December 1993

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How Rochester Lamps

Helped Light Up the World


Donovan A. Shilling

There are literally thousands of small inventions that have improved the quality of our lives in one way or another. We have some anonymous geniuses to thank for the can opener, the hairpin, the wax candle and that overlooked necessity, rolled toilet tissue. We should also be grateful to world famous inventors such as Ben Franklin and his stove, Alexander Graham Bell and his social necessity, the telephone, and the Wright brothers with their remarkable first flight of a heavier-than-air flying machine. Right here in Rochester there was an invention that also ranks as world class. It was a most useful inventive improvement that brightened the lives of millions during the end of the Victorian Era.

That inventive improvement is known world-wide as the Rochester Lamp. We'll see just how this invention was born, who gave it birth, and how it was received by a world starved for a better lamp with which to force back the night.

Back in 1937 Emmet N. O'Brien wrote an informative story about the Rochester Lamp in the March 21st issue of the Democrat & Chronicle. We've found it most helpful in developing this tale.

To start we'll turn back the clock to 1883. That year H. H. Warner, the patent medicine king, had his building constructed on St. Paul Street, bicycles were fast becoming a local craze, Chester A. Arthur was president and Daniel Powers had proudly opened his magnificent Powers Hotel. Crossing the lobby of that new hotel was Charles Stanford Upton. He had just arrived to meet a local inventor, Leonard Henkle.

It was in 1871 that Mr. Henkle took up residence in Rochester living on Lamberton Park. He was a partner with D. C. Southwick in a wholesale and retail picture frame dealership. A few years later, in 1879, Henkle became a lamp maker and ran his own lamp shop at 103 West Main Street. The man he was to meet was Charles Upton, president of the Maud S. Halter Company. Maud S., as you may recall, was the swift little mare that William S. Vanderbilt raced at Rochester's Driving Park. The horse set a world harness record for the mile distance in 1881. At the time Charles lived near Spencerport on his Dad's trim and prosperous farm where they raised cattle and corn.

Returning to the lobby we can imagine the conversation between Henkle and Upton:

"I say, Mr. Henkle it's a pleasure to meet you," may have been Upton's greeting. "I've come up with some ideas about a better kind of oil lamp and I'd like your opinion."

Leonard seemed interested, smiled and nodded his head.

Patting his prominent mustache, Upton continued, "In the evening I've been having a deuced time getting enough light to read my newspaper." Reflecting, he then added, "The thought occurred to me that my old flat-wicked kerosene burner could be greatly improved upon."

This drew Leonard nearer, listening with expectation.

"I've been thinking that if you sewed several wicks together and formed a round wick, you might get much more light. If one wick could be increased to four of the same size, I'm sure you'd have four times the light," explained Upton.

This simple revelation seemed to greatly excite Henkle who replied, "Now that's a terrific idea, its sounds good, but we've got to figure out some way to move a round wick through the burner. I think I've got an idea."

The two gentlemen, on the edge of an entrepreneural breakthrough, were next seen purchasing two standard tin cuspidors over at Hamilton & Mathews hardware store in Exchange Street. Their parting remarks:

"Mr. Upton, that is, Charles, give me a couple of weeks to work this thing out. I should have something by then," promised Leonard Henkle.

"That sounds fine to me, Leonard," stated Upton, "We'll get down to brass tacks or should I say brass lamps, at that time," was Upton's parting comment as he shook Henkle's hand.

Leonard Henkle retired to his shop with his cuspidors and, as he had thought, was able to invent a new kind of lamp. This creation contained a tube in its center for the air draft, four wicks attached to form a ring, and braces to hold the glass chimney.

One of the cuspidors was plugged at its opening and inverted. It thus became the lamp's oil reservoir. It was unlike anything then in use. Most homes made use of the single wick, center draft burner lamp. This simple lighting device had been invented by the Swiss chemist, Amie Argand, in the late 1700s and was long in need of improvement.

It was just seven months after he applied for the patent for his improved new lamp, that the patent office approved the revolutionary burner on January 15, 1884. Thus Leonard Henkle was to give the world what would soon become perhaps, the best known kerosene lamp ever introduced. It certainly was the choicest lamp to be devised in the pre-Thomas Edison era. To explain its remarkable properties an 1891 ad from the Rochester Lamp Company provided this description:

...the result was at once most wonderful: all parts of the flame all around its inside surface for over an inch high, were fed... peppered as it were, with nearly a thousand little jets of hot oxygen of the air. From a dull red, with the old button burner, the flame was instantly changed to one of dazzling white.

Our enterprising Charles S. Upton was quick to see the immense value of this new invention. He did three things immediately. First, he bought the patent from Mr. Henkle, who at age 50, garnered neither fame nor fortune from his invention of the Rochester Lamp. Upton did, however, provide his friend, Mr. Henkle, with a monthly allowance for life. Second, he named the lamp and its unique burner, the "Rochester Lamp." Following this, Upton sought to have the lamps mass produced.

Finding that no local firm was equipped to handle this ambitious manufacturing task he turned to the Edward Miller & Company firm in Meriden, Connecticut. By 1885 the first Rochester Lamps were being advertised in catalogs. Within a few years demand for Rochester Lamps was so high, a second factory, the Bridgeport Brass Company, had to be pressed into service.

This demand was the result of some very shrewd moves by a very clever Mr. Upton. In 1885 he took the Rochester Lamp to New York City where he established a large wholesale store that extended from 42 Park Place to 37 Barclay Street. There, over 3,000 Rochester Lamp samples were on display. Upton claimed that it was "the largest lamp store in the world!"

He followed this grand claim with an additional barrage of persuasive advertising. The lamps were advertised using phrases such as, "It is the light of the world!," "A Million Homes Made Happy," and a modest claim that the "Rochester" was "the Only Perfect Lamp."

A comparison was also favorably made with electricity. It stated:

"Electricity costs,
one night, 60 Cents.
300 Candle Rochester only
costs, one night, 5 Cents."

In another promotion he lined up nine bald-headed gentlemen in front row theatre seats. When they removed their top hats the audience was quite amazed to read the letters "ROCHESTER" spelled out, one letter on each head. Even in the venerable Waldorf Astoria Hotel at 5th Avenue and 34th Street it was Rochester Lamps that provided light for the guest rooms and lit their main lobby.

Traveling from New York City, Mr. Upton exhibited the Rochester Lamp at the Chicago World's Fair, then at the Nashville Centennial Exposition. Highest awards were given the lamp at each of these great national exhibits. From there the new illuminator traversed the ocean to England, to France and to the Paris Exposition, and finally to Italy and Russia. After sweeping Europe its popularity took it to Asia and Africa. No corner of the world, it seemed, was without the light that shown from a Rochester Lamp.

Charles Upton needed assistance in this skyrocketing venture. He hired his three brothers, Elijah Cobb Upton, Willard Upton, and George Albert Upton. His three nephews, Edward Hunt Upton, James Upton Pomeroy and Charles Alexander Pomeroy were also included in the firm. Branch offices were opened in Chicago, Boston, Minneapolis, Paris, London and Toronto. The Rochester outlet, by the way, was established at 99 West Main Street where Willard was a salesman. It was Charles Pomeroy who got the overseas sales assignment and it was said that to him "the capitals of Europe were as familiar as the plains of the West."

Prior to his passing on February 17, 1897, Mr. Upton had an almost incredible proposal from a British syndicate. They offered him $100,000 for his lamp company. His reply was..."No!" He later confided to his nephew, Charles Pomeroy, "This is my baby and I'm going to stick with it."

When his uncle passed away it was Mr. Pomeroy who carried on the "baby," the Rochester Lamp Company business, for approximately 13 more years. We might say that the firm met its end about 1910 by electrocution. There is no doubt that it was the rapid acceptance of Thomas Edison's electric light that snuffed out the golden era of the kerosene lamp.

Charles Stanford Upton and his skillful friend, Leonard Henkle, had revolutionized the old kerosene lamp. Their amazingly successful venture brought artificial light to millions around the world for more than half a century. The enterprise grew into a million dollar business. As an added bonus, until Mr. Eastman's inventions also became popular, it spread the name and fame of Rochester throught the world.

One final footnote: Charles's middle name, Stanford, came from his father's boyhood friend and schoolmate, Leland Stanford. Many years later a school of some importance would be established in California by Leland Stanford. It still bears his name today.

(c) 1993, Donovan A. Shilling
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