The History of Lanterns

The word “lantern” gives rise to thoughts of bygone eras, even for those who might not know about the deep history of lanterns. In the most general sense, the device is an encompassed source of light used for illumination. The enclosure was the most important part of this invention, ensuring that the light source would not be extinguished by wind or rain, and reducing the risk of fire if it were to spark or fall. Lanterns are typically constructed using a metal frame that creates four to eight sides with glass windows and a hook on top. Variations can include a round-shaped enclosure or windows made of plastic, paper, or tinplates with holes. The light source can be a candle, liquid oil with a wick, gas with a mantle, or electric.

Lantern with Horn Panes c. 1800 - 1899

“Lantern” comes from the Latin word Lanterna, meaning lamp or torch. Thin sheets of animal horn were used for the lantern windows as a cheaper alternative to glass until the 1930s, which likely contributes to the historical spelling of lanthorn. The existence of lanterns traces back to 1500 B.C. in the days of King David and the Iron Age, where Canaanite Oil Lamps were used for nearly a thousand years. Ancient Roman versions made with Terra Cotta and using olive oil were found in Pompeii, Herculaneum, and other notable archeological sites dating back to 509 B.C. Herodian oil lamps were also used in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus, and are still a sought after souvenir for visitors to the holy land.

Herodian Period Oil Lamp

Beginning in the 1500s, the use of glass windows made lanterns appropriate for illuminating public spaces. Paris led the way in their use, mandating in 1594 that lanterns must be lit at every intersection, and having thousands of them installed as street lights by 1667. London also had public street lighting by the end of the 17th century.

Louvre, Paris © French Moments Ltd

One of the first American cities to have street lights was Boston. Iron baskets with pine knots as fuel hung at intersections in the early 18th century, and large numbers of post lanterns with whale oil were used by the 1770s. The soldiers in the Civil War had candle lanterns, and the soldiers of World War I even had an “official lamp” created by Coleman. Portable Coleman lanterns remain one of the most recognizable sources of light for today’s explorers of the great outdoors and can be battery operated or lit using propane and butane.

Lanterns had applications beyond simply illuminating their surroundings. They were used to signal vacancy for weary travelers, for communication between ships, and on the railroads to display the operational status of upcoming tracks and to stop cars before the arrival of trains. Lanterns are also used during the processional at religious observances, and as a carrier of the Holy Fire on Great Saturday of Holy Week. Paper lanterns are used in many festivals within Asian culture. During the Ghost Festival, floating lotus-shaped paper lanterns are a symbol of the lost souls of forgotten ancestors. The Lantern Festival is held at the end of the Chinese New Year when it is traditional to write wishes on to a lantern and send it afloat into the starry night sky.

New Orleans is arguably the American city that is most closely associated with lanterns. Prior to the late 19th century, the streets were very dark. Surrounded by swamps and dense forests, it was lit only by the moon, few building lanterns, and the glow of fireplaces through the windows of homes. While most activities only happened in the daylight, darkness brought an exotic lure of ghosts, witches, and spirits that is ever-present in New Orleans to this day.

In 1792, Governor Carondelet organized a group of night watchmen and instituted city lights to increase safety. These oil lamps hung by iron chains at intersections. They were especially dim, and were not always lit either by choice or because they did not burn. Mr. James Caldwell then introduced gaslight to his American Theater in 1824. Soon after, he organized the New Orleans Gas Light and Banking Company to begin to serve the entire city, yielding 2500 gas street lights by the 1860s.

In 1882, electric arc street lights finally arrived, covering the city in its entirety by 1900. Twenty years later, New Orleans began installing replicas of the charming cast-iron gas lamps that are still seen in their streets today.

Fixed lanterns are now found everywhere. They are often seen in front of homes to guide guests safely to an entrance, and can also be used in interiors, landscaping, and public municipal applications. They radiate both accent and ambient light while enhancing aesthetics and evoking a historical charm. Copper gas light lanterns are especially captivating as the flames beautifully complement their metallic casing and create mesmerizing shadows. Their radiating soft glow elicits a feeling of warmth, romance, and hospitality.

French Market Lanterns is a part of this rich history. Our president comes from three generations of lighting industry experts and created this company based on those many years of knowledge. Our customers can shop with us knowing that they have found the best value and selection of quality lanterns from leading manufacturers, and customer service by industry specialists who are available every step of the way. Our team is looking forward to helping you find the ideal lighting and lantern design combination for your own unique space. Let us know how we can help you acquire your own piece of history today.

Sources: