Q: I was wondering what you could tell me about this old torch that is shaped like a wooden musket. My grandfather gave it to me.
H. F. N.
A: Today, our politicians tend to “duke-it-out” over the airwaves or through the printed news media. But in days of yore, politics often happened in the streets with speakers haranguing a crowd while standing on a platform (or a “soap box” if a more sturdy platform was not available), and supporters often marched in support of their favorite candidate in torch-lit processions.
Political parade torches came in a variety of designs, but many were simple swiveling kerosene fonts held in a metal frame that could be attached to a pole for carrying down the street. Others were a bit more complicated — and attractive.
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Some made from cardboard and paper looked like concertina folded Asian style lanterns that were colorfully decorated on the outside with the candidates’ names and maybe a slogan. Inside there was a tin holder that could be fitted with a candle. We wonder how many of these lanterns burst into flame before the parade was over.
Two of these political parade lanterns that can be found include the name of U.S. Grant and his 1872 running mate, Henry Wilson, a senator from Massachusetts. That same year Grant and Wilson faced Horace Greely and Benjamin Gratz Brown (Greely was a newspaper editor and Brown was former governor of Missouri, and together they lost).
Some of the more prized parade torch examples, however, are in the shape of American eagles. Each wing usually had a wick sticking out, and the metal body of the bird served as the kerosene font. This eagle torch is often associated with the Abraham Lincoln campaigns of 1860 and 1864, but these eagle torches were used as early as Benjamin Harrison’s run for the presidency in 1841.
Figural parade torches are very popular with collectors and examples in the form of top hats or fire helmets are particularly sought after. But what really catches collector interest is a torch that is emblazoned with the name of a candidate. Last year, a simple canister torch font emblazoned “Lincoln” brought $12,000 at auction.
Parade torches in the form of rifles were very popular, especially with marching groups that wore pseudo-military style uniforms — and the rifle torches fit right in with the uniforms. These rifle torches came in a rather large variety of styles. The most desired tend to be those that have gimbaled (swiveling) fonts so that the fiery lantern end stayed upright no matter which way the fake rifle was held during the march.
The example in today’s question has a simple long cylindrical font that looks quite a bit like a sausage-shaped “silencer.” As long as the “rifle” remained upright during the march, everything was perfectly safe. But if the person carrying the rifle torch began to move or jerk it about he (or she, we suppose) could sling flaming kerosene raining down on the crowd and his marching compatriots very easily.
The rifle in today’s question looks very straightforward, but some of the rifle torches we have seen have carvings on them such as heart shapes and bulbous bulges down the barrel. This rifle torch would have been more valuable if it had the name of a particular candidate or some sort of carving. As it is, this well used, circa 1875 wood and tin rifle torch should be valued for insurance purposes in the $250 to $350 range.
Write to Joe Rosson, P.O. Box 27419, Knoxville, TN 37927, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. If you'd like your question to be considered for the column, please include a high-resolution photo of the subject, which must be in focus.