Island shop features rare Betty lamp
A foot-high pewter lamp, known as a rabbi, Betty or Aladdin lamp, was used in the 18th century to burn whale oil to light a room.
The lamp derived its name from the German words “besser” or “bete,” meaning “to make better,” according to the American Association of Family & Consumer Sciences.
“The Betty Lamp produced comparatively good light for its time and was used widely by early American colonists,” according to the association.
These gray-colored lamps are rare, especially those similar to the one in downtown Galveston-based Antiques on 23rd Street that still has all of its original parts: the spout for the wick; a pointed key to adjust and maneuver the absorbent braided cotton wick; an attached circular plate below the belly and stem of the lamp; and the delicate figurine mounted to the hinged top, which bends back to fill the reservoir or cavity, known as the “font,” with whale oil, said Tammie Taylor, who owns the shop.
The lamp, which probably dates back to the late 18th century, was acquired by Taylor and her sister Rebecca Palmer from an online auction from a Texas estate. The sisters have little information about the lamp, but presumed it was manufactured in the northeast United States, where factories processed whale oil from the blubber of sperm whales and sold it as fuel for lamps during that time.
Whale oil was expensive because it was difficult and dangerous to acquire, so only the wealthy could afford to use that type of fuel. Substitutes were cheaper fuels from plants, animals or coal, such as turpentine, lard, kerosene, alcohol or camphine.
The whale oil was prized and preferred, however, because it burned brighter and cleaner than other fat-based fuels. It also produced less odor and smoke than other oils. The whale oil was made from the blubber collected from the head cavities of the sperm whale and then boiled to extract the oil.
“This was probably a beloved piece and the figurine on top makes it definitely from that time period,” Taylor said.
This functional, yet beautiful lamp has a price tag of $295.