Lanterns designed by Robert E. Dietz were once made at Greenwich and Laight Sts.

Robert E. Dietz at his desk. At the corner of Laight Street, the Dietz building rises above the Greenwich Street elevated railroad line.

Posted
Apr. 25, 2016

During the years when food importing was becoming a vital industry in the western part of Tribeca and textile wholesaling was taking over the eastern section, a few adventurous souls were setting up manufacturing concerns that proved surprisingly hardy. One of those innovators was Robert E. Dietz, whose lantern company became famous throughout the U.S.

Born in New York in 1818, Dietz in his teens became intrigued with the possibilities of using different fuels to produce bright light. Although he failed to discover any new substance that constituted a breakthrough, the company he formed in 1840 prospered. Then in 1867 he learned about a new kind of lantern designed by a man named John Irwin which conveyed air to its burner through side tubes that formed a kind of frame for the entire fixture.

The light produced by this “tubular lantern” was brighter than that of any other lamp. So, he reasoned, his success would come through design rather than a better fuel. Dietz acquired rights to produce the lamp, sold his existing firm to his brothers and formed a new company, at West Broadway and Park Place, to manufacture it.

Sales were slow at first, but when they picked up he began buying out other license holders and successfully defending his patent rights against all comers. By the 1890s he was unquestionably the top lantern maker in the country. Meanwhile in 1883 he had purchased several lots at the northeast corner of Greenwich and Laight streets and there erected a seven-story factory dedicated to lantern making. Though Dietz died in 1897 his son continued the firm and even enlarged the building by adding two stories plus a tower, and the business continued to thrive.  

The advent of electricity might have been expected to hurt the lantern business, but it did not. The tubular lantern was too good: it was portable, self-contained and inexpensive, plus virtually irreplaceable for activities like backyard entertaining and camping. Among the biggest customers were railroads, and for years Dietz supplied lanterns to the New Haven Railroad, among others.

The Dietz family remained in control of the company for many years but gradually abandoned the building at Greenwich and Laight, selling it to Port Warehouses Inc.in 1950. Today it is residential. Meanwhile Dietz lanterns are still popular. The company making them is located in Hong Kong and the familiar tubular lanterns are made in China. There is also a brisk market in lantern collectibles, genuine tubulars that date back 100 years or more. You can find them online, and if you are lucky you might find one that was made in Tribeca.

Reprinted from "Tribeca: A Pictorial History" by Oliver E. Allen. The book is available at Stella, 184 Duane St., Tribeca Hardware, 154 Chambers St. and at amazon.com.