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( Originally Published 1963 )
Many of the fairy lamps were delightful confections of exquisite coloring and decoration. Later in the nineteenth century fairy lamps became gaudy combinations of colored glass. A good many reproduced animal or bird heads-owl, pussycat, dog, etc. These are probably scarcer today than simpler forms.
Miniature lamps made in this country after 1870 often copied the larger lamps used about the house. These miniatures, bigger than most fairy lamps, were commonly made of satin, Amberina, and other kinds of art glass, clear and colored pressed glass, and opaque and decorated types such as the Mary Gregory. Some also were made in the shape of animals (the owl was a favorite), street lights, even a schoolhouse (the building held the oil; the wick and chimney were attached to the roof). Novelty miniatures were popular in the 1890's.
However, miniature lamps were only a by-product of the wider use of lamps to illuminate a house. As fuel became more plentiful and less costly, larger and larger lamps were made. Ornament increased too, so much so that an Argus or lacy Peacock Feather pressed glass lamp seems the height of simplicity. Many lamps of the late nineteenth century are much too gaudy and overornamented for present-day taste.
One example is the parlor lamp without which no home was complete during the 1880's and 1890's. This type, also now called a Gone-with-theWind lamp, consisted of a large globular base and matching globular shade of the same size. These were made of glass and china, singly or together, and usually were painted or otherwise heavily ornamented. Some charming examples are to be found. A white china lamp of Dresden or Meissen type with decoration of small raised and painted pastel blossoms is delightful, but many parlor lamps were pretty awful. More common than the Meissen type-and more widely reproduced -is the style with bold floral painting on the base and shade.
The glass prisms or drops that had long been hung from candlesticks were also used with both glass and metal lamps. Their purpose in both cases was to increase the illusion, if not the actual amount, of light. Prisms were not generally used with pressed glass oil lamps. However, they were hung from solar, astral, and Argand lamps, as well as from parlor and other decorative styles.
Lusters, a specific type of glittering fixture hung with prisms, were popular throughout the Victorian era. They were made of glass, with a round base, a tall hollow stem, and a cuplike top from which the prisms were suspended. By inserting a metal candleholder, a luster could be used for illumination. Without this holder, a luster might hold fresh flowers. Lusters, which were used in pairs on the mantel usually, were highly decorative. Various kinds of glass, including colors and overlay, were favored and the holders themselves often were enameled or gilded. The prisms were cut glass. They probably were made in greater quantity in England and Europe than in this country, but they were displayed in many homes here. Nowadays lusters often are converted to electricity.
Also prism-hung were girandoles. At one time the term girandole meant a branched and ornamented lightholder for candles or lamps, but today generally refers to a three-piece set for the mantel. The girandole or mantel garniture consisted of a candelabrum, usually three-branched, plus two single holders to stand on either side. The fixtures were likely to be made of brass or perhaps bronze, and to have marble or alabaster bases. Prisms for all three pieces were cut in whatever manner was currently stylish.
In short, the Victorians loved their prisms. Most of their prism lamps can be converted to electricity without damage; in fact, prisms were combined with the early (around 1900) electrically lighted lamps and chandeliers. One particularly nice example of a Victorian prism lamp, first made to burn oil, has an etched or frosted glass chimney or shade, a glass base, and prisms hanging from the cup around the burner. Like candlesticks, prism lamps usually were made in pairs.
The various art glasses so plentiful in the 1880's and 1890's are responsible for a mixed legacy of exquisite lamps and shades and many horrors. With natural gas and electricity beginning to compete with kerosene in the 1890's, small glass shades were commonly made for wall lights and large shades for center lights or chandeliers.
A tremendous number of lampshades can be found among the various kinds of art glass. The iridescent Tiffany glass with its glowing colors, perhaps the finest of all the art glass made in this country, was used for lamps with matching shades as well as for shades for lighting fixtures. The first Tiffany lamps burned kerosene, but after 1900 both lamps and shades of Tiffany glass were made for illumination by gas and electricity. Between 1900 and the 1920's, a good many shades in various sizes were made of carnival or Quezal glass, both of which are sometimes referred to as "imitation Tiffany."
The demand for satin glass also has increased. This lovely art glass with the mat finish was used not only for miniature and fairy lamps but also to some extent for standard ones, as well as for shades on lamps of other materials. So were Amberina, Peachblow, Burmese, mercury, and probably other kinds of art glass. A Crown Milano oil lamp in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, is a lovely thing, for this glass has a mat finish that makes the glass look like fine white porcelain.
Few pressed glass oil lamps are found with shades, yet this part of a lamp was borrowed and adapted from candlesticks. The first glass shades were tall cylinders slipped over candlesticks, to rest on the table or other surface beneath and shield the light from drafts. Similar shades for whale oil lamps were made in New England as early as 1820.
Lamp chimneys, however, were not an adaptation of hurricane shades. In the 1780's, Aime Argand, a Swiss, invented the central draft burner that so greatly improved illumination from oil lamps, and one of his workmen is credited by some sources with having accidentally discovered the glass lamp chimney. It is said that the workman held a bottle too near the flame of a lamp with the result that the bottom came out, and since the bottle had become too hot to hold, the workman let it slide down over the flame. Not only did the bottle not break but also the flame seemed to become steadier and brighter. Thereafter chimneys were used on all lamps. They were seldom decorated, although the top edge might be crimped or beaded.
Astral and solar lamps were variations of the Argand lamp burner, the latter patented in 1787. They were popular at least through the 1870's. Early ones burned whale oil, later ones kerosene. All three types were combinations of a metal and glass and were equipped with chimneys. After 1830, shades of cut and colored glass were made in this country for Argand lamps. The solar and astral lamps were likely to have etched, or engraved, or cut glass shades.
Oddly enough, kerosene, which became plentiful for illumination after 1860, made shades as common as chimneys for lamps. The kerosene flame was so much brighter than that from the fuels used previously that globe shades were considered a necessity to reduce the brilliance. Still, lamps with globe shades were hung with prisms. Since shades became even more desirable with the advent of natural gas and electricity, a great many different kinds were made between 1860 and 1900. With each decade, more shades were produced in plain and fancy colored glass and, finally, art glass.
The large globular shades were most popular until the 1880's, when metal lamps required a flaring glass shade. However, some shades were shaped like enlargements of chimneys, others like vases. Etching, engraving, frosting, and cutting decorated shades of clear and colored glass. After 1890 many shades, including the flaring ones, were handpainted in floral designs.
In the 1880's kerosene lamps with metal bases appeared in two styles that retain their appeal today. One was the student lamp; the other was a metal lamp known as a Rayo, which was vase-shaped with a globular or almost elliptical font supported by a filigreed or plain metal base. Its burner was confined by a glass chimney, and the flaring or circular glass shade was supported on three metal arms. The amount of light could be adjusted by means of one or more knobs (depending on the number of wicks) below the chimney. Shades were white glass with a yellow or green outer surface that was sometimes fluted.
These Rayo lamps were brass. A good many, however, were brass covered with nickel. The silver-colored nickel can be stripped off, if you prefer a brass lamp. A few antique dealers and lamp collectors specialize in this job.
If you find one of these Rayo lamps with a shade, you can tell whether the shade was made in the nineteenth century or just a few years ago. The test is no more than rubbing your finger along the bottom edge of the shade. Glass shades made in the nineteenth century feel smooth, but this century's reproductions are invariably rough to the touch, however perfect the copies are in other respects.
Student lamps that burned kerosene were made from about 1875 until after 1900. They can be converted to electricity, but most of them will not give as bright a light as when kerosene was the fuel, since only a bulb of the size used for Christmas tree lights will fit. Perhaps they were called student lamps because their round wicks gave such a soft, even light. Currently, the style has become popular again, and a modern electric version is now being made.
The basis of the old student lamp was a metal standard with a simple base. The standard supported one or two burners on arms, which could be adjusted at different heights, and an oil font, which was attached to the stand so that it was higher than the burners. The chimneys were narrower, taller, and straighter glass cylinders than the chimneys for other types of oil lamps. Sometimes a brass reflector shade was fastened to the standard by a slender arm so that it rested a little above the burner. Or the shade might be a porcelain one.
All parts of a student lamp except the chimney and perhaps the shade were made of metal. Certainly the brass ones are the most beautiful. One owner of a two-armed nineteenth-century student lamp has had the burners removed but the brass oil fonts left in place; she uses the hollow spaces for cut flowers. When this oil lamp was purchased in northern New York State in the 1930's, it had its original etched glass chimneys. The burners and chimneys can be put back in place at any time, and so the lamp still can be used for illumination in the old style.
Metal lamps, the majority of glass lamps, and some china ones are most readily converted to electricity without damaging the originals. Units or adapters come in two different styles, either of which can be fastened to the neck of the lamp. One has three metal arms to support the shade and a metal rack onto which the chimney fits after it is slipped over the light bulb. The other type holds upright an oval metal ring on which a shade is dropped and secured with a finial; no chimney is needed.
Even if no boring of holes for electric wiring is involved, it is advisable to have any lamp-conversion done by a skilled workman in either a glass or electrical shop. Such shops stock adapters, and it is a comparatively inexpensive job to have an old whale oil or kerosene burner removed and a suitable adapter put in place.