American Railroad Lantern Globe Colors and Their Meanings

Among antique lighting collectors, a unique group of transportation industry fans is especially enthralled by railroad lanterns. As opposed to heavy, stationary lamps that rail operations also utilized, hand-held, portable lanterns were relied upon as signaling devices essential to help ensure the safety of passengers and train workers. Used for communication at a distance, the colored light of a railroad lantern would communicate a specific meaning to not only oncoming trains, but also to train workers around cars and along the tracks.

Modern rail operations still utilize hand-held lanterns, but for collectors, of course the fascination is primarily with older ones, which can date from well before the Civil War all the way through the mid-1900s. The colors of glass globes are one of the more interesting aspects of railroadiana history. Serious collectors enjoy hunting for globes of all colors, often hoping to create a “set” of lanterns from a railroad line, one with each globe color used.

During the 1800s, there was no standard for globe color: individual railroads established their own rules as to what meaning any specific glass color would denote. However, as the transportation industry matured and rail operations became increasingly interconnected, the use of glass colors took on specific meanings. By the beginning of the twentieth century, uniform industry-wide standards for the use of color emerged.

Here is a list of those colors and their meanings to trainmen, still in effect today:

White: A lantern with a “white” (clear or frosted glass) globe is a signal that all is well and it is safe for an oncoming train to proceed.

Red: A red globe is a signal to stop, because there is danger ahead. Red globes were made in several shades, including cranberry (deep, true red) or ruby (a slight bluish tinge). Some older red globes especially attractive to many collectors were produced in “flashed” glass, in which a thin coating of red glass was factory applied to clear glass globes.

Yellow: Is a warning A yellow globe means to proceed, but slowly, ready to stop if necessary. Yellow glass globes apparently were almost never used until around 1900. The color can vary from golden yellow tints, to a pale amber, through a dark “root beer” brown.

Blue: Used for worker protection, this color is always “true” blue, cobalt, and it means “STOP.” A blue lantern (or other blue signal) means that the engine or car it is placed on must not be moved for any reason, often because people are working on or around it. A blue signal may be placed down the track as a warning that a stationary car is stopped ahead; and that car may not be moved. The only people authorized to move blue signals are the worker(s) who placed them.

Green: Is a warning signaling a train to proceed slowly with caution. A green lantern may also be displayed on a wreck derrick to signal the engineer of a wreck train. Most globes are “signal green” which is a blue/green or teal color of varying shades. A few are “true” Kelly green but the use of the color is always the same.

The above are the commonest colors found in railroad lantern globes. While Purple glass was used in stationary lamps, authorities do not agree on whether it was ever used in hand lanterns; some suggest it was used as a stop signal. A two-color combination of green and clear was used primarily to stop trains at flag stations to pick up passengers or freight. Other even less common two-color combinations include red and clear, and even red and green.

Jane Silvernail of Time’s Treasures Railroad & Country on Ruby Lane


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