The largest manufacturers of antique railroad lanterns were Adams and Westlake, Armspear Manufacturing, Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railroad, Handlan, Lovell-Dressel, R.E. Dietz, Star Headlight and Lantern Company, and St. Lawrence Railroad. These companies manufactured standard short-globe lanterns for railroad signal use from the early 20th Century through the 1960s.
Railroad lanterns were used in the past to signal between trains, or between trains and stations. One use was to warn train engineers about upcoming dangers. This made the lantern an important piece of safety equipment. Lanterns consisted of a base, a glass globe that was protected by a wire frame and a chimney. Early lanterns used signal oil for fuel. Later lanterns used kerosene. Modern lanterns produced after the 1960s use electricity.
Antique railroad lanterns are distinguished by the marks on the lanterns. Lanterns often include marks for the railroad they were used on, a mark signifying the manufacturer and a model number. Manufacturer's marks are most often on the top of the chimney but are sometimes found on the bottom of the lantern. The most valuable lanterns are easily discernible by their marks. Models made by small manufacturers that only produced a few lanterns, such as Keystone, are highly prized by collectors.