18th Century Betty Lamp From the Virginia Frontier

My metal detecting buddy Bill Burns found this scrap of iron near the cave spring at Byrnside’s Fort. After finding it, he set it on top of a fence post, believing it to be farm junk. After noticing it on top of the fence about a year later, I immediately suspected this to be an early “Betty Lamp,” a type of grease-based lighting device. Basically an iron lamp with a bowl for some type of grease for fuel, a lid of some sort, and a spot for a wick. The shape is right. You can see that there was a hollow reservoir at some point, with a hinged lid. You can see the remnants of the curved upright handle, which would hang on an iron hanger of some sort. This would have been forged out of wrought iron by a blacksmith, and would be consistent with the lighting options available at Byrnside’s Fort during the fort occupation of the site, circa 1770-1782. It also could have been early 19th century. But it’s primitive construction suggests earlier, to me.

The Betty lamp is a lamp thought to be of German, Austrian, or Hungarian origin. It came into use in the 18th century. They were commonly made of iron or brass and were most often used in the home or workshop. These lamps burned fish oil or fat trimmings and had wicks of twisted cloth.

The Betty lamp differs from earlier oil/grease lamps in that it uses an internal wick holder to eliminate fuel drip common with older lamp designs. This internal wick holder feature made the Betty lamp design very popular.

The Betty lamp is likely a natural evolution of the Crusie Lamp concept. It consists of two lamp pans, on above the other. Fuel drip from the upper lamp pan fell into the lower pan minimizing oil/grease mess below the lamp. Replacing the upper lamp pan with a metal wick holder inside the lower pan reduce the amount of metal needed for the lamp. Adding a top cover provided protection of the lamp’s oil from insects, minimized spills and increased burning efficiency.

Betty lamps are being made today but now most people burn olive oil or vegetable oil. They are popular with living history buffs and members of third-world nations lacking other resources.

Because of its association with colonial domestic activity, the Betty lamp was chosen for the symbol of the American Home Economics Association in 1926.


Near where this lamp was found, I’ve found other items similar in nature, including a fireplace shovel and a pot hanger. Perhaps this lamp was among the kitchen type items which were dumped in this area, back behind the fort.

A type of lamp called Crusie had been in use for many years prior to the landing of the Pilgrims. The crusies that were used in colonial New England were similar in the Scottish highlands The word “crusie” is of Scottish origin and seems to have been derived from “cruse”, a vessel for oil. In Cornwall they were called chills, and in the Channel Islands they were called cressets. The designs remained the same, but some lamps had multiple channels to accept more than one wick to increase the lighting.

The most popular shape of lamp consisted of an circular iron pan in the main part but with one side shaped into a channel which would receive a wick. A handle would be attached opposite this channel. An iron wire link and an iron spike shaped like a boat hook would be attached to the end of the handle. The hook would be jammed into the chink of a wall or secured to a shelf or mantle.


This is a four-wick crusie:

This is the more common single-wick crusie:

The betty lamps were basically an improvement to the crusie design, which made them safer and more effective. They covered the fuel source and held a wick in place. Other than that, they burned the same fuel and produced the same amount of light. But the betty lamp could now be moved around and tilted downwards without spilling the fuel or causing a fire.

Townsends sells a contemporary blacksmith-forged Betty Lamp, which is actually pretty similar to the one we found:


Hanging Betty Lamp Our authentic reproduction Betty Lamps are hand-forged by our blacksmith here in Indiana. Your vegetable oil or rendered animal fat is used in the lidded bowl which measures approximately 4” long, by 2-3/4” wide, by 1” deep. The overall height of the lamp, including the hand-wrought hanger, is approximately 13.” A 3-1/2” wick pick, used to adjust the flame, is also suspended from the hanger on a 6” wire chain for easy access. Wicking included.

Here’s a much more bulky example of a Betty lamp, which I found somewhere on the interwebs, which is of a similar shape to the one we found:

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