What you see: A glass and tin Abraham Lincoln parade lantern, dating to the 1860s. While Heritage Auctions has not given it an official estimate, bidding opened at $7,500.
The expert: Tom Slater, director of Americana auctions for Heritage Auctions.
How popular were political torchlight parades in the 19th century? In the 19th century, obviously, they didn’t have the communications media we have today. It was important to promote candidates, and torchlight parades were a popular way to do that. They were big events, and integral to politics from 1830 to about 1880 or 1890.
And they fade away after electricity begins to spread? Sure. It’s not coincidental that you see them until the 1890s.
How rare are these lanterns, period, never mind those that depict Abraham Lincoln? I’ve only seen one, two, or three examples of each type. It’s hard to say how many of them there were.
How many people in a parade would have had a lantern as fancy as this one? Multiple people carried torches on the ends of poles. Something like this, there would have been fewer to begin with. They’re really, really rare. We don’t really have evidence if [paraders carried] multiples of this exact type. They heyday of tin and glass lamps is from 1850 to 1872.
So, one person might have had the privilege of carrying this lantern, and the rest might have had more mundane lanterns? It could very well be. It would have been like with a candle. There’s a fitting in the bottom for one.
Is the pole original? It’s the original tin pole. It would have extended a couple of inches beyond what you see in the pictures to fit into a wooden pole.
What’s that thing on the top that looks like an upside-down cupcake wrapper? It’s a vent. Heat would vent from the candle.
Are the printed paper Lincoln and eagle-with-shield images sandwiched between clear glass? The glass is outside, protecting the paper, which adheres to the reverse of the glass. There’s deterioration around the perimeter, which is not that surprising.
Yes, what kind of condition is the lantern in? And what does it mean to talk about condition when maybe three examples survive? You could use the term “excellent” if you wanted to. It’s all there–all four glass panels, and the image is strong. It’s all there. There’s as much as you could ask for from a lantern.
So it has the ideal amount of wear? If it looked like it was made yesterday, it wouldn’t be interesting to me. This has the perfect look. You can see immediately that it’s old. You can relate it to something that happened 150 years ago.
Why are two of the four panels colored red and blue? To make it colorful, and make a better, colorful display. There’s no symbolic significance. You see red and blue in a lot of political material.
Have you tried putting an LED light in it to get a notion of what it looked like all lit up? That would be ideal. There’s always a risk that a candle could fall over and set the paper on fire. Some have to be backlit [to get a notion of what they’re like] but in this case, as long as there’s daylight, you can see the image very clearly. You don’t need a light inside to make it present better.
Do we know what company might have made the lantern? We don’t.
But it wasn’t made by an enthusiastic individual? It’s definitely manufactured, with paper inserts sized to fit that particular lantern. It’s a complete manufactured unit. It was almost certainly made in New England.
Would Lincoln’s campaign have provided the lantern to paraders? We’re sure it didn’t come from a central source. Political parties were much more local in those days. There was probably a company you could order it from, but it was not provided from above.
How on earth did something this fragile survive so well for so long? The vast majority of lanterns did not survive. People didn’t think they were important to save. Generally, these were disposable, not made as souvenirs to be kept. They served a purpose. But there’s no specific information on how, when, and where [this one survived].
Have you seen the other two surviving Lincoln lanterns? How does this one compare to them? We’re just guessing there might be three. Personally, I’ve never seen another. I can guarantee there’s not five.
This lantern is shown on page 274 of Arthur Schlessinger Jr.’s book Running for President: The Candidates and Their Images 1789-1896. How, if at all, does that affect the lantern’s value? It definitely adds something. It’s considered one of the definitive reference books on political memorabilia. Being chosen to illustrate the book adds cachet. I’m not sure it adds dollar value, but it adds cachet.
What is it like in person? It’s arresting. It communicates the flavor of the times. It’s a very evocative piece, very pleasing to look at.
Why will it stick in your memory? It’s a particularly rare and desirable type of item. You don’t see it very often. And it’s Lincoln. Everybody loves Lincoln. Lincoln is magic because of his historic nature–a wartime president, maybe the greatest president, and he was assassinated at the end of the war. We get bids on Lincoln items from people who aren’t political collectors.
How to bid: The Lincoln lantern is lot #36163 in The David and Janice Frent Collection of Presidential and Political Americana, Part V, taking place at Heritage Auctions June 22 and June 23, 2019.
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.
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