Early Lighting - Betty lamp
Betty lamp
In our first
chapter we said that there was little evidence that rushlighting was ever used in Colonial America. The same cannot be said about Betty lamps. The name "Betty lamp" was often used for a type of lamp that included a crusie, Phoebe, or slut lamp. Colonial Sense will make distinction between the different types. The first lamps were brought over from England and Holland with the Pilgrims. Captain John Carver, the first Governor of Plymouth Colony, brought with him a Dutch iron betty lamp purchased in Holland. The simplest form of lamp brought with the colonists was an iron saucer with one or two lips at the edge to hold a wick. The lamp had similar form to the Greek, Roman, and Assyrian versions. There was a need for lighting in the early days of our country. Edward Winslow, the second Governor of the Plymouth Colony, wrote a letter back to the prospective colonists in 1621 stating, "Bring paper and linseed oil for your windows, with cotton yarn for your lamps."

Early Lighting - Multiple channel crusie lamp
Multiple channel crusie lamp
A type of lamp called Crusie had been in use for many years prior to the landing of the Pilgrims. The crusies that were used in colonial New England were similar in the Scottish highlands The word "crusie" is of Scottish origin and seems to have been derived from "cruse", a vessel for oil. In Cornwall they were called chills, and in the Channel Islands they were called cressets. The designs remained the same, but some lamps had multiple channels to accept more than one wick to increase the lighting.

The most popular shape of lamp consisted of an circular iron pan in the main part but with one side shaped into a channel which would receive a wick. A handle would be attached opposite this channel. An iron wire link and an iron spike shaped like a boat hook would be attached to the end of the handle. The hook would be jammed into the chink of a wall or secured to a shelf or mantle.

Early Lighting - Pennsylvania turned maple betty lamp stand, ca. 18th Century sold for $3510 at Pook and Pook April 2007
Pennsylvania turned maple betty lamp stand, ca. 18th Century sold for $3510 at Pook and Pook April 2007
William Woodcock was a shopkeeper in Salem, Massachusetts who died in 1660. Among his possessions was listed "1 slutt", worth twelvepence, as well as "1 lamp, and iron bearer, 12d." Slut lamp was used as a synonym for grease lamp. A "slut was known as "a piece of rag dipped in lard or fat and used as a light." Most likely the definition was referring to a rag which was stuffed into bottle mouths. The transfer of the designation slut from a tallow-burning rag wick to a crude form of lamp employing such a wick may be assumed as obvious. Certainly a rag wick would not have been worth twelvepence. A "slutt," it is safe to say, was a grease lamp, and grease lamps were doubtless distinct from ordinary lamps.

Another type of crusie lamp was the Phoebe lamp which had a one slot smaller lamp within another large slot lamp so that the lower and larger one might catch the dripping from the upper one in which the light burned. This term was never used in Europe, only in America.

Improvements to the crusie lamps spawned Betty lamps which were probably the most widely used early colonial lighting device in Colonial America. There is some conjecture as to the origin of the word "betty." It has been suggested that the origin of the name most likely comes from the German word "besser" which means better since the betty lamp were considered far better than the slut lamps or Phoebe lamps. It has also been suggested that the word "betty" came from the "bette" which is the old German form of the word bed. A betty lamp could be used to light the way to the bed. The English use would most likely have pronounced the word "Betty". It was the most popular type of colonial lighting invention of the closed type of lamp in 1820.

Early Lighting - Channel of iron inside the Betty lamp
Channel of iron inside the Betty lamp
The body of a betty lamp is cast with one solid piece of iron with a nose or spout for the wick. The big improvement was the introduction of a thin metal channel of iron that was riveted to the bottom of the pan and sloped upward to the lip. This allowed for a more rapid transfer of heat to liquify the fuel and thus precipitate the capillary rise of the oil or fat for burning. The betty lamp was also equipped with a covered hinged lid, and a short curved upright handle opposite with a short linked chain attached and a pick to free the wick from the body which was constantly crusting over.

Early Lighting - A piece of rope being used as a wick
A piece of rope being used as a wick
In these lamps were burned any grease, scraps of fat, fish, or whale oil. Wicks were usually pieces of twisted cotton rag. When lit, they smoked considerably. The burning if fish oil had a rank smelling and gave the poorest light. Grease and fats were better. With whale oil which was likely burned in betty lamps after 1760 burned the most satisfactory light which was equal to two ordinary candles. These lamps had certain advantages over the tallow candle; no elaborate preparation or constant care, and the possibility of being used to cast light downward without spilling grease.

Early Lighting - English adjustable standing Betty lamp, ca. 17th Century
English adjustable standing Betty lamp, ca. 17th Century
Early Lighting - Adjustable standing Betty without the base
Adjustable standing Betty without the base
All of these lamps were to be set on the table, or to be hung on a hook on the wall, or on the back of a chair, or wherever convenience might require their placement. But this arrangement was not always satisfactory, especially for use at the table, where the lamp's low position prevented the spread of its light. Stands of various kinds came into use, of wood many times made of turned maple or iron. Betty lamps were also mounted on adjustable iron stands. The adjustable standing betty lamps picture show a betty lamp without the stand and to the right show how the base may have looked.

Early Lighting - Ipswich Betty lamp
Ipswich Betty lamp
As tin became available in America, betty lamps were constructed of this material. The Ipswich Betty, named from the town in Ipswich, Massachusetts where it was made, followed the iron Betty lamp. The Ipswich Betty consisted of a saucer type base, an upright with a small shallow receptacle on its top, and a Betty lamp. The lamp rests in the receptacle when in ordinary use, but could be carried about or hung up in the usual manner. The Ipswich Betty was very popular and made until around 1850.

Early Lighting - Peter Derr brass and iron Betty lamp initialed and dated 1851 sold for $8190 at Pook and Pook May 2007
Peter Derr brass and iron Betty lamp initialed and dated 1851 sold for $8190 at Pook and Pook May 2007
One of the more famous betty lamp makers was Peter Derr (1793-1868) of Tulpehocken Township, Berks County in Pennsylvania. He usually dated and initialed all of his work which fetch commanding prices. Many of his Betty lamps are in museums and private collection; however they come up at auction on occasion. Pook and Pook sold a Peter Derr brass and iron Betty lamp for $8190 in May 2007.

Betty lamps can still be bought for as little as $100, but the Betty lamp stands are more rare and can fetch as high as $3500.

Source: Research & text by Bryan Wright

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