Dietz Lanterns: Surviving the Great Depression

John Dietz wasn’t destined to have the same success that his father, Robert Dietz, and brother, Frederick Dietz had running the R.E. Dietz lantern company. Although R.E. Dietz would continue growing until 1923, the Great Depression would eventually bring the company to its knees.

His son, Robert E Dietz II, was described as the only hope that, “Our family name Dietz will (be) perpetuated.” But, John’s brother, Frederick said of Robert, “Owing to his nervous temperament he could not stand the strain of office confinement and was obliged to temporarily seek outdoor life.” It seems that whether or not the R.E. Dietz company would continue to be led by a member of the Dietz family in the future was in question. Robert II eventually left Dietz and moved to New Mexico, where he took up farming.

Meanwhile, John struggled with the daunting task of managing the company through the Great Depression. Sales fell to a fraction of their former heights, bottoming out at just $50,000 in 1932.

At about the same time, a German competitor began exporting their lantern to the US, peeling away part of the already shrinking market. This lantern, the Feuerhand (in German, “fire in your hand”), still survives today. In the 1930’s, Feuerhand lanterns competed on price alone. Today, however, the Feuerhand lanterns, built to traditional high German standards, compete on quality. They are the best camping lanterns available. (Click here to learn more.)

John died in 1936, without knowing if R.E. Dietz, the company that bore his family name, would survive the Great Depression. His son Robert was called back from New Mexico and put in charge of the company. R.E. Dietz would never recover to the heights it achieved in the 19th century.

Robert Dietz II

Robert Dietz II

Barely making it through the Great Depression, Dietz found that World War II created a shortage of tin plated steel, which was the main ingredient in their lanterns. They stopped using tin plate, and began painting their lanterns instead, a tradition that continues to today.

After the war, they found new demand for their lanterns, which were used as safety warning lamps on the expanding highway system.

In 1948, they introduced the Dietz Comet to the USA. It would become the official lantern of the Boy Scouts of America, ensuring that a generation of Boy Scouts would fondly remember Dietz today.

R.E. Dietz had a strategy for stopping competition. Every serious competitor up to that time had been bought out by them. But, electric lights were to become the one competitor that Dietz could not buy out.

Dietz “Boy Scout” Comet lantern ad from the 1950’s.

In 1950, Robert Dietz II handed the reigns off to his 33-year-old son, Gerry (“Gary”) Dietz. He was the youngest Dietz family member since the original Robert Dietz to run the company. It fell to Gerry to make the difficult decision to sell “Dietz Factory #1” in Greenwich Village. Dietz continued to buy out competitors, although now they were buying not to end a threat but because the competitors were selling at what seemed like “fire sale” prices.

Then, in 1955, kerosene lanterns were banned from use on the federal highway system. Dietz lanterns became the light of last resort, used only where electric was not available. In an ironic twist, their lanterns were converted to electricity and used in Disneyland’s salute to the past, Frontierland.

Gerry Dietz, like many of his family before him, was a visionary man. He saw how the future should be shaped, serving as an activist for Civil Rights as early as 1963. He was determined to save the company.

Gerry saw that Dietz’s best hope for the future was to become the lantern supplier to the developing world outside America’s borders. In 1957, he opened R.E. Dietz Co., LTD in Hong Kong. His goal to build high quality lanterns at a lower price, which he hoped people in the developing world could afford. Many of the original tools and dies were moved from the factory in Syracuse to Hong Kong. Ultimately, the Hong Kong company would be the only part of the Dietz company to survive.

The goal was for R.E. Dietz to survive by being the “Old Reliable” (a Dietz motto going back 100 years) for customers who had no reliable lighting alternative. Little did the Dietz family know where these fateful decisions would lead.

To learn more about the Dietz lanterns that are available today, click here!

Read about how Dietz revolutionized lanterns. Click here.

Discover how Dietz lanterns light America! Click here.

Learn about how Dietz is lighting the future. Click here.

Galen Lehman
Galen Lehman, President, Lehman’s

Galen Lehman
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About Galen Lehman

Lehman's CEO and son of founder Jay Lehman. Homesteads on five acres. Believes in a Simpler Life...rewarding relationships, fresh, local (preferably homegown) food and the gratification of hard work. Plant a tree!

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