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A Brief History of Lighting in The U.S.

This illustration shows some (but not all) common styles of Window & Door Woodwork (with cross sections of uprights shown beneath each upright).

You may recognize a woodwork treatment similar to yours, and if the age and style description sound right, certain lighting styles were originally installed that matched the architectural style. There were some eclectic crystal and leafy motifs that transcended the styles of the period, so don't feel compelled to match styles precisely, but use this only as a guide.

Federal 1700-1810: This is the style of most of our founding fathers' architecture, including many early public buildings, Colonial style homes and most plantations, and the style has undergone many revivals right up to modern home building. The original lighting consisted of real candle fixtures, candle chandeliers, candelabras, candle lanterns, various candle hurricane lamps and candlesticks, and toward 1800, oil lamps and whale oil lamps. Many of the fixtures were made of tin or iron, sometimes combined with wood, and looked primitive, while others were crafted in pewter, brass and silver, and looked elegant. These lights were hand made and led to the typical "Colonial Style" light fixture that we see so much of today, typified by "S" curved arms and a central hanging oversized ball shape.

There's been so much reproduction of Colonial fixtures, that unless you can find evidence of hand crafting and definite wax residue, you're probably dealing with a repro even though it still may be very old (but not older than 1880 if it was originally made for electric light bulbs).


b. Aesthetic Eastlake/Italianate Victorian 1860-1885: This style was named after an American furniture maker who used basic geometric designs, parallel groove carving, "spoon" carving (looks like leaves carved out of a flat surface by a sharpened spoon), and burled veneer highlights. The Italianate period in Victorian lighting and architecture used classic motifs such as urns, soldiers, knights, coats-of-arms, maidens in togas, hunters and all types of animals. Lighting included kerosene and oil fixtures and lamps, and gas lighting. The ceiling and wall fixtures were made of iron, spelter or "pot metal", brass, and "red brass" (more copper). Lamps were constructed of all those elements plus glass, bronze, marble, slate, granite and onyx, and many brass items were plated with nickel. Examples from this period are hard to come by, and you can generally count on outstanding metal work and styling, great heft and balance, and exceptional attention to detail.

Any electric wiring of these pieces would have been added (look for drilled holes that shouldn't be there - careless drilling seriously lowers the value).


c. Eastlake Victorian 1870-1900: Basically the same styling as above, Eastlake Victorian exemplifies simpler and lighter construction and design. This lighting consisted of kerosene and oil, gas, and combination gas & electric fixtures. Hanging or wall mounted kerosene fixtures were cast-iron or brass, while the gas and gas/electric combination fixtures were almost always made of brass. Some of the best intricately etched and cut glass shades were crafted for these fixtures and many used hanging crystal decoration.

Many farm homes and small town homes were built exhibiting the Eastlake style during this period, as well as many city dwellings. Look for gas pipes built into the walls (wall sconces were usually mounted at shoulder height) if you're in a city or a small town near a navigable river, indicating original gas lighting. Early wiring near the pipes indicate original gas/electric combination lighting. In rural Eastlake styled homes, a lack of gas pipes in the walls (even if it looks like electric wires were installed early) indicates that your original lighting was kerosene.


d. Victorian 1880-1915: Victorianna is commonly (and unjustly) thought of as an excess of curvy, lacy, embellished elements, making tedious dusting problems, and this may hold true for the light fixtures and lamps of the period. Certainly, some of the most graceful, elegant, beautifully detailed yet functional pieces ever created, were crafted in this period. Encompassing the sinewy lines of the Art Nouveau movement and the geometric balance of the Eastlake influence, Victorian styling remains popular, even in modern homes. This period covers kerosene and oil, gas, gas/electric combination, and electric lighting. Mostly made of brass, some examples of fixtures made of iron can be found.

Tip: The first gas fixtures were modeled after kerosene fixtures. The first electric fixtures were modeled after gas fixtures. No (or almost no) Victorian styled gas, or gas/electric combination, or electric fixtures hung from a chain. Look only for fixtures that connect all the way to the light source by tubing of some sort, if you want Victorian styling.

Gas was meant to burn upward (at about one candlelight), with or without a glass shade, with an open flame. In 1888 Wellsbach invented a way to burn gas downward through a mantel, increasing illumination greatly. Edison perfected his incandescent bulb in 1880, and builders around the country began installing wire in homes for lighting about 1900 even though it would be years before electricity would reach that location. Gas/electric combination lighting would continue to be installed in new homes until about 1920 because electricity would have outages of a month at a time, and gas provided alternative lighting.


e. Georgian Revival 1905-1930: This is actually an earlier style of architecture, but it had a widespread revival in the U.S. during this period. The Georgian style is important for lighting history because most of the fine quality "Art Glass" artisans developed lighting for this style. Quezel, Steuben, Tiffany, Handel, Pairpoint and others made wonderful glass for electric lighting and lamps, which became the models for lighting companies to emulate. Much of the "Art Deco" styled fixtures were developed from 1920 - 1930 as less expensive replacement electric lighting for the dangerous gas lighting. These were chain hung electric fixtures, sometimes illuminating with unshaded bulbs (they were the latest technology and they were so pretty!), but mostly with glass shaded bulbs.

Around 1915 the cloth covered stranded electric wire was perfected, allowing exposed wires to be strung through a chain, giving rise to a preponderance of chain hung light fixtures. Around 1920, word was out that gas lighting was inherently dangerous and too many homes were burning down, and homeowners should remove their gas lighting and give the safer new-fangled electric lights a chance, even though electricity was probably just a fad. Homeowners across the land heeded this advice, tossing their Victorian gas and gas/electric combination fixtures in favor of chain hung Deco fixtures. So today we have generations believing that their 1928 electric Deco fixture was original to their 1905 home because it was there even before they were born.


f. Arts & Crafts (Craftsman) 1905-1935: Frank Lloyd Wright began developing the Prairie School architecture in 1912, but he was pre-dated by about seven years by others developing the "Arts & Crafts" or "Craftsman" or "Mission" style. The style is typified by austerely straight lines forming squares and rectangles, with woodwork mostly in oak. Light fixtures were made for gas/electric combination and electric use, mostly in brass or iron, reflecting Mission styling with the use of square brass tubing and square glass shades. Stained glass table lamps were fashioned with square oak frames and square oak bases. Hammered iron and copper in basic shapes on heavy chains made up a class of "Craftsman" styled fixtures for this architectural style. This is one style where it is magically satisfying to match Arts & Crafts fixtures with Arts & Crafts settings.

Many of the "Art Glass" artisans also worked in the Arts & Crafts style, and it may be worth your time to search for exceptional designs in this style. Mission reproductions are being produced today, with masterful quality, at about the same price as restored antique fixtures.


NOTE: There are many notable architectural styles that I have not included in this history, mostly because of space. Ones that you should be aware of are: the English Tudor style and the Spanish style. Both of these make generous use of stucco elements, sometimes with archways instead of door woodwork, and many of the "Castle" looking light fixtures of the 1920s and 1930s and the earlier "Craftsman" fixtures seem to go well in this setting. These fixtures can be recognized by their hammered finish look and heavy iron feel. Heavy chains and heraldry embellishments are common for these electric chain hung fixtures. 
Guide to Lighting Dates

Candles: 1620-1850; Oil: 1780-1930; Kerosene: 1850-1930; Gas: 1820 (piped-1850)-1920; Gas/Electric Combination: 1880-1920; Electric: 1880-Present.