I woke up this morning to soggy grey clouds, blustery winds and rain dribbling down in fat, wobbly round droplets, all apparently determined to ruin my day in one way or another.
Deciding that I wasn’t going to stay at home all day, I rugged up and headed out into the cold and damp to go bargain hunting, which is my usual Sunday habit. Some people go to church on Sundays. I go to market.
I spent the morning wandering around the local antiques shops and the usual Sunday market. The rain had driven most people away. There were fewer people at the market, and fewer stallholders as well, so I didn’t really expect to find much. Until I stumbled across a grubby little metallic object on a table. It didn’t look like much, but I picked it up and decided to have a look at it anyway. It didn’t cost much, and in the end, I decided to take a gamble, and bought it.
And this is what I bought:
What we have here is an old-fashioned ‘lift-arm’ cigarette lighter, of the kind that was popular from the 1900s to the 1930s. It’s made of brass, and is plated in nickel and manufactured in Germany. Research tells me that it was retailed by a local tobacconists’s shop, probably back in the 1920s or 1930s. But that isn’t what makes it special to me and that isn’t why I bought it.
I purchased it because of the big blue crest or coat of arms that you see affixed to the front of it. I purchased it because of the big blue coat of arms for two reasons.
- It’s the coat of arms of my old highschool, which I attended for many years.
- WHY does a cigarette lighter (and such an old one!) have my school’s coat of arms on it?
These were the reasons I bought the lighter. It just seemed so out-of-the-ordinary and strange! I’d never seen anything like it before, and I probably never will again. I’d be amazed if there were half a dozen lighters like this in the world!
So what’s the significance of the crest?
The crest or the coat of arms on the front of the lighter is for Scotch College, the oldest continuously operating private school in the Australian state of Victoria. It was also the school I went to for thirteen years. So when I saw the lighter, all kinds of nostalgia came back to me, and for sentimental reasons, I decided I just had to have it!
After examining the lighter thoroughly, by pulling it apart and checking all the moving components, I decided it was worth the risk to see whether it worked, and bought it.
What Type of Lighter Is It?
The first practical portable cigarette lighters which didn’t explode in your pocket if you jumped on the spot too often, were created in the early 1900s. Prior to this point, most people used matches to light their cigars, pipes and cigarettes, or anything else that required lighting, such as candles, gas-lamps, oil-lamps, and Ku Klux Klan crosses.
What we have here is called a ‘lift-arm’ lighter. It was one of the earliest commercially-available lighters ever produced and could be found from the 1910s right up to the 1930s and 40s, by which time the more easily-operated, and more compact press-button friction-lighters were becoming more popular.
Lift-arm lighters get their name because of the spring-loaded arm that lifts up at the top of the lighter:
The lighter is held in the right hand, and the thumb flicks the arm up to expose the wick that sticks out of a hole at the top of the lighter. The wick exposed, the user’s thumb now flicks the striker-wheel next to the wick to scrape against the small piece of flint inside the flint-tube next to the lift-arm. This creates sparks which, under ideal conditions, lights the fuel-vapours wafting off of the wick, causing the lighter to light up.
To extinguish the flames, the lift-arm is simply flicked back down again. The spring inside the arm allows it to snap down smartly on top of the wick, snuffing out the light in an instant.
Fixing the Lighter
The lighter was non-operational when I got it. Any fuel inside it would’ve long since evaporated, and the lighter itself was in a pretty grubby state. I took it home and cleaned off the majority of the grime with cotton-buds and lighter fluid, and then I pulled the lighter apart.
I unscrewed the nut that held in the spring which compressed the flint inside the flint-tube. This caused the flint-spring to come shooting out. I whacked the lighter on the desk and the original flint came tumbling out after it, along with a significant amount of dust and grit. I put all this aside.
Then I pulled the lighter apart. Inside the lighter was the wick and the cotton balls which soak up the fuel. In many respects, it works exactly the same as your standard ZIPPO lighter. Using tweezers, I yanked out the wick and the cotton balls, and then I threw the lighter into my ultrasonic cleaning machine to blast out all the microscopic gunk that might be trapped inside. I then dried the whole thing thoroughly and put it back together.
I saved the original flint and put in a fresh one, a spare I had from my ZIPPO lighter. Lighter flints have hardly changed in a hundred years, so they’re still really, really easy to find. Any good smoke-shop will have them. I dropped in the new flint, popped in the spring, screwed it all down and then flipped the lighter upside-down to fill up the insides.
The first step was to shove the wick back in. This took a lot of twisting, wriggling and poking with a needle, and tugging with a pair of pliers, but I got it in there in the end. The next step was to put in fresh cotton wool to soak up the fuel. The final step was to juice the thing up with fresh lighter-fluid, and then pop the bottom back on.
It’s a temperamental old thing…and so would you be, if you were, at a guess, eighty or ninety years old!…but I did get the lighter to light! Here’s the end result:
What Do I Know about the Lighter?
Admittedly? Not a great deal. I know a bit, but not much. How old is it? Where did it come from? Who made it? Some of this, I’ve been able to find out, some is still a mystery. Here is the course which my investigation took:
It has the school crest on it. That suggests it was made for, or commissioned by the school. This would’ve probably been after 1924, when the school moved to its current location in Hawthorn.
It’s a lift-arm lighter, so it’s pretty old. Most likely pre-WWII.
It’s marked: “DAMMAN’S – MELBOURNE” on the bottom. Damman’s was a tobacconist’s shop in Collins Street, established in 1854, and which was in operation for at least 100 years.
It’s marked: “(K.W.) Made in Germany”. K.W. is Karl Wieden, a German manufacturer of cigarette lighters. This dates it to around 1925-1939.
Researching Karl Wieden has revealed the lighter to be Model 620/11, which dates it to ca. 1930-1933.
And that’s really all I know, until I hear back from the school archivist, who may or may not know more than I do! All I can do is wait and see. I still can’t imagine why this lighter has the crest of a school on it, prestigious or not! Did it belong to a student? A former student? A schoolmaster? Who knows!
Here’s one last shot of the lighter, in the dark…