Address: 508 Swanston St, Melbourne VIC 3000
Phone: (03) 9347 2804
From an interview with Anne that has been edited.
Thomas Williams Sands started the business 100 years ago.
He ran it from the end of WW1 until the 1950s when his daughter and her husband took over.
It was initially located in a two storey building on Elizabeth St. The ground floor was for retail and the top floor was a manufacturing area for lamps and other items.
The current owner is Bernie Holmes who bought T.W. Sands & Co in the 1970s. He is a collector of Aladdin and Tilley lamps, and was a customer before he purchased the business.
Last year, he was the recipient of the Lord Mayor’s Commendations Award for 40+ years of service in the City of Melbourne.
The business was located at 449 Elizabeth St from 1952 until we moved to Swanston St in 2004.
Kerosene as a product for fuel came around in the 1860’s.
Prior to its availability oil lamps used whale oil which was expensive and hard to obtain. But, with kerosene, the lamps became more available and produced a brighter light.
Gas and electric lighting was also developing at the time but it wasn’t always available for country dwellers.
For example, the last town that connected to the electricity grid in Victoria was Walhalla in the 1990’s.
Not the 1890’s, but the 1990s.
A lot of people with a property in the country still use kerosene lamps.
We also work with people who are off-the-grid or who use solar power as their main source of energy and want to supplement this with a kerosene lamp.
As kerosene became available the burners increased in size.
The wicks went from a cord wick (resembling a shoe lace in size) to a braided cotton wick which gave more light.
The Duplex burner has a solid English look. It has two wicks which meant that much more light was possible. These burners became popular in the 1890s and have continued to this day.
The Germans and the French took a very wide woven wick and rolled it in the burner to create a circular burning surface. The tooling on the European burners is much finer than that of the English Duplex burner, and the technique enabled the creation of even more light.
The Aladdin lamp came to Australia in the 1920s. It uses a tubular wick with a mantle to give a strong bright light.
A lot of people who live on farms use them and – even though the lamp and the burner are produced overseas – there’s an Australian style which has become a collectors’ item all around the world.
This is known as the Bakelite style Aladdin lamps.
People use kerosene lamps for a variety of reasons.
They are atmospheric, romantic & practical.
Everyone thinks that kerosene lighting is a little bit brighter than a candle, but oil lamps provide all levels of lighting. Long burning ones are used in memorial situation while others are loved because of their softer light, lovely design and their glass.
But, as a trend, it goes up and down. I wish I could predict the trends. At the moment antiques in general are down and – because antiques are down – so are we. Business is usually better in the winter months because they are warm lights, so they generate a bit of heat.
Sometimes people come after a power failure but they often realise that their lamp – which they thought was operational – isn’t. They might find that the wick is too small or their chimney is broken, so we help people get their lamps going again.
We also love doing films.
It’s really exciting to work with the designer of a set and create something specific to a particular era, and customers often come in with an inherited lamp after they see one on a show.
Among other things we sell kerosene lights, heaters, stoves and the parts needed for kerosene fridges.
We sell parts for gas lighting – such as replacement mantles and glass – and we custom make lamps for customers.
Our customers come from Melbourne, from the country and from interstate. Some are collectors who look for beauty and style while others want to get the lamp working again after a period of non-use, and they rely on replacement parts. For a lamp to work well, it has to have the right burner, wick and glass. With this, the maximum light can be achieved.
Lamp oil, which is like highly refined kerosene, is also big part of the business. We bottle and sell clear, unscented, red scented and blue scented lamp oil, and have done a lot testing to find the right type.
Once it’s burning – and it has got glass around it – a kerosene lamp is much safer than a candle. If you understand how to use an oil lamp well it will last for a long time before a replacement wick is needed, but we help lots of people with their burners.
A major problem that people see with their lamps is black chimneys, which tends to happen when the wick is too high.
Use of the wrong fuel can be an issue as well.
When I started working here it was just to do the accounts.
Now I love lighting lamps for customers and explaining how to use them.
It is great to see lamps go to homes where they can be used as intended, and it is immensely rewarding to help customers get their lamps going again.
But I don’t know what people will do if the shop closes. It might die away, or somebody might take it on and do something. It’s really hard to tell. There are online options but the hands on & ‘talking to people’ side of the business is significant.
There’s a small group of young people who are interested in the old. They come in looking for things, so perhaps that will pick up in the future.
I don’t know where it’s going to go.
There’s so many beautiful lamps in here, and we never know when somebody is going to buy one.
There’s no predictability about it.
This business is the last of its kind in Melbourne, and I can’t imagine it will last forever.
Let’s hope we can keep it going as long as possible.
Written by Aron Lewin with all photos by Tatiana C C Scott
Update – Using the National Library of Australia’s Trove database, I’ve found a few articles about the shop dating back to 1925.
- The Horsham Times – A LIGHT FOR EVERY HOME (Friday, 30/10/1925)
- The Age – Incandescent Lamp and Ice Stove (Thursday, 20/9/1928)
- The Australasian – MELBOURNE LAMP HOUSE (Saturday, 5/10/1935)
- Wodonga and Towong Sentinel – THE MELBOURNE LAMP HOUSE (Friday, 7/1/1938)