Historical Notes: Thomas Jefferson Randolph, the eldest son of Martha Jefferson Randolph, purchased this alabaster lamp in Philadelphia in the fall of 1808. Randolph was then beginning a nearly year-long stay with Jefferson's good friend Charles Willson Peale. In his parting instructions to his sixteen-year-old grandson, Jefferson wrote, "Should you be able at any time to find in the shops of Philadelphia a handsome Alabaster lamp, inform me of it, and it's price, and describe it's form, that I may judge whether to buy it or not."2
Randolph fulfilled that commission quickly, sending Jefferson "designs" of two lamps from which to choose. Jefferson responded on October 28, 1808, specified a thirteen-inch bowl lamp, and enclosed a ten-dollar bill for payment.3 The lamp was still in transit in January of the next year, but apparently made it to Monticello before May 6, 1809, when Jefferson asked Randolph to send him "9 feet of brass chain to hang the Alabaster lamp you got for me."4
The shape of the lamp, Jefferson's reference to it as a "vase" lamp, and the current lack of provision for a flame all suggest that the alabaster lamp employed a floating wick, which was floated on the surface of the oil by some buoyant device or supported there by wires. Benjamin Franklin described the wick for a float lamp he made as being held by a "little wire hoop...furnished with corks to float it on the oil."5
This alabaster lamp was a replacement for an earlier one, as Jefferson wrote to Randolph, "I shall not need chains or bands, having them on the lanthern which this will replace."6 An account by Sir Augustus John Foster (then secretary to the British minister) of his visit to Monticello in 1807 suggests that tending the first alabaster lamp was a way for the women of the house to gain popularity with Jefferson. In his "Notes on the United States," Foster wrote:
"After breakfast Mrs. Randolph and her amiable daughters as well as the other female relations of the house set about cleaning the tea things and washing the alabaster lamp, which I took to be designed as a catch for popularity: after this operation the President retired to his books..."7
1. Text of this article is from Stein, Worlds, 420.
2. Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson Randolph, October 13, 1808, in Family Letters, 350.
3. Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson Randolph, October 27, 1808, private collection; Jefferson, October 28, 1808, in MB, 2:1233.
4. Jefferson to Thomas Jefferson Randolph, May 6, 1809, inPTJ:RS, 1:190. In an undated memo, Jefferson wrote that the "alabaster vase and appendages weigh 11 lb" and would require 13 feet of suspending chain and around 5 feet of chain (3 pieces of 19" each) "to be substituted for the 3. chains uniting the top and bottom pieces." (Massachusetts Historical Society). The top piece to which Jefferson refers was most likely a shade, or "smoke bell" suspended directly over the center of the bowl at the joining of the three chains to prevent smoke from rising to the ceiling.