Dietz Lanterns: Lighting America

Fred Dietz, the second generation leader of the R.E. Dietz lantern company

In 1894, after more than 50 years at the helm of the RE Dietz company he started, Robert Dietz retired at the age of 76. He left his son, Frederick (now 45) in charge.

Frederick was just as innovative as his father. He registered 25 new patents for lantern design. He also applied his skills to marketing. He designed a unique Dietz logo, obtained trademarks and upgraded company catalogs. He set up a sales organization, and even hired a salesperson to circumnavigate the globe, marketing their lanterns in India, Japan and (foreshadowing the company’s future) China. A book published by RE Dietz in 1913 (and, admittedly, co-authored by Frederick himself), says, “There is no one living who has greater knowledge of the birth and growth of the lantern industry.”

The R.E. Dietz New York City factory was destroyed by fire on June 23, 1897.

In some ways, he was just as hard to get along with as his father. He went to court almost as often. He publicly referred to one brother in print as “malcontent” to a nephew as too “nervous” to be successful.

But, 1897 was a tough year for the Dietz family. The factory caught fire, and nothing was left standing but the outside walls. Frederick had to merge with another manufacturer to avoid closing. His father, company founder Robert Dietz, died. They never told Robert the factory had burned down, even though the fire happened months before his death.

R.E. Dietz bought their competitor, the Steam Gauge and Lantern company, to get this Syracuse factory.

Dietz needed a factory to continue production, and Frederick returned to his father’s strategy of buying out competitors. Dietz already owned 50% of Steam Gauge and Lantern. Their factory, in Syracuse, was the last remaining competitor of significant standing. Frederick liked their factory, and the board of directors approved the purchase less than a month after the fire. Many of the antique Dietz lanterns found today, as a result, say “Syracuse, NY” on the globes.

Meanwhile, Dietz rebuilt the original factory using “fire-proof construction”. Built in what was at the time a village street corner, surrounded by trees and lawns, it still stands today. The name of that village? Greenwich Village.

Dietz “Factory #1”, which still stands today in New York City (historical image from R.E. Dietz publications)

About 100 years later, the building was converted into loft apartments. One of the apartments was recently listed for $22 million, in case you are interested in purchasing a piece of history. That his building would one day be a city apartment building and that apartments there would sell for such a price was certainly never imagined by Frederick Dietz.

However, Frederick did imagine that New York city would grow to amazing size. Extrapolating New York’s growth forward at the pace of growth it was experiencing in the early 1900’s, he believed that by this time the population in New York would have reached about 25 million (about three times its actual population today). He said that the sidewalks would have to be cut into the buildings to allow for street widening. And, in a particularly morbid moment, he predicted severe traffic jams from 1,500 dead bodies being carried to funerals each day.

To order a Dietz Blizzard, click on the image above.
To order a Dietz Junior, click on the image above.

Two years later, at the turn of the last century, R.E. Dietz introduced the tinned steel burners. The tin stands up to the heat of the flame, and doesn’t rust like cheaper burners. They also introduced the Dietz Blizzard cold blast lantern, which is still sold by Lehman’s today.

In 1902, they brought the smaller Dietz Junior to market, also sold by Lehman’s today. Some of these same lanterns were used in the construction of the Panama Canal. R.E. Dietz sold $13,000 worth of lanterns to the Panama Canal Commission, including some that had iron-weighted bases so they wouldn’t tip over in hurricane force winds.

To order a Dietz Little Wizard, click on the image above.
To order a Dietz D-Lite, click on the image above.

Another popular Dietz lantern, the “Little Wizard”, was introduced in 1914.

A year earlier, a Dietz competitor called CT Ham introduced what they called the “Nu-Style” lantern. True to form, Dietz bought out CT Ham. Once they added the lantern to their own line up, they rechristened it as the “D-Lite”. Today, the D-Lite is the most popular lantern Dietz makes, and is sold around the world.

Business was booming at Dietz. The Syracuse factory was expanded and the original factory was ultimately converted to offices. The company was so profitable that Ann Dietz (widow of founder Robert and mother of CEO Frederick) sued her own family, for a greater share of the profits.

In 1915, Frederick Dietz died suddenly at his home. He was 68. He left an estate worth an estimated $5 million, or over $100 million in today’s dollars. He had no children, and divided his estate into hundreds of pieces. Some was left to his younger brother, John, who would take over leadership of the RE Dietz company. Some went to his sister (but nothing went to his “malcontent” brother, Howard). Every Dietz employee with more than a year of service received a share. He even included a gift of $1000 to an orphan, Allan Schiller, roughly equal to a year’s salary today.

To learn more about Dietz lanterns today, click here.

Read about how Dietz revolutionized lanterns. Click here.

Discover how Dietz managed to survive The Great Depression. Click here.

Galen Lehman
Galen Lehman, President, Lehman’s

Galen Lehman
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9 years ago

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