When people think of railroad collectibles the most popular and widely recognized items are railroad lanterns. Nearly since the creation of the railroads, there has been railroad lighting. It has been documented the first use of railroad-specific lanterns in the United States first appeared in the 1840s when railroads realized the necessity to run trains at night. With this necessity came the advent of the “railroad lantern.” Railroad lanterns begin as what is known as “fixed globe” lanterns where the globe (glass) was integrated as part of the frame (metal portion). This design was commonly used until the conclusion of the Civil War, when William Westlake first patented the first removable globe lantern.
Lantern sizes depended on their fuel source. Many lanterns from the late 1860s until early 1900s feature what is known as an “extended base” globe measuring 5 3/8″. These globes were widely used across the United States and Canada until the invention of the heat-treated globe by the Corning Glass Company around 1902. Lanterns with 5 3/8″ globes used signal oil. In the northeast, where the use of whale oil was more common, railroads used what is known as a 6″ globe which was necessitated by the additional air flow needed to properly burn the whale oil.
When World War I began, the United States Government urged industry to reduce their dependence on edible oils, which included signal oil. With the advent of heat-resistant glass, kerosene became the most widely used and accepted fuel source for railroad lanterns. Kerosene required less air flow and the less cumbersome “short globe” lantern ( 3 1/4″) was created in the early 1920s and was widely utilized until the late 1960s by the nation’s railroads when battery power became more practical and economical.
Railroad lanterns are a great entry point into the hobby and can provide decades of entertainment searching for the rarest of the rare. Most of them have railroad markings either on the frame and/or globe which immediately creates a connection with a particular railroad. Railroad lanterns can be easily found in antique malls, trade shows and auction sites across the country. Prices can vary from less than $5.00 to $50,000+ depending on rarity, railroad markings and color of globe. Without a doubt, railroad lanterns are some of the most exciting, colorful and historical items you can collect.
What determines value of a railroad lantern?
Railroad lanterns can dramatically vary in price depending on a variety of factors: age, condition, railroad markings and color of globes. Blue globes are considered the rarest and most desirable globes, followed by green, amber (yellow), red and clear. You will occasionally see two color globes, the most common being green over clear for use by railroad conductors at night while collecting tickets from resting passengers. Markings on railroad globes generally include “cast” which features a railroad name or marking in three dimensional letters in the glass of the globe or “etched” which was an acid wash applied to the globe. Generally speaking, cast globes are more valuable than etched globes.
What is the difference between a railroad or “barn” lantern?
Often times people confuse the more common tubular lanterns, commonly known as “barn lanterns,” with railroad lanterns. ” Barn lanterns” were commonly used by the general public and light industry and can be recognized by their trademark tubular frames that allowed for air and fuel flow. While there may be some rare occasions this style lantern was used by small/local short line railroads, their construction, size and design weren’t conducive for the daily rigorous use by the nation’s railroads.