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( Originally Published 1963 )
There is at least one exception to the craze for converting old lamps to electricity: On Block Island is a man who own three early whale oil lamps and who is determined not to electrify them. In 1962 he succeeded in obtaining sperm oil, considered, in the days when whale oil was burned, to give the best light; his most difficult problem has been locating burners and satisfactory wicks. Fortunately, he depends on electricity for illumination and wants to use the whale oil lamps for "atmosphere and interest."
At the other extreme are the people who make lamps out of almost any socalled "antique"-drums, salt boxes, and other farfetched objects that never had anything to do with the illumination of a house. There is, however, a precedent for wagon-wheel chandeliers, for they or something similar were often hung from chains in the common room of a tavern, with candles affixed to the rim. Stoneware jars and jugs sometimes can be converted into electric lamps without damage. But an antique china vase or a cut glass vase of the Brilliant Period through which a hole has been bored for electric wiring is damaged and, therefore, less valuable.
Furthermore, many of the china, earthenware, and cut glass lamps of the nineteenth century that burned oil can be converted to electricity-in most cases without harm. Glass oil lamps are not scarce, but pressed glass ones in certain patterns have considerable value and sell for premium prices. Even the plain glass, standard lamps made to burn kerosene as late as the turn of the century will have some value before the twentieth century ends, in addition to their present convenience when a severe storm causes a failure of electric power. There is always a market for a metal lamp in good condition, particularly a brass one, even though good copies of the two chief kerosene-burning styles are currently being manufactured.
Portable or table lamps, regardless of material, do not have to beg for buyers. They seem to sell with or without chimneys and shades, and whether or not they have been converted to electricity. It certainly is not necessary to go to the trouble and expense of having an oil lamp changed so that it can illuminate by means of electricity. In certain cases, such as a brass student lamp, one that has been converted skillfully can be sold for more money to most people. On the other hand, some buyers would prefer to have the original student lamp untouched. This is particularly true of those who collect nineteenth-century lamps.
Certain kinds of lamps can be sold for higher prices to collectors than to the average person. This applies especially to fairy and miniature lamps, colored glass and cut glass ones, and such oddities as peg lamps and lanterns made for various special purposes. Certain patterns of pressed glass also will be of more interest to collectors and hence probably can be sold to them for a higher price than to the person who is shopping only for an attractive lamp.
Since a peg lamp does not lend itself to electricity, it is likely to be of interest only to a collector or a museum. At that, a peg will not bring a high price. A metal one to be attached to a wooden block sells now in the neighborhood of about $7, a glass peg lamp probably for a little more if it is complete and in good condition.
Pressed glass lamps, whether they originally burned whale oil or kerosene, have a market value ranging from a low of $Z to about $100. A squat pressed glass lamp without pattern decoration can be purchased almost anywhere for about $Z (with oil burner but possibly no wick and undoubtedly without a chimney). Pattern glass lamps vary in price, chiefly according to the pattern and collectors' interest in it. In rural areas, the selling price is bound to be less than in a city antique shop.
If the lamp itself is in good condition, one in the early Ashburton pattern might bring $15, a Beaded Tulip or a Block and Fan about $6.50. A lamp in the popular Bellflower pattern can be sold for as much as $25, a bracket lamp in the same pattern for a little less. Blackberry, another one of the most popular patterns among pressed glass collectors, also brings a good price. A Blackberry lamp with a milk glass base and clear glass font should bring at least $25. Daisy and Button, a late pattern, which is still very popular but which was made in quantity after 1880, is not as rare as Bellflower and Blackberry. A clear glass lamp in Daisy and Button may not sell for more than $5, but a colored glass one commands a higher price-$10 or so for an amber or blue one, perhaps $15 or a little more for an apple-green one.
A footed lamp in the early Argus pattern should sell for not less than $15, and one with a colored base should bring somewhat more.
The colored and art glass oil lamps and those with fine decoration such as cutting, etching, or overlay start at higher prices than the majority of pattern glass lamps. A nineteenth-century cranberry glass lamp-and many were made in the late years, in numerous different styles-in the right market will have a selling price that starts at not less than $30. The price can rise according to the condition, style, the other materials used, and the workmanship. A hanging lamp with cranberry glass panels in a brass frame may sell for as much as $50; if it is etched or otherwise decorated, for considerably more. A portable or table lamp with cranberry glass font may be priced fairly between $30 and $35. Any lamp that can be certified as having been made by the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company brings a premium price. For example, one of their lamps with an apple-green font and an alabaster base, made to burn whale oil, is worth about $150. A similar lamp not necessarily made by the Boston and Sandwich Glass Company is not worth as much, but still can be sold for a good price. For instance, a lamp of unidentified origin with a clear glass base and blue font is certainly well priced at about $25.
Before asking such a price for a lamp that can't be used for illumination after dark in its present state, it is important to be absolutely certain that it is a nineteenth-century one. Not many of the pressed glass patterns are being reproduced, although hobnail glass is used for shades of many contemporary reproductions of lamps. A good many modern electric table lamps are being made currently with glass fonts in the popular cranberry, blue, and amber glass. Some of these lamps have pseudomilk glass or alabaster bases, too. Electrified reproductions of various styles of metal lamps also are being made.
On the other hand, some genuine latenineteenth-century lamps are appraised at a value that is far higher than the price for which they can be sold. A cut glass lamp with prisms, for example, if it was made between 1876 and 1900 (the Brilliant Period), can be valued at $100 or more. Few people are willing to pay that much for cut glass now when there are so many attractive pressed glass lamps to be had. Tiffany glass lamps are another example, for they probably cost much more originally than they can be sold for today. Because of the great interest in and increasing demand for satin glass today, it may be possible to sell a lamp with a satin glass shade for closer to its appraised value. A large hall lamp with pastel satin glass shade and brass frame might be priced reasonably at $100 to $125, if it is in perfect condition. It probably also will be possible to sell the odd-shaped shade of satin or other art glass that was made for a newel-post lamp in the hall, although goodness knows what the buyer will do with it.
Authentic globular parlor lamps sell for $35 to $75. China lamps, even the Meissen type with raised floral decoration, range from about $35 to as much as $100. First, however, you must find an interested buyer.
Prices for both fairy and miniature lamps have skyrocketed, more or less, in recent years because collectors have shown so much enthusiasm. A complete one in good condition is almost certain to sell for at least $10. Many appealing ones can be sold for $15 to $20. Unusual and rare ones may bring considerably higher prices, well over $100 and in some cases close to $200.
A pewter whale oil lamp made before 1850 may be sold for $20 to $25. The Rayco lamps of the late 1800's sell for $5 to $10. A nickel-plated one without a shade is hardly like to sell for more than $ 5 to $7.50, though a brass one without shade may perhaps bring $10. Student lamps have more than doubled in price since the 1930's. A single-arm brass one complete with shade is likely to sell now for as much as $50 to $75; a double-arm one with its shades intact, and electrified, may bring as much as $150.
Lanterns not only do not begin to bring the prices that lamps do, but sell a little more slowly. Find a collectors' market and you can get rid of any sort, from a small brass oil one from an early automobile (perhaps $20 or a little more) to a carriage lantern ($15 and up, or slightly more than double for a matched pair). A Baltimore and Ohio Railroad lantern with handle should sell for not less than $5, possibly a little more. The pierced tin lantern appeals to many people, so even if it's rusty try to sell it. One in reasonably good condition should sell for about $10; the so-called Paul Revere style for a little more, possibly as much as $17.50.
It's not unusual to come across a part of a nineteenth-century lamp and not recognize what it is. For example, a blue glass bowl about the shape and size of an oriole's nest puzzled the person who found it, along with a couple of smooth-edged glass lampshades of the nineteenth century, in the corner of a Pennsylvania cellar. Finally, it proved to be part of a hanging lantern from which the metal candle socket had been removed or lost. Originally, it had been hung with brass chains. A smoke bell is almost as difficult to recognize if it's found by itself. So, too, would be the tiny pewter shade on the burner of a small and very old glass and pewter oil lamp.
Shades alone are valuable finds, and if they cannot be used on lamps in your home, are sure to be salable. Shades for ceiling lights, table lamps, and wall or bracket lamps are likely to be unearthed in cellars and attics, for they were made in greater quantity than lamps as the use of natural gas and electricity spread. When such shades have been cleaned or washed gently, they may prove to be things of beauty, in color if not entirely so in form. A Burmese glass lampshade with a 2-inch opening at the top flaring to 6 inches is worth any amount from $24 to $50 that you can get for it. A small Tiffany glass shade made for a gas lamp can be appraised for $25 and sold to a knowledgeable collector for that price too.
Large shades consisting of pieces of colored glass fitted together with lead seams to form a strong pattern or design were popular for table and piano lamps as well as ceiling lights during the early 1900's. Although these are not yet more than semiantiques, some interest is being shown in them again. So far, this interest is chiefly on the part of decorators. However, whether a decorator uses this type of shade in a department store window, a model room, or a stage setting, it's bound to recall them to the average person's mind and spark some small revival of interest. A large lead and glass shade for a ceiling fixture has some small cash value at present, but as the market grows for these late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century shades, so too will the prices that can be obtained for them.
Few families, if any, will have stored away anywhere a gas-burning street light. Baltimore was the first city in the United States to install gas fixtures along some of its streets-in 1817. Philadelphia did so in 1835, and still maintains gaslights around Independence Square. All gaslights, starting with those that illuminated the streets of Baltimore and Philadelphia, became a collector's item in 1957 when some with authentic old Welsbach burners were offered for public sale by a New York City department store. They were snapped up quickly to light driveways and entrances of homes in the suburbs. Although at their peak, about 1915, gaslights illuminated the streets of many cities from coast to coast, it is believed that a larger number now are installed in America's suburbs.
Authentic replicas with the white dome, the cast-iron pole, and the crossbar against which the lamplighter rested his ladder- every evening are being made in several places. The contemporary ones burn either gas or electricity (gas illuminates with a soft radiance and without glare) and may even have an electronic control to dim the light at dawn and turn it up at dusk. These reproductions sell for worthwhile prices, so it goes without saying that a gaslight that actually gave service along the street of any city or town can be sold for somewhat more.
In these days, streets and highways are well-lighted and indoor illumination is planned carefully not only to avoid eyestrain during any activity after dark but also to create decorative effects. It is hard to imagine getting along with a tiny, smelly lamp that burns some kind of fat. The development of lamps and lighting fixtures has been phenomenal during the last 200 years, yet many people enjoy the old styles adapted to the modern flood of electric light.