A lantern is a portable source of lighting, typically featuring a protective enclosure for the light source—usually a candle or a wick in oil—to make it easier to carry and hang up, and make it more reliable outdoors or in drafty interiors.
Lanterns were usually made from a metal frame with several sides (usually four, but up to eight), commonly with a hook or a hoop of metal on top. Windows of some translucent material would be fitted in the sides, now usually glass or plastic but formerly thin sheets of animal horn, or tinplate punched with holes or decorative patterns; though some antique lanterns have only a metal grid, clearly indicating their function was that outlined below.
Though primarily used to prevent a burning candle or wick being extinguished from wind, rain or other causes, another important function was to reduce the risk of fire should a spark leap from the flame or the light be dropped. This was especially important below deck on ships: a fire on a wooden ship was a major catastrophe. Use of unguarded lights was taken so seriously that obligatory use of lanterns, rather than unprotected flames, below decks was written into one of the few known remaining examples of a pirate code, on pain of severe punishment (article VI of Captain John Phillips's articles). The term used was "lanthorn", believed to be due to popular etymology, from the early use of horn windows.Lanterns may also be used for signaling, as torches, or as general light-sources outdoors. Low-light level varieties can function as decoration, and can be a variety of colours and sizes. The term "lantern" is also used more generically to mean a light source, or the enclosure for a light source. Examples are glass-pane enclosed street lights, or the housing for the top lamp and lens section of a lighthouse.
The term is commonly associated with Chinese paper lanterns.
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