Lanterns powered by oil or white gas were the most common source of light before the advent of electricity. With the onset of electricity, lanterns were quickly discarded for the more convenient and brighter source of light. The Plain People, however, have continued using lanterns or some facsimile for their light. Ed Erb of Holmes County, Ohio has maintained his Amish tradition with the use of lanterns throughout his home and outbuildings. As a means to preserve this tradition, Ed has amassed a remarkable collection of Coleman lanterns. And, anything manufactured or marketed with the iconic Coleman name.
“We remain steadfast to our Amish way of life. We have great respect for our lifestyle. Our community is very close and peaceful with far less temptations. We hold true to the biblical commandment to be in the world, but not of the world. Although we observe neighbors farming with modern tractors, we are not drawn to that way of life. Living a plain life provides humility. So living by gas lighted lanterns in our home is very adequate,” Ed shared.
Ed’s involvement in collecting Coleman lanterns and other Coleman products evolved quite by chance. Ed explained, “Malinda and I were married a short time when we needed a gas range. With the help from my uncle’s plumbing shop, we converted a natural gas range to one using white gas. I found working on appliances to be of my liking. In 1982, I was given the opportunity to buy a business that sold and repaired refrigerators and stoves, primarily for the Amish. The business went good from our home location, but it soon outgrew our place. So I built a store in 2007 along Route 39 near Berlin here in Holmes County. Working this business got me interested in collecting old relics, especially Coleman lanterns.”
Coleman’s reputation for sturdy long lasting gas equipment was well founded. Many items in Erb’s collection are over a hundred years old. “Those old Coleman lanterns, irons and stoves were built tough. They could be cleaned up and ready for use in no time. And parts were simple and easy to find so it made collecting them enjoyable,” Ed winked with a smile.
Ed’s reputation for his sterling Coleman collection reaches across the country. Each year, late in September, the Airstream Tour Group makes camp in Holmes County. Ed and Malinda open their display area for the campers to view the 2,500 plus Coleman products on display in the Erb show rooms.
The Erbs are also very active in the International Coleman Collector’s Club. This organization gathers for a three-day rally in June each year in various parts of the country. “There are over 2,500 members in the club. The gatherings will draw about a hundred vendors with several hundred more attending the activities,” Ed indicated.
Erb Collection Highlites
With the magnitude of Erb’s collection, it is challenging to identify those having special sentiment. Ed remarked by saying, “While there is no favorite piece in our show rooms, discussing the lanterns in sequence of development may be of interest. The very first Coleman lantern was an arc lamp built in 1905. This lantern is very ornate and was used only in the home. A general-purpose lantern was also made in 1905. This one weighed 40 pounds when completely full. The size limited their usefulness so only 5,000 were ever made.”
Ed went on to comment, “Coleman lanterns were very useful for farmers, especially in dairy barns and poultry houses. The all-purpose Model 237 first made in 1928 was often found wherever cows were stabled and milked. The Coleman poultry house lantern came out in 1934 and was used extensively. The tank-reservoir was large; therefore it burned through the night. The inscription on this lantern reads “The Hens That Lay Are The Hens That Pay.” Lighting the hen house at night increased egg production. This Coleman lantern was used heavily by layer farms where electricity was not available.”
Ed’s narrative continues, “The Coleman Model 427 was launched in 1936. A military version, Model 220, was introduced in 1943. The Model 200A is a contemporary gas version that remains popular yet today. In 1965, Coleman introduced the Ted Williams model that was marketed by Sears.”
Coleman entered the home appliance business with the introduction of an iron in 1910. The iron was heated with white-gas. Various versions of the iron were manufactured until 1983. Coleman cook stoves came onto the market for the first time in 1930.
With the onset of World War II, the Army Quartermaster Corps issued an urgent request to the Coleman Company as field units were in dire need of a compact stove. Army specifications included: operate within a wide range of conditions, weigh less than five pounds, no larger than a quart bottle of milk and burn any kind of fuel. The U.S. Army needed 5,000 stoves delivered in sixty days. The deadline set by the Army was met by Coleman. And the end product exceeded the Army’s requirements with a sterling product. It could be operated in temperatures ranging from minus 60 to plus 150 degrees Fahrenheit. It could use all kinds of fuel; it weighed 3.5 pounds and was smaller than a quart bottle of milk. The Coleman Army stove was considered one of the two most important pieces of noncombat equipment in the war effort. The familiar Jeep, built by Willys-Overland Motors was the other.
The Coleman Story
W.C. Coleman could “see the light through darkness.” About the turn of the century, young Coleman noted a new type lamplight in a drugstore in Brockton, Ala. This new-fangled light burned with an even white flame, but was fueled by gasoline. The typical lamp of the day used kerosene that produced a smoky, uneven and yellowish light. Coleman was inflicted with poor eyesight, yet he could read small print under this brighter light. Coleman anticipated great potential for this new light. Through his visionary foresight, a new company emerged that would position farms and ranches in a new light. This same company eventually made the Coleman name synonymous with outdoor camping and recreation.
At the turn of the century, electricity was not available in to many rural Americans. When the sun set, the work day ended, but light was still needed in the home. Coleman began marketing a portable table lamp that would become the standard source of light for rural homes. The new 300 candlepower lantern would light large areas and even reach the extended span of barns. Farmers and ranchers workday could therefore be lengthened. This greatly increased productivity and changed the working dynamics of rural America.
The Coleman lanterns were not restricted to civilian use. The U.S. Government declared this lantern an “essential item” for the troops serving during World War I. Nearly 70,000 lanterns were distributed for use by the American military forces fighting in Europe.
Following World War II, Coleman’s business prospered. War veterans had become familiar with the Coleman name and American citizens had more money with leisure time. And enhanced features in the new automobiles allowed families more travelling. Car camping became the rage. With this new trend, camping equipment was a necessity. Coleman quickly seized the opportunity by developing camping and recreational products. In the decades that followed, The Coleman Company adapted to the changes and trends relating to outdoor recreation. Coleman manufacturing facilities spread across the United States and internationally to meet the demand for high quality outdoor products.
Coleman Collector Fraternity
Those involved in the Coleman collector fraternity grow every year. “As people use the Coleman products and appreciate their quality, more people are collecting. And, they come from all walks of life. I would estimate there are about 35 Amish families collecting in the United States and Canada. Malinda and I have found meeting and working with Coleman collectors to be very enjoyable. As a result, we see a great future for this hobby,” Ed remarked.
If you would like to learn more about Ed Erb’s Coleman lanterns and Coleman collection, you may call his daytime business number, (330) 893-3903. ❖