These two Argand lamps, which reside on the dining room mantel in the Beall-Dawson House, came to us from the Anderson family of Rockville. The lamps are made of patinated bronze, with glass shades (original, as far as I can tell). Swans decorate the prism ring, but otherwise the ornamentation is fairly restrained and refined.

The lamps are named for their inventor (and not, as I first thought when I came to work here, for the element argon… what can I say, I’m not a chemist, and if someone tells me a lamp runs on argon I’ll believe them. That’s not what they told me, as it happens, but it’s what I thought I heard.) M. Aime Argand, a Swiss chemist, developed this form of oil lamp in the 1780s. The improvement was the use of a tubular (hollow) wick, rather than a flat one, which allowed air to be drawn up through the center producing a brighter, steadier flame. A glass chimney (missing on our lamps here) further encourages the movement of air, as well as protecting the flame. Many Argand lamps (including these two) were constructed with the oil font or reservoir on the side; this caused a shadow when the lamp was lit. An “astral lamp” is an Argand lamp with the reservoir beneath the burner, allowing 360 degrees of light. Argand lamps – which used spermaceti (whale) oil – were extremely popular until the introduction of the kerosene lamp in the mid 19th century. Some Argand lamps were retrofitted to burn kerosene; others were later wired and turned into electric lamps in the 20th century. Our pair escaped this fate.

Each of our lamps is marked on the burner “R&A Campbell, Baltimore.” R&A Campbell was a jeweler and silversmith outfit, operating from 1835 until 1855. Lamps similar in style to ours are dated 1830s-1840s. (So that works out nicely!) Sometimes a pair of single-armed lamps is matched with a double-armed friend, but if our set originally had a third piece for the center of the mantel, it is long gone. A beautiful pair of lamps like this would have been expensive and valued – I’ll have to look through the various Anderson and Vinson family inventories and sale lists, to see if I can trace their origin to a specific family member. In the meantime, the pair adorns our mantel, although they sometimes go unnoticed.