Oil lamps see new light

One object that is shedding light on the new country look is the oil lamp, both antique and new. Whether it is nostalgia, or whimsy, or practicality, the United States and many other countries are seeing a resurgence of the old-fashioned, homey oil lamp.

Probably the biggest oil lamp company in the US opened 16 years ago in the basement of Don and Rosemary Tendick's home in Brookfield, Wis. Last year they produced 3 million lamps, providing an estimated 60 percent of the US market for oil lamps and lamp oil.

Interest in the products has grown tremendously, says Mr. Tendick. "With the trend toward casual and country interiors, and the current concerns with electricity outages and energy concerns, oil lamps have become the best alternate, or secondary, light source that we have today. They are far cheaper to burn (an oil lamp costs about 1.3 cents an hour to burn) than candles and give a far larger and more efficient light.

"Although oil lamps or lanterns have always been considered an emergency light source, they are valued again for their decorative contribution. In short , after a hiatus of many decades, oil lamps are an idea whose time has come again."

Lamp time for the Wisconsin couple started in 1964 when Mrs. Tendick was collecting antiques, including old kerosene lamps, and Mr. Tendick was in the petroleum marketing business. One day while visiting a candle shop, they noticed some scented oil and decided to try to make their own version. He experimented for six weeks in the basement and finally came up with a blend of oils that neither smoked nor produced a bad odor, but which smelled lilke bayberry and peppermint. They put their own antique lamps back into action and began to share their oil with neighbors and sell it to antique stores and garden clubs.

Response was so immediate that the couple borrowed $500 from a relative to launch Mrs. Tendick in a sort of "hobby" lamp-oil business. But soon the whole family, including their teen-age sons, were working in the basement until the wee hours of the morning filling orders.

After they found that people wanted to buy lamps as well as the oil, they moved the business out of the basement into a 4,000-square- foot factory space and shortly thereafter tripled their manufacturing space and began to produce replicas of old-time favorites.

Under the name of "Lamplight Farms" they did a $100,000 business in their first year. Mr. Tendick left his marketing company to devote full time to their lamps and lamp oil in the late 1960s. He says that last year their company did a business of more than $15 million. Their lamps went into homes in the US, Canada, and New Zealand. A second factory in Wales now is supplying oil lamps to the United Kingdom, Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.

Today, the factory in Wisconsin utilizes 109,000 square feet and employs 220 workers. The worldwide demand for oil lamps is now such that Don Tendick estimates, optimistically, volume could hit $100 million in five years. The lamps retail from about $2 to $65 and include faithful reproductions of antique lamps as well as contemporary designs and miniatures. They are sold through department and hardware stores and mass merchandisers.

Last year Don and Rosemary Tendick hired some expert antiques appraisers and staged a half dozen appraisal clinics around the country in such cities as New York, Miami, New Orleans, and Chicago. People dug thousands of old oil lamps out of attics, basements, and barns and lugged them in to be valued. Most were amazed to learn that lamps they had thought were worth about $10 were appraised at between $90 and $350.

One of the appraisers, Ron Pavlovich, of Hamilton, Ontario, told those who came to the clinics that the value of kerosene lamps that were complete, operable, and in good condition, had recently been increasing by more than 30 percent each year. Lamps brought to the clinics included tall banquet lamps, utilitarian kitchen lamps, and railroad and workman's lanterns. Most of the people decided to keep the lamps that they had inherited, found, or bought, and many said they planned to shine them up and restore them.

The golden age of oil lamps is considered to be from 1847 until 1879 when Thomas Edison invented the electric bulb and thereby snuffed out a lot of burning wicks. For today's rebirth, Mr. Tendick says, "We've gone back in time a hundred years or so, to a time of country living and homey traditions." To keep a flame of interest alive, the couple are now collecting classic oil lamps to display in a rural museum at Saukville, Wis.

Besides the Tendick's company, a number of other firms are making oil lamps today, including Corning, Anchor-Hoching, Aladdin, Jeanette, Bartlett Collins. Kerosene lamps first came to the market about a 135 years go, and a few companies have made them continuously for a century or more.

Revival of interest in oil lamps has encouraged at least one repair shop in every major city to specialize in lamp restoration. These shops can usually be located under "Lighting Accessories" headings in the telephone directory yellow pages. Spare parts for oil lamps, such as chimneys, wicks, and burners can be found in many hardware stores today, as well.

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