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The Origins of Onion Lights

As humans, we have evolved from being cave dwellers afraid of fire to using electricity for light and other functions, and light for decoration, and celebration. Let us take a look at the evolution of a basic form of lantern and where onion lights or lanterns play a role.

What is a lantern?

Lantern originated from the words lanthorn or lanthorne – this referred to the materials that the light sources were made out of – transparent or translucent sides of sheep’s horn. The horn was used to enclose the light and protect it from the elements of wind and rain – in essence the word lantern became synonymous with a well-protected portable light source, used mostly outdoors in all weather and conditions. Onion lights or lanterns were part of this evolution. From the beginning of written history, there has been noted lanterns, from the Greek poems, to the New Testament, where the men who apprehended Jesus in the garden are described as having “lanterns with torches”.

Lanterns in Ancient China were made of silk, paper or animal skins with frames made of bamboo or wood. In fact, the Ancient Chinese even captured fireflies in transparent or semi-transparent containers and used them as short term lanterns. One of the challenges other than maintaining the light source and flame, is addressing the safety. All fueled lanterns or light sources have a built in element of hazard or danger associated with the open flame and the by-product of said flame. The evolution of lanterns, including onion lights would have considered this issue as well.

Onion Lights or Lanterns 

Onion lights were a part of this lantern evolution. They were historically used as nighttime working lights on fishing schooners in the early 1800s. One of the reasons it was so popular is that it was unbreakable and therefore could be counted on to ensure the flame remained safe and protected from wind and rain. The name itself comes from the onion-shaped globes that housed the light. This lantern evolved over time to include a cage to protect the globe once the blown glass become thinner and more vulnerable.

The incredible thing about onion globes is that they have made a remarkable comeback as a light source. Of course, these days they are now electric and are often mounted while still sporting a decorative faux hook to keep it true to its historical brother. And the materials themselves have changed as well. The traditional glass design is still the essence of the globe, however, the rest of the globe is now made of sturdy brass or copper as well as aluminum and steel. Caged and uncaged options also exist.

Here at Crescent Harbor Lighting, we help you transform your space with the lighting you desire – onion lights are one of many kinds that are available and range in price from a couple hundred to a thousand dollars. What kind of space are you attempting to create – do you seek to create a realm that is true to history and has a coastal appeal or a touch of the schooner life? Let the choice of your lanterns transform your space and place. Contact us at Crescent Harbor for more information about our lighting products.


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