Antique Lamps and Lighting

August 24th, 2010 by

A treatise on American antique lighting and lamp fixtures should begin with a history of lighting methods. Here’s a backward look at lighting in the U.S. divided into roughly four chapters:

  • Electrical wiring has been a standard part of building design since about 1920.
  • Between 1880 and 1920, modern homes and buildings were typically wired for a combination of electricity and gas—Gas lines in the walls of a house fed the lamp fixtures, and electrical wiring wound along the pipes. Both options were usually made available, since in the early years of electricity, power sources would often fail for months at a time.
  • Because Edison perfected the incandescent bulb in 1880, lamps wired for electricity don’t date before that time. Prior to the gas/electric combination, modern buildings created between 1820 and 1880 were lit by piped gas.
  • Before 1820, kerosene and oil antique lamps were the norm, complimented by candles, the earliest and simplest form of American lighting.

Knowing the lighting options available during a historical period, we can better understand how these options influenced the style and design of that period’s antique floor lamps, hanging lamps and antique chandeliers. The most beautiful and collectable American antique lamps can usually be associated with the following five periods/styles:

Arts and Crafts, 1905-1935: Frank Lloyd Wright is a name often associated with this period, though Arts and Crafts or “mission” style fixtures pre-date him by several years. This style is characterized by square glass shades, square oak lamp bases, and square oak frames. The parallel dowling seen on mission-style furniture is often reflected in lamps through the use of brass or copper tubes. Arts and crafts lamp designs are simple, geometric, humble, and functional.

Georgian Revival, 1905-1930: The word “Georgian” refers to an earlier form of English architecture, but it’s used here because Georgian furniture styles—including lamps and lighting– were making a comeback at this time.

This is an important epoch for antique lamp collectors, since the period gave rise to the Art Deco styles, crystal chandeliers, and “art glass” perfected by famous companies like Tiffany, Handel, and Stuben. Beginning around 1915, wires could be enclosed in safe cloth covering, which allowed them to be strung through a chain. This allowed electric antique lamps to be hung from above for the first time. Gas-electric combination fixtures gave way to chain-hung electric fixtures in large numbers during this era.

Victorian, 1880-1915: The Victorian period, possibly the most beautiful period in the history of antique lighting fixtures, documents the elegant transformation from kerosene and oil, to gas-electric combinations, to fully electric pieces. Victorian pieces are distinguished by curving brass shapes with intricate embellishments and detailing.

When searching for authentic Victorian pieces, make note:  These antique light fixtures were not hung from chains, and they were often designed to connect to the fuel/lighting source by tubing, not wires.

Eastlake Victorian, 1870-1900: Table and wall lamps from this period were fueled by kerosene, oil and gas. Also sometimes called “Italianate”, these pieces are characterized by their classical motifs—women in togas, urns, coats of arms, and animals. The functional parts of these lamps are usually made of iron or brass, and the detailing often includes slate, cut glass, or marble. Lamps of this era were not wired for electricity, and were usually designed to accompany Eastlake-style farmhouse furniture. (Envision heavy, veneered wood carved in parallel grooves).

Federal, 1700-1810: The most elegant and collectible pewter, brass, and silver pieces from this period were designed to hold candles (earlier) and whale oil (later, around 1800.) Colonial/founding-father-style candle lanterns, candelabras and candle chandeliers are very popular today. If you’re looking for authentic pieces, check for wax residue and evidence of hand crafting. And be aware that genuine fixtures from this era, though beautiful, are quite rare.

By Erin Sweeney