The History of WWI Victory Lamps
Tragedy struck Morgan, New Jersey on October 4, 1918, just a month before the end of World War I. Around 7:40 p.m., Building 6-1-1 of the T.A. Gillespie Company Shell Loading Plant exploded and, in turn, caused a string of other enormous explosions that lasted more than two days. At the time, it was the height of World War I, and speculation ran wild as to what could have caused such a catastrophe: Everything from an accidental spark to German sabotage was floated (it's still unclear what caused the initial explosion).
The gigantic “Morgan Plant” had been quickly constructed earlier that year to load explosives—Trinitrotoluene (TNT) and Amatol (TNT mixed with Ammonium Nitrate)—into a wide range of sizes of artillery shells and casings for use by the U.S. and its allies during World War I. This particular plant was one of the largest facilities of its kind. At one time, it produced 32,000 shells a day.
Millions of pounds of explosives detonated that October, and more than 200,000 shells housed in the warehouse exploded. At least 64 residents and employees died. Homes for miles around were destroyed; nearly 6000 people were homeless from the incident. Due to exposure and lack of medical supplies, the Spanish Influenza swept through the area and hundreds more died—so many that a mass grave was constructed in the nearby town of Sayreville for the dead.
After the disaster, the surrounding area was littered with unspent artillery shells (as of 1997, more than 5000 shell parts have been recovered from the area). Rather than throw these shells out, the innovative Snead & Co. turned the shells into what they called Victory Lamps.
Recovered 75mm artillery shells make up the base of the lamp, which could be electric, kerosene, or gas, depending on the customer's preference. Two engravings were made on each shell. The first, about halfway down, said,
NOV 11, 1918
75 M/M SHELL
The second, engraved on a copper driving band located a few inches above the base, was from Isaiah 2:4, "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore."
The shade for the lamp was designed by Franklin Booth, an artist best known for his gorgeous pen-and-ink illustrations. The lamp shade had two different scenes: Unlit, it showed a war scene; with light, a scene of peace. This was done by having artwork on the inside of the lamp shade as well as the outside.
Snead & Co. even patented the lamp in order “to prevent unscrupulous imitation … [so] none but GENUINE '75’s' saved from the Morgan explosion will be used or CAN be used.”
A Victory Lamp could be purchased for $18.40 in 1919. According to the brochure accompanying the lamps, “the economic conditions arising from the sudden stoppage of our war-work that made it possible, for the only time in the history of Snead & Co. (or of any other firm for that matter), to let their employees busy themselves with the fashioning of these shells into lamps and made possible their sale at less than HALF what a lamp of this class would cost.”
These cost-effective lamps, although made from the remnants of a terrible explosion, were advertised as a celebration of victory in WWI and often called "A lamp that can never be made again."