Today we have a late 19th century “student lamp,” manufactured by the Manhattan Brass Co., New York. It is nickel-plated brass with a white glass shade; the most recent patent date (stamped on the base of the chimney holder) is 1879, but they were made and sold for many years, into the early 20th century. Unlike some other late Victorian oil lamps, with their painted shades and curlicued brass, the student lamp is not the most prepossessing of objects (unless you’re an oil lamp enthusiast, of course, and even then ours is not the finest example) – but that was part of its appeal, or rather, part of what made it so inexpensive and thus popular. Like the Argand lamp on which it is based, it was designed to cast 360 degrees of light, with no shadows; it also swivels, and is adjustable vertically, to bring the light closer to your book, your work, or wherever you need it. Ours should have a glass chimney (see catalog images below) but when it was electrified, they put in two lightbulbs; now the chimney (made unnecessary anyway) won’t fit.

The Manhattan Brass Company made the Perfection student lamps that can be found in these two 1890s catalogs. For a little more info on the company, click here.

Marshall Field catalog, 1896

The lamp was donated in 1966 by Mrs. James B. Van Hoesen. Mr. and Mrs. Van Hoesen gave us many items from several branches of their families; for some pieces we know their history, and some we don’t. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a story on this lamp. It could have been used in Washington D.C. and/or Capitol View Park if it’s from the donor’s own family, or in New York, “out west,” North Carolina, and/or one (or more) of several Montgomery County neighborhoods (including, again, Capitol View Park) if it’s from the Van Hoesen side. Most likely it was used in more than one of these places; and since someone took the trouble to electrify it, no doubt it ended up in use at the donor’s home in Capitol View Park.

Sears Roebuck catalog, 1897


One consequence of my job is that I notice the things in movies more than I used to: set dressing, background furniture, etcetera. Student lamps show up in a lot of old movies, perhaps because they were an easy way to signify an “old fashioned” home or office. I was inspired to post our student lamp today because I spotted one in the office of the Columbia Inn (Pine Tree, Vermont) during my annual viewing of “White Christmas.” So if you happen to watch the film this holiday season, keep your eye out for the student lamp that’s sitting on the desk next to the telephone. Amaze your friends with your powers of observation – and knowledge of antique lighting devices!