I began collecting flashlights about 1980 when I came across a table with half a dozen unusual old flashlights. They were $3 each and I bought them all. My collection eventually grew to contain more than 400 flashlights. Flashlight collecting has been a great experience. I’ve met new friends, been a flashlight expert witness at trials across the country, and when there is a neighborhood power failure, my home is never without light. Do you know when the first flashlights appeared? Most people think they first appeared in the 1920s, but they are a bit older than that.
In 1896, the “D” cell battery was created. The first flashlights were born at the same time. The earliest did not use an on/off switch; they had a ring or tab that would push against a band of metal. These early lights had bulbs that were inefficient and batteries that were weak and short-lived. They were called “flash lights” because the user would flash them on for a few moments and then turn them off. If just switched on, the battery would give out within minutes. These were still a great improvement over candles and lanterns, since setting fire to your closet as you searched for your hat was now a thing of the past. As the technology improved, the bulbs grew brighter and the batteries lasted longer. Today, you can buy an LED (light emitting diode) flashlight that will burn for almost 24 hours straight on one set of batteries.
If you buy an old flashlight, can you make it work? Flashlights older than 1920, used battery packs. If you had a long tubular flashlight, you bought the battery pack that had two or three cells permanently attached in a long, one-piece tube. If you had a vest pocket light that was the size of a cigarette pack, you bought a battery pack with the cells attached side by side. Merchants had to carry numerous battery pack arrangements. The single battery or “unit” cell (what we know as a “D” cell or “AA” cell) made its first appearance about 1920. After the 1920s, merchants only needed to carry unit cells. If you really want to make an old flashlight work, you can pretty easily build a battery pack.
What is a collectible flashlight? Old, interesting, unusual, or made by an obscure company are a good collecting criteria. Flashlight collectors look for lights made by companies that were short lived. Hundreds of flashlight companies came and went over time. There were bankruptcies, takeovers and sales. Battery companies, on the other hand, thrived and bought some of the flashlight makers. They knew that people could keep one flashlight for years, but they would need batteries every few months. Eveready, a brand that almost everyone knows, was bought by the National Carbon Company (NCC). NCC was Eveready’s main supplier of the carbon used in making batteries. NCC bought other flashlight companies, too and it eventually changed its name to Union Carbide (a union of companies).
Collectors also collect old catalogs and advertising. These provide information about what flashlights were available during a particular time. An example is the “Eveready Daylo.” In 1916, Eveready attempted to stop calling its products “flashlights,” since flashlights could produce a steady beam rather than the older flash of light. In 1917, they held a contest to rename the flashlight and a winner was declared. The new name was “Daylo.” It was a contraction of the phrase, “Lo and Behold, it is daylight.” The campaign was an advertising sales success, but the new name was a failure. Only Eveready lights could be called Daylos. Other makers still called them flashlights and that’s what the public called them. The Daylo name was dropped in 1921. During this period, Daylo signs were distributed to hardware companies across the nation. When the name was changed back to flashlight, the Daylo signs and catalogs were thrown out. Some colorful advertising pieces were saved, while the less colorful items are gone forever.
Flashlight collectors seek the items put out by the earliest flashlight makers. Early companies were the Ohio Electric Works of Cleveland (1896-1905), the Electric Novelty Company of Rhode Island (1899-1905), the American Electrical Novelty and Manufacturing Company of New York (started in 1898), the Reliable Electrical Novelties Company of New York (1901-1904), the Interstate Electrical Novelty Co. (1908-1931, and Western Electric, which made the Matchless brand from 1899-1907.
American Electrical Novelty and Manufacturing Company made the “Ever Ready” flashlight and went on to become the giant of the flashlight and battery field. It eventually changed its name to Eveready and is now known as Energizer.
Stuart Schneider is the author of an illustrated book on flashlights with more than 500 color photos and price guide called Collecting Flashlights. Autographed copies are available from the author.
Valuing old flashlights:
As with any other collectible, there are rare flashlights that can sell for a thousand dollars and the common flashlight that can go begging at $2. The good news for collectors is that flashlights are, generally, very reasonably priced. Most people think of flashlights as having a tubular shape.
There are thousands of nickel-plated and black tubular lights from the 1920s and 1930s that sell for only a few dollars. This includes many of the lights that have the large and thick bug-eye lens that antique dealers think are rare and valuable. Lights with Art Deco designs are worth more than plain lights. They sell for $20 to $120. Condition is very important. A hard to find Art Deco black and chrome Eveready Masterlite from the 1930s (not the later 1940s version) is worth $100 in excellent condition, but is worth about $20 if it has any dents or missing paint. There is little demand for lights missing parts or showing rust or damage.
Probably, the most collectible flashlight is an 1898 Ever Ready flashlight. Nowhere is it marked “Ever Ready.” The patent dates are stamped on a metal ring around the middle of the light. There is no switch, just a metal ring that presses against the metal band. The end caps do not screw on, but the lens side is held on by friction and the other end cap has a bayonet latch. Most collectors will gladly pay a thousand dollars for it. Ever Ready’s early bicycle lights are also actively sought.
For further details and information about flashlights, see the Flashlight Museum.