Globe Basics

Above Top: "Tall" 5 3/8 inch globe; Above Middle: "Short" 3 1/2 inch globe; Above: "Tall" 6 inch globe with rolled top and bottom. Below: "Short" 3 1/2 inch fresnel globe (click on the image for a larger version).

The development of railroad lantern globes paralleled the development of the lanterns themselves. In the very early days of railroading, lanterns were locally produced items, and globes were hand-blown to the size necessary to fit them. Over time, lanterns evolved into a more standardized product, and glass-making technology also developed to the point where globes were mass produced to be interchangeable with different brands of lantern frames.

Today, railroadiana collectors focus on a handful of key globe characteristics: size, shape, markings, color, double-colors (separate page), type of globe base, and manufacturer.

Size.  For most lanterns, the globe size is the distinguishing characteristic, particularly in differentiating "tall globe" lanterns (globes 5 3/8" to 6" high) from "short globe" lanterns (globes 3 and 1/2" high).  In the very early years of railroad lantern manufacturing, globes were cemented into lantern frames, and today these lanterns are referred to as "fixed globe" lanterns.  These globes varied in size since they were custom-made for specific lantern frames. Around the 1880's or so, interchangeable lantern globes became popular, and globes evolved to a rough standard of 5 3/8" -- the "tall" globe style. After World War One, new kerosene lantern technology allowed a smaller combustion chamber, hence the development of the 3 1/2" high "short globe" style. These types of globes continued to be used until electric lanterns replaced fuel-fired lanterns.

While "tall" and "short" globes are the most common sizes, they are not the only sizes.  Dietz's popular "Vesta" line of lanterns took a special 4 1/4" globe, and Handlan also made a lantern that took a 4 1/2" globe.  There were also globes approaching 7" in height for Inspectors' Lanterns and a range of globes in the 5" range (give or take a quarter inch) for conductors' lanterns. See the lantern types page for an overview of lantern styles.

Shape. Railroad globes, particularly tall globes, were produced in a number of different shapes, including what collectors refer to as a "barrel shape" and a "pear shape" or #39 globe. The first and third photos at the top of this page show a #39 (red) globe and a 6" (clear) barrel-shaped globe. With a #39 globe, the greatest diameter is toward the bottom; with a barrel-shaped globe, the greatest diameter is toward the middle. Short globes are symmetrical in shape, with the greatest diameter in the middle. A special short globe shape is the "fresnel" globe which has ridges to intensify the light beam. An example is shown at right. There are examples of "tall" fresnel globes but these tend to be very rare.

Markings. The presence of a railroad marking on a globe is another important characteristic.  Not all globes were marked.  In fact some smaller railroads apparently never used marked globes in their lanterns, probably because of expense.  However, globes that are marked for a railroad are most desirable among collectors, and the ideal lantern globe and frame set has the same railroad marking on both.

Above: Angular letters characteristic of cut lettering.

Railroad markings on globes may be logos, names or, more commonly,  initials, and they may be wheel-cut, etched, sandblasted, or cast into the glass. In the early days of railroad lanterns, wheel-cut lettering was common. The early fixed-globe lanterns of New England frequently have railroad initials cut into the globe. Cut lettering was done by skilled craftsmen with an abrasive wheel and was characterized by angles in the letters and deep incisions into the glass (see example at right).

Later in the evolution of globe manufacturing, most globes were railroad-marked with cast letters or etched letters. Presumably, cast lettering -- done when the globe was produced in a mold -- was more expensive.

Above: A red etched "logo globe" from the New York, Ontario & Western Railway. This globe is 4 1/2" tall and fits a Dietz Vesta lantern, shown below. Photos by Dave Hodges.
Above: Lower half of an elaborately etched presentation globe. Click on the image for a larger version. Collection of Howard Holland.

Markings could be etched into a globe after the globe was produced, and this could even be done by railroad shop forces in addition to the manufacturer. While the majority of etched globes were marked by applying acid over a stencil, there are reliable reports that some globes were etched by sandblasting over a stencil. According to one veteran lantern collector,

"No question about it, some railroad shops sandblasted lantern globes for identification. I heard this from several "olde hands" at "meets" in the early 1970's in St. Louis area. They stated that it was a cost cutting effort to save the price of a cast globe over a plain one! The pennies do add up I guess. Handlan [a St. Louis lantern manufacturer] for sure purchased sandblasted or etched "short" globes directly from glass manufacturers."

A common characteristic of sandblasted lettering is a deeper "cut" than acid-etched lettering, although very light sandblasting could also reasonably produce faint lettering.

Among collectors, cast letters are more desirable, not only for their classier appearance but because etched lettering is more susceptible to counterfeiting. There are suspicions that originally unmarked globes have been etched by unscrupulous individuals with rare railroad markings, thereby increasing market value many times over. These counterfeits are difficult if not impossible to identify and are a inherent drawback of collecting etched globes.

The vast majority of globe markings are railroad initials, and Identifying the railroad that was associated with a particular set of initials can be challenging. Occasionally globes are marked with railroad names fully spelled out -- the Pennsylvania Railroad, New York Central Railroad, Southern Railway are a some of the few railroads that did this. Some globes are marked with a railroad logo, and these are called "logo globes". See example at upper right. In general logo globes are uncommon, with the exception of globes with the Pennsylvania Railroad's "keystone" logo or the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway's "cross logo". Logo markings can be either cast or etched and can command high prices.

A special category of globe marking is the customized marking sometimes found on a presentation lantern. It was common to present railroad employees with a specially engraved (etched or cut) globe/lantern set upon retirement or other special occasion. These are called "presentation lanterns" and have the same lantern frames as found in conductor lanterns. Sometimes the engravings were simply the name of the honored individual, but occasionally more elaborate ornamentation would be added as well. See photo at left.

Color. Yet another important globe characteristic is the color. Railroad lanterns used different colored globes, each color having a particular function according to the rules in effect on a given line.  Following is a description of the uses of different colored "signals" taken from a 1953 rule book from the Pittsburgh & West Virginia Railroad.  The word lantern is never used here but the meaning is clear that these were included along with flags and perhaps lamps.  

SIGNALS AND THEIR USE.

Employees whose duties may require them to give signals, must provide themselves with the proper appliances, keep them in good order and for immediate use.

Flags of the prescribed color must be used by day, and lights of the prescribed color and type by night.

Day signals must be displayed from sunrise to sunset but when day signals cannot be plainly seen, night signals must be used in addition. Night signals must be displayed from sunset to sunrise.

 Color  Indication
 (a) Red Stop
 (b) Yellow Proceed at reduced speed, and for other uses prescribed by the rules.
 (c) Green  Proceed , and for other uses prescribed by the rules.
 (d) White  Flag stop (See rule 28) and for other uses prescribed by the rules.
 (e) Blue  See Rule 26.
 (f) Purple  Stop. (Indication for siding derails)
Rule 26.   A blue signal, displayed at one or both ends of an engine, car, or train, indicates that workmen are under or about it; when thus protected it must not be coupled to or moved.  Each class of workmen will display the blue signals and the same workmen alone are authorized to remove them.  Other equipment must not be placed on the same track so as to intercept the view of the blue signals, without first notifying the workmen.
Rule 28.  A white signal will be used to stop a train at the flag stations indicated on its schedule or in special instructions. [See discussion below about green globes and flag stops.]

Here are some examples of colored globes:

Above Left: Cobalt blue tall globe with etched lettering "P.& L.E." for the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad. Above Center: "Signal green" tall globe - the aqua color appears green when transmitting light from a yellow flame. The "CPR" cast lettering stands for Canadian Pacific Railway. Above Right: An unusual kelly-green tall globe, also with cast lettering "CPR" for the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Above Left: Red tall globe with cast lettering "P.& L.E." for the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad. Above Center: Amber tall globe with cast lettering "CPR" for the Canadian Pacific Railway.; Above Right: A clear globe that has turned purple due to the high manganese content in the glass. The "CPR" lettering stands for Canadian Pacific Railway.

From a collecting point of view, white or clear is the most common color of globe, while red is more desirable though still rather common and easy to find. Any other color is especially sought after and usually priced accordingly.   Some points to note about globe colors:

  • Sometimes a light purple globe shows up on dealers' tables; however in all likelihood these started out as clear glass but eventually turned purple due to a high manganese content in the glass, common prior to World War I. See the web page "Shedding Light on 'Sun Purple Glass. True purple globes seem to be extremely rare.
  • Aqua or light blue globes are called "green" globes by collectors since the yellow light of a flame shining through such globes would be read as green by an observer. While this generally meant "proceed", an older collector with considerable railroad experience reported that two lanterns, one with a clear globe and one with a green globe, were used in combination as a flag stop signal. Also, a former railroad employee from Canada emailed us with the following: "The practice on Canadian (and I presume American railways} was a green lantern and a white lantern side-by-side.  If it was daylight there was a flag, half white, half green to use. Every intermediate station had these appliances.  As an operator at Canadian Pacific Railway stations I frequently had to do this, since at country and small town stations most passengers trains had to be "flagged"  to avoid simply stopping without any passengers to pick up." 
  • It is common to find clear globes that have developed a yellowish cast with age due to materials in the glass, but these are distinguished from the "yellow" signals referred to in the rules above. The latter are usually referred to as "amber" globes by collectors and tend toward an orange color.
  • Early red globes were "flashed", meaning that a red coating was applied (bonded) to clear glass. This was done because the quality of solid red glass was not up to the standards needed for railroad service. Eventually technology improvements around the turn of the century led to solid red glass globes of high quality, and these superseded flashed globes. One way of identifying flashed globes is to examine the rims where chips may reveal clear glass underneath the red coating.
  • Red globes are quite common due to their continued use for flagging well into the electric lantern era.  As late as 1949, a labor agreement between the railroads and the Order of Railway Conductors of America stated:   "The railroads will continue to use oil-burning lanterns with red globes for flagging, but they will continue their efforts to have developed an electric red lantern that will be satisfactory for such service, and if and when one is developed, the party of the first part [the railroads] will then enter into negotiations with the party of the second part [the union] representing conductors with respect to its adoption for flagging service.  When such lanterns are adopted for flagging service, they will be furnished by the railroads without expense to conductors."
  • Another reason that both clear and red globes are relatively more common compared to other colors is that they were often prescribed as standard equipment on locomotives. In a Northern Pacific Railway "Inventory of Engine Tools" dated June 17, 1905, the following lanterns and associated supplies were listed:
  • 2 White Lanterns
  • 2 Red Lanterns
  • 1 White Lantern Globe (Extra)
  • 1 Red Lantern Globe (Extra)
  • 1 1-gallon Signal Oil Can

Here "white" refers to clear glass. Given the date, these would be "tall globe" lanterns. Considering how many locomotives a railroad as big as the Northern Pacific might have, a lot of clear and red globes would be needed as standard equipment. [Information thanks to Jim Frederickson, posted originally on the NP Telltale Digest List, 10/12/01.]

Double-color or two-color globes. See separate page.

Globe base. Before the invention of the globe seat - a base on which the globe rests - globes were made with a small vertical extension to hold the globe laterally in the lantern frame. This extension is called an "extended base" and is shown in the top example at right. Globes with an extended base are generally older and more valuable than globes without one. The latter type, shown in the bottom example at right, are sometimes referred to as "Corning Style" since Corning Glass basically held the patent for a while on this new type of globe. See our separate web page on the "Corning Style" globe.

Manufacturer. A number of manufacturers made globes for railroad lanterns, among them Corning, Kopp, and Macbeth-Evans.  Of these, Corning was by far the most prolific and innovative.  Early in this century, Corning developed a special glass formulation that resisted damage from heat, and this type of glass -- designated by the "Cnx" trademark -- dominated the railroad globe market. Today, this Corning trademark is the most commonly found globe manufacturer's marking.  See "Corning Style" globe. However, in the opinion of many collectors, Macbeth-Evan's "Pearl Glass" globes were the most beautiful.  This company, which was based in Charleroi, Pennsylvania, produced glass of exceptional quality, and when railroad markings were cast into the glass, this was done in a particularly distinctive manner.

Thanks to everyone who supplied information and photos for this page.