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Smoking Lamps: The Story of Saving Navy Lives at Sea

As a former US Naval Officer and the founder of Union Square Lamp Company, I have a deep-rooted connection with the sea and its traditions. One such enduring tradition is the use of smoking lamps aboard naval vessels. These lamps, more than just functional objects, have been a significant part of naval history, symbolizing camaraderie and discipline among sailors. In this article, we’ll explore the origins, evolution, and lasting legacy of smoking lamps in the navy, shedding light on their importance in maritime culture and how they reflect the changing tides of time. Join me in uncovering the rich history of these fascinating artifacts from a sailor’s life at sea.

Origins of the Smoking Lamp

Early Maritime Smoking Practices:

The tradition of smoking at sea dates back to the age of exploration when sailors began adopting tobacco habits from the New World. Initially, smoking on wooden ships posed a significant fire hazard. The need for a controlled environment for smoking led to the birth of the smoking lamp. It was a practical solution, allowing sailors to indulge in their tobacco use while minimizing the risk of igniting the highly flammable wooden structures of early ships.

Introduction and Design of the Smoking Lamp:

The smoking lamp, as it came to be known, was typically a safe, enclosed flame, often located in the common area of the ship. Its design was simple yet effective, consisting of a metal or brass lamp with a flame that was shielded to prevent sparks or embers from escaping. This lamp served as a communal light source for sailors to light their pipes or cigars, ensuring that open flames were kept to a minimum on board.

Material and Placement:

The materials used in the construction of smoking lamps varied, but brass was a common choice due to its durability and resistance to corrosion. The placement of the lamp was strategic, usually in a well-ventilated area but away from any storage of combustible materials. This location was not only a safety measure but also a central spot where sailors could gather, fostering a sense of community.

The smoking lamp’s origin is a testament to the ingenuity of sailors in adapting to the challenges of life at sea. It symbolizes the blend of caution and comfort that defined the maritime experience in the era of wooden ships.

Woodcut of US Sailors using a Smoking Lamps, circa 1840
Woodcut of US Sailors using a Smoking Lamps, circa 1840

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The Role of Smoking Lamps in Navy Tradition

Smoking Lamp Rituals and Ceremonies:

Smoking lamps played a central role in various naval rituals and ceremonies. The phrase “smoking lamp is lit” was commonly used to indicate designated smoking times, becoming a part of the ship’s daily rhythm. In some navies, the lighting or extinguishing of the smoking lamp was part of formal ceremonies, symbolizing the beginning or end of leisure periods or signifying respect during solemn occasions.

Fostering Camaraderie Among Sailors:

The smoking lamp area was more than just a spot for smoking; it was a communal space where sailors shared stories, bonded over shared experiences, and formed deep connections. This camaraderie was crucial for morale on long voyages, and the smoking lamp became a symbol of fellowship and solidarity among crew members.

Nautical Smoking Lamp
Nautical Smoking Lamp

Fire Safety on Wooden Ships:

On wooden ships, fire safety was a paramount concern. The smoking lamp provided a controlled environment for smoking, significantly reducing the risk of accidental fires. Sailors were required to use the lamp instead of open flames, a rule that was strictly enforced given the potential consequences of a fire at sea.

Regulations and Rules Governing the Use of Smoking Lamps:

Strict regulations governed the use of smoking lamps. Smoking was only allowed when the lamp was lit, and it was the responsibility of designated crew members to supervise its use. These rules ensured discipline and order, especially regarding fire safety protocols.

Evolution of Smoking Lamps Over Time

Technological Advancements and Design Changes:

As naval technology advanced, so did the design and functionality of smoking lamps. The transition from wooden to steel ships brought significant changes. Smoking lamps evolved from simple brass fixtures to more sophisticated systems, incorporating improved ventilation and safety features. The design became less about preventing fires and more about convenience and controlling the spread of smoke.

Current Status of Smoking Lamps in Modern Navies:

In modern navies, the traditional smoking lamp has become a rarity. The advancement in ship design and the introduction of smoke-free areas have led to the phasing out of communal smoking lamps. Instead, designated smoking areas, often equipped with exhaust systems to minimize the impact on non-smokers, have become the norm.

Smoking Policies on Naval Vessels Today:

Today’s naval vessels have strict smoking policies, reflecting broader societal changes in attitudes towards smoking. These policies regulate where and when sailors can smoke, often limiting it to specific outdoor areas or specially ventilated rooms. The emphasis is on maintaining the health and well-being of all crew members, both smokers and non-smokers.

When particularly hazardous operations or work required that smoking be curtailed, the unlighted lamp relayed the message. “The smoking lamp is lighted” or “the smoking lamp is out’ were the expressions indicating that smoking was permitted or forbidden.
The smoking lamp has survived only as a figure of speech. When the officer of the deck says “the smoking lamp is out” before drills, refueling or taking ammunition, that is the Navy’s way of saying “cease smoking.”

Passing the Word:

When the Smoking Lamp is Lit:

  • “Attention all hands, the smoking lamp is now lit in designated smoking areas only.”
  • “The smoking lamp is lit. You are free to smoke in approved areas.”
  • “Crew members, the smoking lamp is lit. Please adhere to designated smoking zones.”

When the Smoking Lamp is Out:

  • “All hands be advised, the smoking lamp is out until further notice.”
  • “The smoking lamp is out. Refrain from smoking on board.”
  • “Attention on deck, the smoking lamp is out. Smoking is not permitted at this time.”

U.S. Sailors smoking without a smoking lamp
U.S. Sailors smoking without a smoking lamp

The Decline of Smoking Lamps with Changing Attitudes Towards Smoking:

The decline of smoking lamps is closely tied to the changing attitudes towards smoking. As awareness of the health risks associated with smoking increased, and as smoking rates declined, the need for communal smoking spaces diminished. This cultural shift has led to stricter smoking regulations and a reduced presence of smoking in naval life.

The Legacy of Smoking Lamps in Current Naval Culture:

Despite their decline, smoking lamps hold a nostalgic place in naval culture. They are remembered as symbols of camaraderie and tradition, evoking images of sailors sharing stories and bonding over a smoke. The legacy of the smoking lamp lives on in naval history and lore, serving as a reminder of a bygone era in seafaring life.

The evolution of smoking lamps mirrors the broader changes in naval technology and culture. From essential safety devices to obsolete relics, they represent a fascinating aspect of naval history and the ever-changing nature of life at sea.

Advent of The Original Smoking Lamp

Nautical vs Modern Smoking Lamps
Nautical vs Modern Smoking Lamps

Drawing inspiration from the nautical smoking lamp, Josiah Lamp, the founder of Union Square Lamp Company, set out to reinvent the traditional smoking experience. His vision was to create a product that embodied the spirit of the classic naval smoking lamp while adapting it for contemporary use. The result was the Original Smoking Lamp, a revolutionary device designed to offer a smoother, stronger, and cleaner experience than a traditional bong. Josiah’s invention was driven by a desire to blend historical significance with modern functionality, resulting in a product that not only serves its purpose efficiently but also carries a piece of history. 

The Original Smoking Lamp stands out in the market for its exceptional quality and affordability. Josiah utilized his naval experience and expertise in craftsmanship to design a smoking lamp that addressed common issues found in traditional bongs. The focus was on creating a product that provided a smooth smoking experience, reduced harshness, and maintained cleanliness with ease. Moreover, it was priced competitively, making it accessible to a wider audience. The Original Smoking Lamp quickly gained popularity, not just for its functionality and cost-effectiveness, but also for its nod to a time-honored naval tradition, appealing to both history enthusiasts and modern smokers alike.

Freequently Asked Questions about Smoking Lamps

What is a nautical smoking lamp?

A nautical smoking lamp was a safe, enclosed flame used on wooden ships, allowing sailors to smoke tobacco while minimizing the risk of fire.

Why were smoking lamps important on ships?

Smoking lamps were crucial for fire safety on wooden ships. They provided a controlled environment for smoking, reducing the danger of open flames.

What materials were used to make nautical smoking lamps?

Nautical smoking lamps were commonly made from brass or metal, chosen for their durability and resistance to corrosion.

How did smoking lamps evolve with modern naval vessels?

With the advent of steel ships and changing attitudes towards smoking, traditional smoking lamps were replaced by designated smoking areas equipped with modern ventilation systems.

Do modern navies still use smoking lamps?

No, traditional smoking lamps have been phased out in modern navies, replaced by specific smoking areas in line with contemporary health and safety standards.

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