Dietz "Vesta" Lanterns

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Above: A "hi-top" Dietz Vesta marked "P.& L.E. R.R." for the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad with a red cast globe, last patent date of 12/13/10.
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Above: A "lo-top" Dietz Vesta marked "P.& L.E. R.R." for the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad with a red cast globe, production date of S-2-51.

The "Vesta" was a popular line of brakeman's lantern manufactured by the R.E. Dietz Company over a period of many decades. When collectors refer to the "Dietz Vesta" they are usually thinking of the last version of this model, the "lo-top" model or #6, which is usually classified as a "short globe" lantern. However, the name "Vesta" was applied by Dietz to a long series of lanterns, and the original version, introduced in 1896, was actually a "tall globe" lantern that took a 5 3/8" globe. By 1907, the version that collectors know as the wire-bottom "hi-top" Vesta was introduced, and this took a smaller 4 1/4" globe. At approximately 11" in height, the "hi-top" was as tall as most tall globe lanterns but it had a smaller burning chamber to accommodate the weaker flame of the fuel then coming into favor -- kerosene. After World War One, Dietz redesigned the Vesta to make it smaller and more competitive with newly-introduced short-globe lanterns, and this shorter "lo-top" version is the one that is most familiar to collectors. In addition to these major design changes, there were also less significant variations like the use of bell-bottoms in the early models, the use of brass retaining clips or wires to hold the fount in place, and differences in number and placement of draft holes.

The one common feature of all Vesta models was the ventilation design -- the so called "cold blast" design whereby air was circulated through flanking tubes to produce a stronger flame. This design not only gave Vesta lanterns a unique profile, but it was so functionally effective that it was used for decades until Dietz discontinued Vesta production around 1960. Because of this long production run, Dietz Vesta's are quite common and therefore easily acquired by collectors. In fact, Vesta's marked for the New York Central Railroad are probably the most frequently seen railroad lantern in the antique market. However, while this makes the Vesta less valuable as a collectible, it shouldn't obscure the fact that the Vesta was a particularly good design that became common because it was so successful. Generations of railroaders relied on them, and no other "name brand" of railroad lantern lasted for so long.

A few other points to make about the Vesta:

  • Until the mid-1950's or so, Dietz stamped patent dates on the lids of their Vesta's, and at some point in the production of "lo-top" models, the company stamped production dates on the lids as well.
  • Many railroads bought Vesta's, but the vast majority of these lines were located East of the Mississippi, particularly in the Northeast. Vesta's seemed to be a special favorite of coal-hauling roads.
  • While the "hi-top" and "lo-top" models were distinctly different in height (see pictures above), they both took the same sized globe, one that was 4 1/4" high. This was probably a special marketing point with thrifty railroads who could switch to the smaller model without requiring a new inventory of globes. Note the differences in the frame, the size and construction of the founts, and the draft holes below the globe
  • Vestas made before 1956 have a number of dates stamped on the lid. Dates with two numbers separated by a dash stand for month and year, i.e., "1-33" refers to January of 1933. The latest date is usually preceded by a "S" or "M". The "S" means that the lantern was made on that date in Syracuse at Plant 2. If the date had an "M" in front of it, that would mean Main for Main plant in New York. Plant 1 went out of production in 1931, and there were no more patent or production dates stamped after 1956, when Dietz started production in Hong Kong. They started stamping production and patent dates in 1915, although patent dates alone can be found on earlier "Hi-Top" models.
  • NEW Why the Vesta Name? The following was kindly provided by R.J. McCown: Historically, Barrett's 'Encyclopedia' shows the 'Vesta' name in use to designate an Archer, Pancoast & Co. lantern model at least as early as 1867. About that time Dietz bought out Archer and no doubt acquired the rights to the name along with all the other assets of the company. The name has survived through many corporate iterations and through several generations of lantern technologies, but it carries no significance to most people today. Why lanterns named 'Vesta? To quote from the Wikipedia article "Vesta (Mythology)": "Vesta (was) the virgin goddess of the hearth, home, and family in Roman religion. Vesta's presence (was) symbolized by the "Sacred fire of Vesta" that burned at her hearth and temples…." "…the temple of Vesta was the only ancient temple in Rome to be built in a round shape and covered with a dome to protect the sacred fire from rain, other temples being quadrangular." So all the hundreds of thousands of subsequent 'Vesta' lanterns, with their protected fires burning in their round 'temples' are really unknowing tributes to a Roman goddess! As a side note, Steam Gauge and Lantern (SGL&L) also offered a Vesta model. Archer sold out to Dietz, but before Dietz bought out SGL&L.
  • See "Vesta Valhalla" by Carl Ellerman (PDF Document) for more pictures of different Vest variations.
  • See pictures below of a rare, threaded burner and fount from a Dietz Vesta "hi-top" lantern with a last patent date of 4-09. The threaded burner (as opposed to a twist-lock style burner) seems to have been made for only a short period of time. Click on any image for a larger version. Photos courtesy of Ray Turley and Jack Wall.
  • See a variation of a low-top Vesta, perhaps a non-cataloged prototype, with no air holes at the base of the globe on the frame, clips holding the frame togeather instead of being soldered, legs under the tubes being flat instead of having a ridge on them, and a wire bail lock to keep the bail in a upright position. The last patent date is S-1-25. Click for photo 1, photo 2, photo 3. Photos courtesy of Ray Turley.

Notes :Information sources are Barrett; "Vesta Valhalla" by Carl Ellerman, Key, Lock and Lantern, Volume 20, Number 4, Issue #84, Summer, 1987, pp 1588-1591, and "The Final 15%" by Jerry Fox, Key, Lock and Lantern, Volume 26, Number 2, Issue #106, Winter, 1994-95, pp 2231-2235. Thanks to Ken McCown and R.J. McCown for comments and Ray Turley for photos.