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The Paul Revere Lantern

Lanterns of pierced sheet iron were made in America long before Paul Revere was born. They were a commonplace household article when he was a child. There is no record that the versatile Boston silversmith ever made one but, according to Longfellow's rhymed account of the Patriot's famous ride, he did direct their use as signals from the North Church steeple on that night. So, "one if by land and two if by sea" was enough to give such lanterns the name they have borne for some ninety years or shortly after the poem was published.

They were the sturdiest and least expensive of all the lanterns used by our forefathers. Their design was of European origin and their American manufacture, first of iron and later of tin, began about 1650 and continued until 1825.

Because sheet iron rusts easily if neglected, most of the lanterns which have survived probably date from the early nineteenth century. They were chiefly used by farmers with whom they were especially popular because there was nothing breakable about them. Instead of inset panes of glass or horn, the illumination of the lighted candle within came through almost numberless perforations.

These pierced lanterns vary somewhat in size but an average one is about six inches in diameter by fourteen inches high, not including the ring handle which is attached to the peak of the cone-shaped top by a flexible toggle joint. The base with its central candleholder is slightly larger than the cylindrical body and is attached to it by a crimped edge. The cylinder is about nine inches tall and made of one piece of sheet metal which is lap-joined and riveted. The seam is opposite the rectangular hinged door.

The perforations through which the light shines are usually of two kinds -dot-like punch holes and straight slits about three-quarters of an inch long, made with a small cold chisel. The designs achieved by combining these two kinds of piercing vary. One of the most favored consists of four concentric circles of slittings with a punch work center and surrounded by further punch work with single bands of slitting top and bottom: This pattern is repeated three times on the cylinder. Another design, very popular with the Pennsylvania Dutch, has the slit work arranged in a series of round-top arches of diminishing size. This is a single unit pattern, covering the cylinder except for its candle door which is done in a rosette arrangement of slits and punchwork.

These lanterns of sheet iron and, later, of tin have been popular with collectors for many years but are still reasonable in price and can be electrified readily. I have one which has done duty as a hanging hall light for twenty years. I found it at an antique show in Pennsylvania. Before putting it in place, I was curious to see how it worked originally. One breezy night, I inserted a good-sized candle, lighted it, and took the lantern outdoors where I was surprised to find the strong wind had little effect on the candle. It burned evenly and provided ample light for any simple task. Then I deliberately dropped the lantern and the light was promptly extinguished. This seems to me the answer as to why the pierced lanterns were long and widely used. They gave a good light and were foolproof.



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