Old And Sold Antiques Auction & Marketplace

Please Select Search Type:
Antiques Digest Browse Auctions Appraisal Home

Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Antique Lamps And Lighting Fixtures - Part 1

[Lamps And Lighting - Part 1]  [Lamps And Lighting - Part 2]  [Lamps And Lighting - Part 3] 

( Originally Published 1963 )

Only during the earliest, most primitive days of a community was light from the hearth fire considered sufficient illumination indoors after dark. If candles were in good supply, a household would have all sorts of candleholders from wall sconces to chambersticks. If some kind of oil was available, then one or more lamps would be in sight. After all, lamps had been known in this country since the earliest Colonial days, but the first ones were so inefficient that candles were preferred when they were obtainable.

A lamp in its crudest form consists of a vessel to hold oil and a wick. By 1800, a lamp consisted of an oil font, possibly on a standard, a wick and a burner, a chimney, and possibly a reflector. Hanging lamps had smoke bells just under the ceiling, to protect it. After 1860, shades became common for all kinds of lamps.

Experiments in Europe and America, after 1750, helped to improve the lamp, and when whale oil became plentiful in the early 1800's, lamps became as common as candles. Actually, lamps have been used for interior lighting for almost as many centuries as candles, yet only since about 1860 have they generally replaced candles. The nineteenth century also saw lamps being made in as many diverse forms as candleholders. Hanging lamps, bracket lamps, chandeliers, and probably girandoles, too, were made to illuminate either by candles or oil, as were lanterns for outdoor as well as indoor use. Most oil-burning lamps were of modest size and portable, designed to be set on a table, chest, or bureau.

Portable lamps, particularly those made and used from the early 1800's on, generally are as adaptable to present-day use as are mirrors and picture frames. Almost all styles of lamps used during the nineteenth century, regardless of the fuel they burned originally, can be converted to electricity.

Some styles of the late-Victorian lamps are still being manufactured, but mostly to illuminate by means of electricity (a few are still made for kerosene). However, lamps made between 1850 and 1900 are not scarce, and a surprising number of people prefer them to reproductions. They may be dusty and lack chimneys, but this is not a serious drawback because chimneys are being made now to fit the old lamps. So are glass shades.

Anyone who finds a peg lamp nowadays has a rarity. This was a lamp made to burn whale oil, and it fit into the socket of a candlestick. The round globe that held the oil had a metal burner at the top. A projecting end or round "peg" of glass on the bottom of the font permitted it to be placed securely in a candlestick. Some peg lamps were made of tin and were hooked into a block of wood. Peg lamps were quite common in the early 1800's, but have been lost track of in the multitude of oil-burning lamps made after 1850.

Like candlesticks, lamps were made of many materials-metals such as pewter, britannia, brass, tin, and cast iron; pottery, china, and all kinds of glass. Glass and metal lamps were made in greatest quantity, if availability today is any clue.

Lanterns also were made of all available metals, and occasionally even of wood, and burned either candles or the oil in use at the time. A lantern differed from a lamp by being entirely enclosed so that its light was protected from wind, rain, or drafts. Small ones were 'made to be carried out-of-doors and also could be hung up on a nail or a peg for a fixed light. Handsome, large ones of brass, pewter, or sometimes copper or bronze were made to hang in entrance halls, an English custom that was brought to this country in the late 1700's. Well-to-do families illuminated their halls and some rooms with more than one hanging lantern. Several styles can be seen hanging in the buildings at Colonial Williamsburg. The lantern itself, seldom less than 18 inches long, hung from the ceiling by means of chains. It had glass panels, sometimes richly colored; both clear and colored glass occasionally were etched or engraved instead of plain.

Simpler than the indoor lantern with a metal frame was the type that consisted of a glass dome suspended from brass chains, with a smoke bell above to prevent the ceiling from being darkcried. This was about the same size as other indoor lanterns. In the 1700's, when hanging lanterns first became fashionable, they were fitted with candles; now candle-type electric bulbs are substituted.

Lanterns made to light specific places (ships, taverns, railroad and Pullman coaches, for example), as well as those for carriages and the early automobile and miner's lamps, are of special interest to collectors. And don't throw away a policeman's lantern or any farm lantern you may happen to find. Some of these lanterns are almost as old as lamps and originally held candles. Incidentally, many lanterns for special purposes were made to fit into brackets or holders (the miner's lamp could be fixed to his cap).

Ship lanterns were even more varied than those used on trains. Starboard and port lights with heavy, hinged tops that could be turned back to insert candles are easier to find than those used in other parts of a vessel. Some were copper, some were glass cylinders; others, combinations of metal and glass in odd shapes. Because such countless numbers of boats plied the many rivers in states from Connecticut and New York to California during the nineteenth century, the chance of finding an old ship's lantern is greater than most people realize.

Railroad lanterns included styles that illuminated the exterior and also the interior of trains, as well as those used by conductors. The conductor's lantern was similar to those still in use today, but many of the old ones had the initials of the railroad ground into the glass. Some of the first railroad lanterns burned whale oil. Both these and ship lanterns often had reflectors.

By far the greatest number of lanterns was made to be carried by watchmen at night and by individuals when they went out after dark. Many of these are much older than railroad lanterns. A triangular tin lantern probably was older than the one commonly, but incorrectly, called a Paul Revere lantern. This type was not made until fifty years or so after Paul Revere's famous ride. Still, it was one of the most individual of American-made lanterns. The metal cylinder of tin or iron had a pointed top and pierced sides.

Square, octagonal, or hexagonal lanterns with glass sides gave a great deal more light. They were carried by means of metal bails or leather handles. Some were quite elaborate, many of them no more than functional. They had sockets to hold from one to several candles. Mica instead of glass panes were not uncommon in purely utilitarian lanterns in the early years of the twentieth century and horn was used in some very early lanterns.

Lamps and many lanterns made early in the nineteenth century burned whale oil. In fact, whale oil was not immediately displaced by camphene, introduced between 1830 and 1840, or by kerosene about 1860. However, because of its availability, abundance, and its perfection as a fuel for illumination, kerosene eventually replaced other fuel oils and also was a factor in bringing lamps into general use. Almost as influential were the experiments with wicks and burners that enabled lamps to give brighter light. (Double wicks had been tried even before 1800.) Camphene, an explosive fuel, necessitated a longer burner than whale oil. Actually each fuel required its own special kind of wick and burner for satisfactory illumination, but these fixtures on a lamp could be changed to suit whatever kind of oil was available.

Glass lamps with burners and chimneys and, later, shades were made continually after 1800. Early in the century, lamps were made of blown and blown-molded glass. Etched, frosted, and cut glass lamps were not uncommon. The invention of pressed glass about 1825 reduced the price and increased the number and diversity of lamps. The famous Boston and Sandwich Glass Company is given much credit for popularizing glass lamps. It made small ones and large ones, hand lamps with handles-and standard lamps with bases and fonts of various shapes. One was appropriately called a "squat" lamp. Often several techniques were combined in the making and decoration of a single glass lamp. Some of the whale oil lamps made by the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company had cut glass bases and fonts and frosted glass shades. One oil lamp of the 1850's with a colored glass font was a combination of free-blown, cut, and pressed glass.

Pressed glass lamps were made in many patterns, most of them clear glass, some of them colored. Peacock Feather, an early and quite lacy pattern, and Harp, a pattern of the 1850's, included squat lamps with handles. The early, simple Argus pattern boasted two styles: a footed lamp and another with a 4-inch colored base. Table or standard lamps, between 73/4 and 81/2 inches high, appeared in many patterns, from Block with Thumbprint (first made circa 1840) to Actress (in the 1880's).

Glassmakers everywhere seemed to delight in finding different shapes for the oil fonts. In addition to round, oval, octagonal, square, waisted, and flaring fonts, other favorite variations were urn and pear shapes. Lamps with colored glass fonts were produced in innumerable combinations and variations. The font might be simple cranberry glass, an overlay colored glass with etched or faceted decoration, or two colors with one cut out in designs to show the other color beneath. Blue, amethyst, apple-green and rich deep green, reds, and shades of amber were the popular colors.

The base under a colored glass lamp could be opaque white glass, cut glass, or marble. The fittings were metal, and sometimes there was a metal standard or shaft between a marble base and a cut glass font.

Miniature lamps, which were turned out in great diversity, were made in some of the pressed glass patterns. They were widely used as night lights and in sick rooms and nurseries. These small replicas are also-and quite logically-believed to have been used as courting or "sparking" lamps. They held only a small supply of fuel and, presumably, when this was exhausted it was time for the suitor to leave. Some miniature lamps certainly were salesmen's samples, for many of them were reproductions of the parlor lamps so popular in the 1880's and 1890's.

These little lamps ranged from 4 1/2 to 8 inches tail. They burned kerosene and consequently were made in greatest quantity after 1870. One earlier style of clear and colored pressed glass was called "acorn," not for the pattern of that name but because of the shape of the lamp. The base, often covered with hobnails, resembled a deep sauce dish. Into this fitted a dome of ribbed or swirled glass with a hole in the top. This style was patented by the famous Hobbs firm in Wheeling, West Virginia.

Fairy lamps, first made in the 1840's, burned candles and consisted of two parts similar to those of the acorn lamp. The name "Fairy Light" was patented by an English firm that manufactured candles. Rival firms soon were producing fairy lamps, but the most valuable ones today are those with the fairy trademark of George and Samuel Clarke, the originators. Fairy lamps were miniatures, of course. They were made of delicate blown glass, clear and colored pressed glass, and all kinds of art glass. All the types of glass for which England, France, and the United States have become famous were used to make bases and shades. A certain number had glass shades and metal bases.

Bookmark and Share