You never know when you’ll end up owning a valuable collectible. They make TV shows today about people who have discovered that they had treasure hidden right in their own homes in the form of some kind of collectible item. I found myself in possession of a couple of really nice antique railroad lanterns after a friend of the family died. He had been a devoted collector of railroad memorabilia and even had an entire room that was filled with all things trains. Predictably, it was known as “The Train Room”, and it was a favorite place to visit for his friends and family. I recall how he explained his particular love of steam locomotives. His eyes lit up as he explained their popularity and then later demise as diesel locomotives took over. His passion for the hobby was contagious. He loved showing off his collection, and he thoroughly enjoyed handing over the controls to his trains to any young child who entered his sanctuary and showed an interest. He was a good guy, and I miss him.
He had started by collecting model trains but then moved on to things like train lanterns, railroad signs, artwork and the like. Anyway, the family asked me to give them an idea of what the collection might be worth. That led to lots of research and a realization that some of this stuff is really valuable. I didn’t end up selling it for them. As far as I know they kept the train room as a sort of memorial.
Railroad lanterns are a much sought after collectible that remind us of the days when railroads touched the average person in a much more personal and direct way. Nowadays, you might be inconvenienced by waiting for a train to cross your path occasionally, but in general, most of us hardly even see them anymore. People have their own reasons for collecting old railroad lanterns. Some people see them as a tie to the past and collect them for the romance of the time when steam engines played such a big part in every day life by moving people and everyday necessities from place to place. Personally, I just think they are very attractive. If I were going to have a railroad room, I’d definitely want a couple or a few of them.
Antique Railroad Lanterns for Sale
Even though I ended up not selling my friend’s antique railroad lanterns, I did learn a few things as I researched them. In general I learned that there are five basic types of lanterns that were used by railroad workers. Inspector’s lanterns, fixed globe lanterns, tall globe lanterns, short globe lanterns and conductor’s lanterns. Lanterns differ from lamps in part because lanterns have those beautiful glass globes and contain fuel that is burned.
Inspectors lanterns were used to check out the trains while they were moving along. They had a reflective surface behind an enclosed flame that allowed the user to aim a directed beam of light at whatever needed checked out. These were not made by very many manufacturers and they don’t show up too much in online auctions. In fact, when I was checking for them, there was only one inspector’s lantern being offered for sale.
Fixed Globe Lanterns These are some of the oldest railroad lanterns that you will find, and you probably will not find them very often. These date back to the Civil War era. As the name suggests, the globes on these lanterns were not designed to be removed. Before the railroads spread throughout the United States, these lanterns were used to light the way of railroad workers in the more heavily developed northeastern states. Because these lanterns are so hard to find, you can expect to pay up to a thousand dollars or more for one of them. As the country healed from the wounds of the Civil War and the railroads moved westward, these fixed globe lanterns were slowly replaced by…
Tall Globe Lanterns These made up most of my friend’s railroad lantern collection. These came around after the Civil War and stayed popular into the 20th century. The globes on these pieces can be removed, and these tall lanterns are often found selling on eBay for prices in the low hundreds. Along with the condition of the lantern, the particular railroad that the lantern was marked with can also play a significant role in its value to collectors. As with most collectibles, the harder to find an item is, the more likely it is that the price will soar as collectors start bidding to get something they want.
Short Globe Lanterns The next evolutionary step for railroad lanterns were short globe lanterns. These would more properly be knows as vintage railroad lanterns since they are not really all that old in terms of collecting. The earliest example of these lanterns that you will find on eBay will generally be from around the 1930s or so. As collectibles go, they are not as popular as their taller cousins. This isn’t to say that they have no value, just that prices will be a bit lower. When I was checking these out on eBay, none of the recently completed auctions had gone over $200. Tall globes were breaking the $500 barrier however.
If you go out to visit estate sales looking for these lanterns, you might want to write down some details to look for just in case you get lucky (I’ve found these very hard to find offline). Look for names like Adlake Lanterns and Dietz Lanterns, as well as the names of specific railroads stamped into the metal of the lanterns. Personally, I really like the colored lantern globes. These are one of the items that I look out for at garage sales not because I want to sell it, but because I’d really like to find one at some amazingly low price. So far, no luck, so I can’t say that I recommend looking for these old fashioned lanterns at yard sales unless you are very patient. I’ve seen exactly two of them over the past few years. They were at the same location and they were out of my price range that day.
Here is a video showing off a bunch of railroad collectibles (Railroadiana)…
I found an excellent resource for learning about all things railroad at railroadiana.org. They give a very in depth description of various types and specific models of lanterns and you can tell that the site owner is a serious collector. You might want to visit for a more comprehensive explanation of railroad lanterns. I also found another very interesting railroad lantern website that includes descriptions of what the various colored globes signified. What I thought was really neat about this page was the fact that there are also moving images that show how railroad workers would have used the lanterns to communicate. This is also where I learned that not all old lanterns are railroad lanterns. There are also barn lanterns that often get mislabeled online. These have tubes that go up along the sides. They can still have some value, but they are not generally as collectible as authentic antique railroad lanterns.