Coleman Lanterns: A Tradition of Light

1/12/2013 7:00 AM
By Fred Hendricks

Lanterns powered by oil or white gas were the most common source of light before the advent of electricity. With the onset of electricity, lanterns were quickly discarded for the more convenient and brighter source of light. People in the Plain Sect, however, have continued using lanterns or some facsimile for their light.

Ed Erb of Holmes County, Ohio, has maintained his Amish tradition with the use of lanterns throughout his home and outbuildings. As a means to preserve this tradition, Erb has amassed a remarkable collection of Coleman lanterns and anything manufactured or marketed with the Coleman name.

“We remain steadfast to our Amish way of life. We have great respect for our lifestyle,” Erb said. “Our community is very close and peaceful with far less temptations. We hold true to the biblical commandment to be in the world, but not of the world. Although we observe neighbors farming with modern tractors, we are not drawn to that way of life. Living a plain life provides humility. So living by gas-lighted lanterns in our home is very adequate,” Ed said.

Collection Evolution

Erb’s involvement in collecting Coleman evolved quite by chance.

“Malinda and I were married a short time when we needed a gas range,” Erb said. “With the help from my uncle’s plumbing shop, we converted a natural gas range to one using white gas. I found working on appliances to be of my liking.”

In 1982, Erb was given the opportunity to buy a business that sold and repaired refrigerators and stoves, primarily for the Amish. The business soon outgrew their home location. So Erb built a store in 2007 along Route 39 near Berlin, Ohio, in Holmes County. Working this business got him interested in collecting old relics, especially Coleman lanterns.

Coleman’s reputation for sturdy, long-lasting gas equipment was well-founded. Many items in Erb’s collection are more than 100 years old.

“Those old Coleman lanterns, irons and stoves were built tough,” Erb said. “They could be cleaned up and ready for use in no time. And parts were simple and easy to find, so it made collecting them enjoyable.”

A Coleman Chronology

The very first Coleman lantern was an arc lamp built in 1905, Erb said.

“This lantern is very ornate and was used only in the home,” he said. “A general-purpose lantern was also made in 1905. This one weighed 40 pounds when completely full. The size limited their usefulness, so only 5,000 were ever made.”

Coleman lanterns were very useful for farmers, said Erb, especially in dairy barns and poultry houses. The all-purpose Model 237 first made in 1928 was often found wherever cows were stabled and milked. The Coleman poultry house lantern came out in 1934 and was used extensively. The tank-reservoir was large; therefore it burned through the night. The inscription on this lantern reads: “The Hens That Lay Are The Hens That Pay.

“Lighting the hen house at night increased egg production,” he said. “This Coleman lantern was used heavily by layer farms where electricity was not available.”

The Coleman Model 427 was launched in 1936. A military version, Model 220, was introduced in 1943. The Model 200A is a contemporary gas version that remains popular yet today. In 1965, Coleman introduced the Ted Williams model that was marketed by Sears.

Coleman entered the home appliance business with the introduction of an iron in 1910. The iron was heated with white gas. Various versions of the iron were manufactured until 1983. Coleman cook stoves came onto the market for the first time in 1930.

With the onset of World War II, the Army Quartermaster Corps issued an urgent request to the Coleman Company because field units were in dire need of a compact stove. The Army specifications included being able to operate within a wide range of conditions, weigh less than five pounds, be no larger than a quart bottle of milk and burn any kind of fuel. The Army needed 5,000 stoves delivered in 60 days — a deadline that was met by Coleman. And the end product exceeded the Army’s requirements with an excellent product that could be operated in temperatures ranging from minus-60 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit. It could use all kinds of fuel, it weighed 3-1/2 pounds and was smaller than a quart bottle of milk. The Coleman Army stove was considered one of the two most important pieces of noncombat equipment in the war effort. The familiar Jeep, built by Willys-Overland Motors, was the other.

The Coleman Story

At about the turn of the 20th century, young W.C. Coleman noted a new type of lamplight in a drugstore in Brockton, Ala. This new-fangled light burned with an even, white flame, but was fueled by gasoline. The typical lamp of the day used kerosene which produced a smoky, uneven and yellowish light. Coleman was afflicted with poor eyesight, yet he could read small print under this brighter light. He anticipated great potential for this new light, and through his visionary foresight, a new company emerged that would position farms and ranches in a new light as well as make the Coleman name synonymous with outdoor camping and recreation.

At that time, electricity was not available to many rural Americans. When the sun set, the workday ended, but light was still needed in the home. Coleman began marketing a portable table lamp that would become the standard source of light for rural homes. The new 300-candlepower lantern would light large areas and even reach the extended span of barns. Farmers’ and ranchers’ workday could therefore be lengthened. This greatly increased productivity and changed the working dynamics of rural America.

Coleman lanterns were not restricted to civilian use. The U.S. government declared this lantern an “essential item” for the troops serving during World War I. Nearly 70,000 lanterns were distributed for use by the American military forces fighting in Europe.

Following World War II, Coleman’s business prospered. War veterans had become familiar with the Coleman name and American citizens had more money along with leisure time. Enhanced features in the new automobiles allowed families more traveling. Car camping became the rage. With this new trend, camping equipment was a necessity. Coleman quickly seized the opportunity by developing camping and recreational products. In the decades that followed, the Coleman Company adapted to the changes and trends relating to outdoor recreation. Coleman manufacturing facilities spread across the U.S. and internationally to meet the demand for high quality outdoor products.

Erb estimates that there are about 35 Amish families collecting Coleman products in the U.S. and Canada. His reputation for his sterling Coleman collection reaches across the country. Each year, late in September, the Airstream Tour Group camps in Holmes County, and Ed and Malinda open their display area for the campers to view the 2,500-plus Coleman products on display in Erb’s show rooms.

The Erbs are also active in the International Coleman Collector’s Club, which has more than 2,500 members. This organization gathers for a three-day rally in June each year in various parts of the country.

For more information, call Ed Erb at 330-893-3903.

Story references: “Coleman History”; Coleman Company Information, Coleman website <\@>

Fred Hendricks owns SunShower Acres, Ltd. of Bucyrus, Ohio, a dairy cattle consulting business, and is an avid farm toy collector and a freelance writer.

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