[Thanks to the author for sharing this post in the discusisonlist Victoria with readers of the Victorian WebGeorge P. Landow]

My work on G.W.M. Reynolds's Master Timothy's Bookcase; or, The Magic Lanthorn of the World led me look into the relation of lanthorn to lantern. It seems that in Greece lanthorns were very big and bright lanterns -- but (I'm not a science historian so can be corrected on this) of no particular design (the idea with Reynolds's novel of course being that the book case "shines a bright light on" all the secrets of the world, so to speak).

Big lanthorns sometimes used to be installed in the belfries of some churches instead of bells to provide lighting for the poorly lit rural villages in Italy and also in the walls of hospitals (Joseph Addison wrote of them set into the walls of hospitals in Paris and Rome in The Guardian in 1715). And there's an old history book of York from the 1790s which reference I can't track down now but which briefly said there was a huge lanthorn in the belfry of York minster. However, by the time of Johnson's Dictionary in the mid-eighteenth century, he simply elides lanthorn and lantern.

The brightness seems to have been a thing in distinguishing them from just a normal lantern. There's a satirical print titled Experiments at Dover; or, Master Charley's Magic Lanthorn in which George III is projecting an image of Napoleon looking silly, the light of which stretches from Dover to France.

If they were carried by servants to light the way then they sometimes denoted a person's rank. I quote from George Cochrane's Wanderings in Greece (2 vols. London, 1837):

In my perambulations about the city in the dark nights I continually met these lanthorns and according to the size of the light I knew the quality of the individual. Four tapers in a very large lanthorn , indicated a foreign minister walking to pay an evening visit, or perhaps a rich English resident; three lights I set down as indicating a Greek counsellor of state; two I attributed to the member of some respectable Greek family; one light only, and that carried by the individual himself, might point out a Greek of the commercial class going about on his business. [I, 227]

(Whether the same meaning of rank and size of lanthorn holds true for Italy I'm not sure...)

Interestingly, Richard Steele in the preface to the second volume of The Tatler complains of some servants lanthorns being so big they hide the person walking behind it: "like that sort of Lanthorn which hides him who carries it"

Last modified 17 May 2020