Whale-oil lamps common in 19th century

Few people stayed up at night in the years before 1800 because there were so few sources of light. An open fire, a candle or a rush dipped in oil could be lit.

Then whale-oil lamps became popular.

Whaling was an important industry in New England in the early 1800s. Whale oil was used to light streets in Europe and America. It was the fuel for lighthouse beacons and the headlights of locomotives. Homes also were lighted with lamps that burned whale oil. A whaler could collect up to 2,000 30-gallon barrels of oil on a voyage. In 1844, the oil sold for about 80 cents a gallon, and a voyage could be worth almost $50,000. In 2003 dollars, that would be almost $1 million. The demand for whale oil as a fuel declined in the 1840s because it was so expensive, and newer lamps were able to burn lard oil. Whale-oil lamps had a font to hold the oil and a tube that held the wick. The font could be plain or made of fancy colored glass. Most also had a stem that held the light high on the table to give better light.

Today we would find the light too dim to use while reading, but these lamps made it possible to do a few chores in the evening in the 19th century.

I have some doll-size wooden furniture marked “Mattel, Japan.” I believe it was made around 1963. A Barbie doll can fit on the bed, but I don’t remember Barbie furniture in anything but plastic. I have the bedroom, dining-room and living-room sets. What can you tell me?

Your doll furniture was made in Japan for Mattel, the company that makes Barbie dolls. Each piece should be marked “Mattel International, Japan, MCMLVIII.” The Roman numeral is the copyright date, 1958. The furniture, Danish Modern in style, was probably sold for a few years. Pieces were made to fit any dolls 8 to 10 inches tall. Barbie, introduced by Mattel in 1959, is a little taller. But the Mattel furniture could be used by Barbie, Ken and other dolls in the line. Because Barbie became a huge hit, she soon had her own lines of furniture. Most Barbie furniture is plastic.

My wife’s antique reed organ belonged to her mother. The wood is ornately carved, with a round candle platform on each side. There is one five-octave keyboard with nine stops above it. The label on the organ is “Peloubet & Co., New York.” Can you give us any information?

Louis Chabrier Peloubet was manufacturing wind instruments, including flutes, piccolos and clarinets, by 1836. In 1849, his company started making small reed organs, called melodeons. Peloubet’s firm merged with Pelton Standard Organ Co. in 1873, but the partnership broke up in 1882, the year Peloubet & Co. was formed. Your organ was made sometime between 1882 and 1890, the year the business was sold to Lyon & Healy of Chicago. The value of your organ depends on its condition, but its smaller size helps its popularity with collectors and musicians.

My Mickey Mouse flashlight dates from the 1930s. On the body of the flashlight, there’s a picture of Mickey running. Trees are in the background. On the end are the words “Refill with USA Lite Mickey Mouse batteries, Made in U.S.A.” Can you tell me who made it and what it’s worth?

The glass font on this whale-oil lamp was made of colorless glass covered with ruby glass overlay cut into a design. The 10 1/2-inch lamp, made in New England, sold for ,870 this summer at Green Valley Auctions, Mt. Crawford, Va.

Your flashlight was made between 1935 and 1938 by the U.S. Electric Manufacturing Corp. of New York City. The company’s trademark was “USA Lite.” If your flashlight is in excellent condition, it would sell for about $100. If you had the original box, it would sell for even more.

I found an old wooden box in my attic. It is oval, with a fitted lid that lifts off. The box is well-made. The tacked side seam has four pointed, extended joints. The lid has one of these joints. Inside the lid, in faded handwriting, is the date Aug. 1, 1862.

Your description leads us to believe you found a “Shaker box.” The pointed joints are called “swallowtails” or “fingers.” Several Shaker religious communities were established in the United States beginning in the late 18th century. The furniture and other household objects made by the communities were of simple design and high quality. Oval boxes constructed with finger joints were not invented by the Shakers, but they did refine the design. Shaker oval boxes are made of uniformly slender pieces of wood and have symmetrical joints and tight-fitting lids. The boxes had many uses. They were used in homes and workshops to store everything from herbs and spices to buttons and thread. In any case, your box is at least as old as the date inside the lid. Have an expert look at it. It could be worth hundreds of dollars.


Keep insecticides away from old papers. The sprays might kill the bugs, but they might also damage the paper.