Railroad workers used old railroad lanterns to communicate messages between trains and train stations before electrical devices came into use. Old railroad lanterns generally had oblong or round glass globes that were secured to metal frames. They also had metal carrying handles.
The earliest railroad lanterns were fixed-globe lanterns, named for the inability to remove the globe from the frame. After the Civil War, tall-globe and short-globe lanterns that featured removable globes replaced the outdated fixed-globe lanterns. These types of railroad lanterns are the most highly sought-after due to their vast assortment of ornamentation, globe colors and metal quality. Both fixed-globe, tall-globe and short-globe lanterns were used by various railroad crew members to send messages to each other, the conductor or a neighboring station.
Railroad inspector's lanterns had an unusual, utilitarian shape that allowed the inspector to shine the light in any direction. These types of railroad lanterns were constructed out of sheet metal and light-reflecting materials.
Conductor's lanterns are the rarest type of railroad lantern. Given to conductors by the companies they worked for, these lanterns often feature highly embellished designs, unique shapes and brass frames.
Lanterns that have railroad markings, usually with the railroad's initials, are generally more valuable than unmarked railroad lanterns.