I couldn’t be happier now that I’ve taken the plunge and added a screened porch to my house. To me it’s the perfect space— “outdoors” without the bugs. Of course, it’s not quite the same as when I was a child (I have to clean the floor after the dog tracks mud on it for one thing) but now I have the fun of decorating it with my style, which I call “formal eclectic.”

That’s why my porch features finds from around the world, including a Turkish rug from Istanbul, yerba mate cups from Buenos Aires, and French antique bottles.  After I found the furniture and accessories, I was determined to have lighting suitable for everything from reading to hosting a night time party.

After thinking long and hard, I settled on using lanterns. Then the million dollar question: What kind of lantern should I choose? Because of my travels, I had seen many different styles and types, so I decided to do a little research (how did we ever live before google?) to learn more.

These three caught my fancy but then I wanted to learn more.




History of Lanterns

Lanterns have been used for thousands of years. Humans started with burning moss or nuts and graduated to burning oil during the Iron Age, about 3,500 years ago. In fact, until kerosene was developed in the 1700s, oil lanterns or candles were the only light source, used everywhere from homes to temples.

Now that we have electricity, we don’t need oil lanterns or candles although I personally think they make wonderful decorative accessories. The hard thing is choosing the style.

 Chinese Lanterns

I had seen pictures of red Chinese lanterns before I went to Beijing, but I didn’t know their importance in Chinese culture. At first, Chinese lanterns were used for practical purposes at home and on the battlefield. (Did you know the Chinese invented the concept of “the hot air balloon” for military communication thousands of years ago?)

The materials used in Chinese lanterns vary. Bamboo, wood, rattan, or steel wire are used for the frame, paper or silk for the shade, and Chinese calligraphy, painting, paper cutting, and embroidery for decoration. As lanterns became more common, decorating the shade became exceedingly important and lampshade artisans vied to produce the most functionally beautiful shades for the Lantern Festival, held on the last day of Chinese New Year.

After the festival, the best lantern designs–  other than those reserved for the Imperial Palace — were copied by every lamp-shade producer throughout the country.

Thus, Chinese lanterns eventually became highly ornamental, and a status symbol, as seen by  the red lanterns in the Qiao Family’s Compound, built in the 18th century as well as at the gates to the Siheyuan housing compounds, which are typical of Beijing. Today, Chinese lanterns are used in big cities and small towns during annual festivals, especially Chinese New Year, Mid-Autumn Festival, and Lantern Festival.

 Japanese Lanterns

A Korean Buddhist monk introduced lanterns in Japan (by way of China) in the 1500s. While the Japanese have used paper lanterns since then, they have also used stone lanterns for lighting temples and marking the grounds of shrine areas.

Stone lantern shapes were specific in meaning and became more widely used later with the onset of the Japanese sacred tea ceremony to light dark paths leading to the ceremonial hut. Now, stone lanterns decorate gardens throughout Japan.

When first introduced, paper lanterns were used to light homes and advertise everything from the types of food sold in restaurants to vacancies in hotels. Nowadays, lighting up the night in modern Japan is a visual mixture of the old and new.

Other lanterns

Still another type of paper lantern is from India, where the Diwali festival features hanging paper star shaped lanterns. The Diwali “Festival of Lights” is a traditional Hindu celebration but many other religious groups celebrate the holiday, which symbolizes the triumph of good over evil or ignorance.

In the United States, Boston had large numbers of post lanterns, which used whale oil, in the early to mid-part of the 1700s, and by 1751 Philadelphia’s streets were also lighted. Interestingly, although we all know the legend of Paul Revere, who supposedly waited to see the lantern in the Old North Church, Revere actually lit the lanterns for others to see.

Finally, the gas light era was introduced in this country about 1800, while in Europe, London first switched to gas in 1807. The beautiful Westminster Bridge was lighted by gas in 1813; Paris streets in 1818.

Today of course, we can choose all kinds of decorative lanterns for our outdoor decor, depending upon the style we prefer. The hardest part, of course, is choosing what we want!