Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Bringing Light to the Farm

QUESTION: The other day I was going through some old things that belonged to my father and came across what looks to be an almost brand-new Coleman lantern still in its box. Since I’m not much of a camper myself, I wondered if people collect these lanterns and if they have any value.

ANSWER: According to your photo, your lantern looks to be one made in the late 1940s. Soldiers who had fought in World War II and had used special field stoves designed and made by the Coleman Company were familiar with their products. So as they settled down to have families, they saw the need for vacations. Car camping became very popular, as these new families loaded up their station wagons and headed out to explore America.

Anyone who has gone camping knows the glow emitted from campgrounds as campers sit around their tables having dinner by the light of a Coleman lantern. Promoted as the "sunshine of the night," these lanterns have long since become essential gear to car campers.

The incandescent electric light, invented in 1879, was a long way from reaching rural America in 1900, when William C. Coleman, an itinerant salesman, first sold indoor pressurized gasoline units, which he called Efficient Lamps. Coleman had poor eyesight, and the standard lamp of that time burned kerosene and produced a smoky, flickering, yellowish light. The steady white light produced by his new lamp enabled him to read even the smallest print. Two years later he bought the manufacturing rights for the lamp, and by 1905 he had begun producing them in his Wichita, Kansas, factory.

By1909, Coleman had improved his 300-candlepower, portable table so that it provided light in every direction for 100 yards and could light the far corners of a barn. Single handedly, he changed the way farmers worked and thus increased their productivity. His lamp became a staple in rural America, eventually transforming the local company into a national one on which people depended.

Coleman’s initial lamp featured decorative brass or nickel-plated elements that arched up around the lantern´s glass shade, providing an upper loop for hanging or grasping the lantern for barn use. Later, he designed ones with bulbous bases that could sit on tables. And like other lamps at the time, some had colorful glass shades with elaborate designs around the edges.

Coleman’s first lamps for indoor use differed from oil lamps. Each had a pressure tank that acted as its base, replacing the oil lamp's fount or reservoir. In place of the oil lamp's chimney and wick, Coleman’s lamp used a generator, which vaporized air-forced white gas. The burning vapors ignited a mantle of loosely woven fabric. Both of these features helped Coleman lamps produce 20 times more light than oil wick lamps.

By 1914, the first self-contained, portable Coleman lanterns for outdoor use—the ones so familiar to campers today—appeared on the market. He enlarged the fount so that it stored two quarts of white gas, enclosed the generator and mantles in a wind- and bug-proof glass globe, and added a bail for easy carrying and hanging.

Coleman designers continued to improve their lanterns and by the 1930s, many came with housings in   different colors. The tops of some of the lamps of this period had a green finish which eventually became the signature look of Coleman products. The company also supplied lanterns to the National Forest Service, some of which bore the familiar “NFS” insignia.

From the 1940s on, Coleman lanterns featured a forest green finish combined with shiny nickel-plated brass elements. The upper and lower parts of one of the company’s most popular and long-running lanterns, the Model 200A, produced from 1952 through 1983, are bright red.

Most people use Coleman lanterns for camping. They’re as prized now as they were decades ago for chasing darkness from a campsite. When night falls, a few strokes on the pump primes it for action. And at the touch of a match the lantern throws its magic circle of light in a 360-degree arc.

Starting in 1901, Coleman has produced close to 50 million gas lanterns. The long history and the range of styles and models makes the Coleman lantern a popular collectible that’s affordable for most collectors. A Coleman lantern can sell today for $20 to $400, depending on its age, condition, and rarity.

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