It may seem odd to review a book published nearly three decades ago, however an amazingly generous donation makes this an opportune time to take a look back at Victorian Lighting, The Dietz Catalogue of 1860 [sic], With a new history of Dietz & Victorian Lighting by Ulysses G. Dietz.
Last year, Paul and Kris Benkover donated to Rushlight their stock of The Dietz Catalogue reprint after closing the doors of their "Remember Yesterday" lighting shop in Sebastopol, California. The considerable stacks of these folio-sized reprints were a memorable feature of the Benkover's workshop and guest-house.
The book is a very significant contribution to the literature on historic lighting; as a reprint, in the original format with lavish color plates, it is unequaled. It contains an immense amount of information and is the sort of resource that one can study dozens, or perhaps more literally, hundreds of times. Since the catalog is a primary-source document, it is extremely valuable for identifying lamps and castings and glassware.
In addition to the reprint, there are two well-illustrated essays by Ulysses Dietz, the first on "Victorian Lighting" and the second on "The R.E. Dietz Company." They are useful additions (especially the company history), but one should be very careful in using some of the information they contain.
There is also a fundamental error in the title of the book itself, because the reprinted Dietz catalog most certainly does not date to 1860. In this case, the minutia of coal-oil burners, although esoteric to some, contained vital clues that were missed. There is actually an 1862 patent date faintly visible on the thumb-wheel of one of the burners illustrated (bottom left of plate 37) and another burner on the same page was not patented until 1864. These details make it safe-to-say that this important early catalog is "circa 1865." (This would be a perfect opportunity to reopen "the burner vs. the lamp" controversy, but I will resist that urge until another time).
References to the book title that include the 1860 date should always include the Latin [sic] in parenthesis which, in effect, means yes, that is what was written, but we know it is wrong or archaic. This "scarlet-letter" is necessary because of the strong tendency to take the printed word as fact; innocent errors are often repeated for generations and can lead later research astray.
Mistakes such as these serve as a reminder that even the most dedicated scholars and researchers can lose their bearings when venturing into unfamiliar areas. As such, the Dietz reprint stands as a monument to the value of peer-review. We all make mistakes and incorrect assumptions in the quest for historical knowledge. Speaking from experience, being corrected by solid new information can actually be gratifying! Nevertheless, with peer-review, hopefully our mistakes will not be quite so glaring.
Currently offered by used book-dealers from $60 to well over $100, Rushlight members can purchase a copy for only $25, plus shipping. Please refer to the advertisement in the Rushlight Club publication Flickerings or on the Club Website for more information.
Ulysses G. Dietz, Victorian Lighting, The Dietz Catalogue of 1860 [sic], With a new history of Dietz & Victorian Lighting, (Watkins Glen, NY: The American Life Foundation, 1982). 41 plates, 6 in color 12" x 18-3/8", 123 pp. Thank you to Larry DeCan for assisting with some of the specific details of the burners used for identification.