [we assume he meant former President since Grant left office in 1877, two years before this ad was published], or accept the Presidency of the Elevated Roads."  His excuse for this is the "immense demand for my popular lanterns"; he goes on to say that he is "exerting every effort to supply 'suffering humanity and their sisters, their cousins, and their aunts' with those sweet little '4 1/2' inch Baby Lanterns."

He further states that after he has "supplied the world with the celebrated Tubular lanterns, and abundantly sprinkled over the universe my Diamond, Vesta, and Champion Lanterns, supplanted Electricity and Gas with the wonderful Tubular Street Lamp, then I propose to go on a racket [the dictionary definition that appears to come the closest to Dietz's meaning is "social excitement, gaiety, or dissipation"] to Coney Island or some other place where I can invite everybody to join me--at their own expense." 




In the second ad he claims that he will fire his products from a "A BRASS CANNON" until "the DANGER FLAG is raised, and the trade are supplied with Tubular LANTERNS, STREET, SIDE, and SQUARE STATION Lamps, Catch-em-alive and Anti-Cat Mouse Traps."  In this second ad, he shows three cartoons: the second is of a baby and a fire-fly sitting in front of a Baby lantern which is labeled "The Light and Joy of the Household" and third apparently defines "Racket"--it shows two men sitting at a table; one is leaning back puffing on a cigar and the other is quaffing a large glass of beer.  The caption says "This is what I call a racket".




Setting Dietz's rather flamboyant ads aside, the Baby lantern is really quite charming.  It is shown in Hobson's book (on page 107), in Figures 8 and 10 of Ruth Smith's book "Miniature Lamps II" and in Figure h on page 215 of Thuro's "Oil Lamps 3".  Hobson notes that the lamp had a "Fire-fly" burner and that it was designed as a long lasting night-light which would burn for 12 hours.  He also notes that in the 1880's some experimental models were built which allowed the lamp to be clamped to a bicycle.  The fact that Hobson calls the burner a "fire-fly" burner is interesting.  A number of Fire-Fly lamps were made by the F. H. Lovell company (which like the Dietz company was located in New York City).  One of the Fire-Fly lamps (see Smith II, Figure 65, and the old Fire-Fly ad reproduced on page 9 of Marjorie Hulsebus' newest book "Miniature Lamps of the Victorian Era) has a brass font which is identical in every respect to the font of the Baby Lantern.  Apparently Lovell and Dietz cooperated with each other at least at the level of selling each other component parts for their products. 

Condition of this lamp:  This Baby Lantern is in outstanding condition. We can find no significant damage or defect on either the glass or the brass (which has been polished). There are some very minor dents around the bottom edge of the base but these are rather inconspicuous.  The tin bottom of the lantern is solid and without rust or holes. The daisy-like thumb wheel turns freely; there is no wick in this lantern. The lantern's name "BABY" is clearly embossed on the glass globe (see the fifth photo). The glass was made in a two part mold and has a wonderful rippled quality typical in old glass. Note also that the glass globe glows when viewed under "black" light; see the last photo and the note below explaining why old glass fluoresces.  There are two notches (one at the top and one at the bottom) molded into the edges of the glass globe.  These notches are for securing the globe to the font and the top cap to the globe.  After the notch in the globe is aligned with the corresponding bump on the inside of the catch, a twist of the cap secures it to the globe; the arrangement is the same for securing the globe to the font.  Note that the brass chain and the finger ring are replacements which are true to the original.


Both Hobson and Hulsebus ("Price Guide for Miniature Lamps") rate the Baby lantern as being "rare" (see the note below on our use of these ratings in eBay listings).  Over the past almost 8 years, we've seen some 30 examples of this cute little lantern offered on eBay.  We'd tend to call that scarce, rather than rare but then again, Hulsebus' and Hobson's ratings are qualitative rather than quantitative.  Regardless of how you rate it, this  little lamp is truly charming in and of itself.  Its very small size might lead one to think of it as a toy or plaything but it was clearly made and offered as a serious night lamp.  We feel that the charm of this little lamp is enhanced by Dietz's flamboyant character and advertising hyperbole.


Fluorescence in Old Clear Glass

Manganese dioxide (MnO2), found naturally as the mineral Pyrolusite, was used by by glass makers, as far back as ancient Egyptian and Roman times and up until about 1915, as a decolorizing agent in order to make clear, colorless glass.  The natural material used to make glass contains iron impurities.  These impurities impart a coke-bottle green (and sometimes brown) color to the glass.  Manganese dioxide, added to the molten glass mixture, neutralizes the coloring effects of the iron impurities.  Adding manganese to glass has a side-effect of which we doubt old glass makers were aware.  While not itself fluorescent, manganese activates fluorescence in other elements or compounds.  Clear glass which has had manganese dioxide added to it will glow with a green or yellow-green color when viewed under long wave ultra-violet ("black") light.  This fluorescence turns out to be a useful test of the age of clear glass.  The United States does not have large amounts of naturally occurring Pyrolusite; the mineral has to be imported from places like the Ukraine, South Africa, Brazil, Australia and China.  After the outbreak of World War I in Europe, manganese became increasingly hard to get;  first, it was considered a strategic war material (it is essential to iron and steel production) and, second, the normal supplies lines were disrupted by the war.  And, so, after about 1915, U. S. glass makers switched to other decolorizing agents (e.g. selenium and arsenic oxides).  Thus, clear glass which fluoresces (glows) under long wave ultra-violet (UVA or "black") light can be presumed to have been made before 1915.  [Incidentally, manganese dioxide is also the compound responsible for the "sun-purpling" of old clear glass; when exposed to short-wave ultra-violet light (UVC) (present in sun-light, or in germicidal lamps) over an extended period of time, the manganese dioxide will impart a purplish color to the glass.  It has been reported that unscrupulous antique dealers (especially in the Southwestern U. S.) would intentionally expose old glass to the intense desert sun (or to ultra-violet germicidal lamps) to create this purple color.  Purists among glass collectors consider this to be a travesty and believe that intentional or artificial sun-purpling decreases, rather than enhances, the value of old glass items.]


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





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