Camp lighting, classic camping style – the folding candle lantern – Part 1

Aside from the comforting red-orange flickering glow from a campfire, some sort of camp lighting is a must-have.

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My modern canvas bell tent lit by the soft glow of a folding candle lantern during a canoe trip a couple of years back.

Nowadays the options for camp lighting are many and varied – from the UCO Micro candle lantern through to the awesomely-effective inflatable, solar powered LED lanterns or the much-maligned compact but super-bright LED headlamp – why much maligned? Invariably if you’re out camping with a group and people are using these headlights, you’ll be blinded every time someone looks at you. At times I have taken to wearing sunglasses at night around the campfire when camping with larger groups and I personally won’t use a head lamp out of a pure disdain for them.

If you like the old-timey vibe, you can go for a pressure lantern such as the Coleman Powerhouse dual fuel lantern. If you’re boring, then use a gas/propane lantern. If you’re going to do that you might even go for some 12v LED strip lighting or fluoros…

For “classic” camping such as I practice, the options for camp lighting are somewhat limited, but they are definitely cool.  One of my camp lighting favourites is the candle lantern.

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A selection of some of the folding or collapsible candle lanterns I tend to use. Back row – Replica brass Stonebridge lantern, Swiss Army candle lantern, Tin-cased Excelsior Lux. Front Row – Aluminium cased Excelsior Lux lantern, 3-sided German/Austrian WWI trench lantern (copied from the French M1910 lantern), NZ-made copy of a standard UCO candle lantern

I favour the old-style folding candle lanterns. They are compact, cheap to feed and give off a light bright enough to cook, eat or even read by.  In general they are light enough to take hiking and I have one as part of my swaggin’ it kit – either a brass Stonebridge replica or a Swiss Army model. They impart a nice, dare I say it romantic, light to a classic camp, and illuminate a canvas or japara tent quite nicely with a warm, diffuse glow.  Although I own different models of modern UCO candle lanterns and clones as well, I won’t cover them here since they aren’t old-timey enough.

All of my old-style folding candle lanterns have clear mica windows.  This material is actually a transparent natural mineral with a similar feel to plastic. It is lightweight and fireproof and is far less fragile than glass. You may sometimes see clear mica referred to as “isinglass” or “talc”.

1970s SWISS ARMY FOLDING CANDLE LANTERN –

This particular incarnation of the Swiss Army folding candle lantern dates to the 1970s and is windproof, rain proof and folds completely flat.

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1970s Swiss Army Folding Candle Lantern. Shown here with a Woolworths-sourced basic household candle.

It is designed to take special stearine candles, but if you gently bend the sides of the sprung clamp inward with a pair of pliers, you’ll discover that cheap-as-chips normal household candles will fit securely.

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My old green one shown here folded flat, is from the 1920s and is a very similar design to the Excelsior Lux lantern of the 1910s, but is about a 3rd larger.

These Swiss lanterns originally came into service in the 1920s and are a larger, highly-modified version of the turn-of-the-20th-Century Italian mountaineer’s “Excelsior Lux” lantern shown further below. Used by the Swiss army as EMP-proof bivouac and camp lighting, they were also included in the Swiss combat medic kits of the 1970s and 80s.

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The lanterns were standard equipment in Swiss Army combat medic bags of the 1970s and 80s.

Whereas earlier models were made from olive drab-painted tin and had only three windows, the 1970s Swiss lantern is made with a stainless steel body and has clear mica windows on all sides. It is assembled by unfolding it completely, hooking the two end panels together on their long sides to form a rectangular box shape, and then swinging the top and bottom panels into place and securing them with attached wire rod latches. The lantern has a spring-loaded door in one panel which is used to insert the candle into its spring clamp and light it.

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The Swiss lantern disassembled and folded flat. You can see the damage to two of the mica windows on this one. Bummer, because it’s one of two I own and use regularly. Still, the damage is slight and doesn’t really affect the operation or light output from the lantern.

They’re tough, very well designed, very effective, almost completely windproof, can be lightly modded to take normal supermarket candles (cut in half) and said half-candles will last for two or three hours depending on ambient temps. I would say they are pretty much the pinnacle of folding candle lantern design. The only improvements which could be made might be an oil-burning insert (for using with kerosene, citronella, diesel, maybe even animal fat or used cooking grease), and a casing made out of hard anodised aluminium or even from titanium as a means of keeping the weight down. Until someone comes up with heat resistant, thin, transparent polymer sheeting, the weak point in these lanterns will always be the relatively fragile mica windows.

Availability of these online in places like ebay is good, but they are pricey. At time of writing there’s a few on ebay out of Austria and Germany (search on ebay.de), and you’d be looking at around A$110 (US$85-ish) posted to purchase one. Gone are those heady days of the early 2000s when these lanterns first came onto the surplus market in their tens of thousands for $5 to $10 each until they were bought up en mass by wedding planners, cafe owners and interior designers who used them once for a wedding or photoshoot and then discarded them.

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Camp lighting via Swiss Army candle lantern on a recent swag walk.

Are they worth current prices? You’ll have to be the judge. If anything ever happened to my pair of Swiss Army candle lanterns I’d happily replace them at the current high prices. I reckon they are that good, and I have gotten that much use out of them.

NEW-MANUFACTURE “REPLICA” STONEBRIDGE FOLDING CANDLE LANTERN – 

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I thought I’d show you this one before showing you the original. It’s quite different from the original, so calling it a replica is a bit of a stretch. How different you may ask? Well, it’s as if the person who designed it had a copy of Stonebridge’s earlier 1906 patent and a few photos of Stonebridge’s later 1910 vintage lantern, but no measurements, let alone a sample of the original lantern to work off.

It’s a lot smaller than an original, the proportions are all off and it’s missing a few important features of the original such as the adjustable vents and the spring-loaded windscreen, so when used in windy and rainy conditions, it’ll blow out or rain will blow in and douse the candle – this has happened to me. They are nowhere near as effective as an original (nor as the Swiss or Excelsior Lux lanterns for that matter), but they do have some advantages.

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Size difference between the replica (right) and the original

The smaller size means it’s lighter and suitable for hiking or swaggin’ it. It’s made from raw, unlacquered brass sheet so you can polish it and keep it shiny and pretty or you can let it tarnish or go all verdi-greasy (verdigris) for that well-used look.

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Replica Stonebridge Lantern all folded up with some other bits and pieces for a swag walk.

In most conditions the lantern works pretty well. It easily takes UCO lantern candles, so beeswax or citronella candles are an option, and I have used cheap discount store-bought church candles in it too, which are a little thicker than the more expensive UCO candles. The supplier also sells specific candles for this lantern but I haven’t used them so I can’t comment on how they go.

Unfortunately it is designed in such a way that the thinner-than-usual mica windows wear a bit faster from normal folding and unfolding, but the good news is that the mica windows are easy to replace, maybe even easier than those on an Original Stonebridge lantern.

Probably the best points of this lantern, apart from the solid Kephartian vibe it gives off are that these are relatively cheap (if you live in the USA), availability is good, and there are even accessories available for them.

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Replica Stonebridge lantern shown here tied to the tarp ridge line during a recent swag walk.

At time of writing the only place you’ll find them is at Garrett Wade . If you’re outside the USA, then shipping on these is overpriced. When I bought mine a few years back, the shipping cost was more than the item itself, but that appears to have changed. As of September 2017, an Australian buyer would be looking at about A$50 for the lantern itself and then about A$30 postage, for a total of about A$80 shipped. The shipping cost is high, but they are the only game in town for a new-manufactured classic camping style folding candle lantern.

Are they worth it? If you can’t find a decent Swiss army surplus lantern, sure. If treated with care your kids and grandkids will be using this lantern.

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The Hootchie – Part 1 – An Adventure Through Time – ADDENDUM

Back in the olden days, at the very dawn of this little blog, I wrote a post covering the evolution of the Australian Army hootchie, the humble “shelter, individual”. In that poorly-written little piece I indicated that the hootchie as issued to Australian forces from the late 1950s onward was the first time Aussie and British Commonwealth military planners had even considered the fact that soldiers might need something a bit bigger than a 7 foot by 3 foot groundsheet to bivouac under in bad weather.

If ever called out on it, I’ll vehemently deny that my incomplete research on the topic led me to being wrong, so rather than call it “new information” let’s all pretend that space constraints on the original post meant I had to leave some important stuff out. Yep, that’ll work.

So what did I miss out? A few things…

From the time of the Battle of Waterloo circa 1815, the British army had adopted the French idea of the tente d’abri (literally “shelter tent” in English). It was a 2-man shelter made from two sheets of linen canvas with a plethora of buttons and buttonholes along the edges so it could be connected to others. Usually two of these tentes d’abri were used, forming a small “A” tent.

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US Civil War era tente d’abri style shelter. Usually called a “dog tent” by the troops because it looked like a dog kennel.

The idea is familiar to this day as it had also been adopted by the United States military in the decade before the outbreak of the US Civil War in 1861. The troops there called it a “dog tent” but it was officially known as a shelter half. In the US, the shelter halves were issued right through until after the Vietnam war. These later shelter halves are roughly trapezoidal in shape and when pitched as a two man tent, have both ends closed in. I have a set of two halves dated 1982. It makes a nice, snug and warm windproof and waterproof little pup tent which is great in cold weather.

In British military publications from the 1870s, the shelter was still officially known as the “Tente d’abri” or simply as the “d’abri”. Some time in the mid 1880s, the designation changed to “MkI Shelter”. and it was used throughout the Boer War and into the First World War, also by colonial and later Federal Australian troops.

The dimensions of the Mk I Shelter sheets were approximately 183cm long x 153 cm wide. When two were fastened together, the resulting tent was 183cm long x 214cm wide x 107cm high.

In Australian service, these were used extensively by Australian Light Horse troops during the First World War. They were rolled with a blanket and carried as a swag roll strapped to the rear of the saddle and used as swag-style bedding when bivouacking. They were also used in the camp environment as pitched two-man shelter tents just like the American shelter half “pup tents” of the Civil War.

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Mk I Shelter in use by Australian Light Horse troops at a camp in Palestine in 1917. B52640 SLSA.

There was a variant of the MkI shelter which saw the two halves sewn together into a large, hootchie-style tarp, but it seems to have been an interim measure between the Mk I and the Mk II which is described below.

The MkII was more tent-like in design, but could still be used as a tarp if required. It was essentially a MkI sewn up variant with one closed in end. The end of this shelter was made from two triangular sections of canvas which closed using a dutch lacing (grommet and cord loop) closure.

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An Australian Light Horse Camp in Palestine in 1918. A combination of single MkII shelters (oriented north/south) and  pair of larger shelters each made from two MkII shelters fastened end to end (oriented east west)

The MkII Shelter became the basic troop accommodation for British and Empire personnel in the field. Later, it was modified with an extension on the rear and a front closed by a pair of canvas flaps. This last model was known as a “Bivy” tent and soldiered on in British Army service until the 1990s. During WWII there was a lighter weight tropical version which was completely mosquito netted, not a bad modification, although it seems to have been used in Europe more than any other theatre of that conflict.

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This painting depicts a pair of MkII shelters in use in an Australian AIF camp in France circa 1917. AWM ART03331

I guess it’d be prudent to discuss the various improvised shelters which were made by troops bivouacking. These were usually two or more groundsheets laced together, or even a pair of wool service blankets fastened together with blanket pins. Surprisingly, these blanket shelters did an amazing job at keeping the rain off, but the flip side was that the soldier had to carry a wet blanket around which weighed a ton and took an age to dry out.

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Illustration from the 1914 British Army field service regulations showing an improvised bivouac shelter made from a pair of wool service blankets pinned together.

 

Waltzing Matilda with a swag, Part 5 – Eating

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In this picture showing the contents of the nosebag you can plainly see the eating equipment usually carried.

The swagman’s eating equipment is simple and  concise. I use vintage and vintage-style eating equipment. It consists of a tin plate, a silver-plated spoon, three-tine fork, bone handled butter knife sharpened to a razor edge and the quart pot’s pannikin.

As seen in the last post, the tin plate is a multiple-use item since it doubles as a frypan and hot plate. You could also use it as a pan for gold prospecting if you wish. It’s lightweight and easily slips down the side of the nosebag. Speaking of goldpanning, I have recently started using a 9 inch spun carbon steel gold pan as a plate/frypan/gold pan while swaggin’ it. It’s a bit heavier than the tin plate, but it has multiple uses. More on these in my forthcoming book On the Wallaby Track: A Swagman’s Handbook.

The spoon is probably antique, dating to at least the 1910s. It’s made of brass which has been silver plated. The silver plating is just a non-tarnish finish applied to the spoon, but it’s possible that there are health benefits to using silver or silver-plated utensils, which may be why they used them.

The three-tine fork is a Colonial-era item which could date back as far as the 1870s. It is carbon steel so it can rust and needs to be carefully dried before being placed in the nosebag after use. It has riveted wooden grip scales and a nice patina from more than a century of use.

The bone-handled knife is made from carbon steel and using a butcher’s steel, it comes up to a razor-sharp edge. As described in a previous post, this isn’t your mum’s butter knife, but it will butter damper quite nicely. The knife is multi-purpose and is a very effective carving knife and vegetable chopper.

Like the knife, the pannikin has already been described in a previous post. It is made from tinware and has folding wire handles. Like any tin cup, it can be placed on the fire to boil water when water is at a premium. Another type of tinware cup I use is a colonial-style tin cup which dates from at least the 1910s.  Since I am not sure whether the solder in this one contained lead, I use it very rarely, and never place it on the fire.

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Colonial-style tinware cup.