Collecting Antique Table Lamps

Antique lamps reflect technological advances, artistic movements, and social change. Learn which companies made lamps in various styles and what to look for before you buy.

When collecting lamps it's helpful to understand the timeline for both lighting technology and the artistic and social climate that influenced lighting design.

From colonial times to around 1850 candles were used for lighting in the United States. By the late 1700s primitive oil lamps that burned whale oil or lard were being used in addition to candles. When the kerosene oil lamp became available in the 1850s, it was quickly adopted as the new standard. Kerosene lamps were used well into the 1930s, especially in rural areas that didn't have widespread public gas and electric utilities. Meanwhile, in large cities, gas was being piped to light fixtures through walls and ceilings by the early 1800s; kerosene lamps were still being used for portable light. In the 1880s electricity emerged as a practical choice, after the 1879 invention of the first commercially successful light bulb.

Table lamps were intended for use as room lighting, not for task lighting like that supplied by a desk lamp or sewing lamp. From a stylistic standpoint, antique table lamps can be late Victorian (about 1880-1900), Art Nouveau or Arts and Crafts (both roughly 1895-1920). They can also be of no particular style or embrace elements of multiple styles.

During the late Victorian period homeowners were switching over from kerosene to electricity for lighting. Many table lamps from this period were designed to use kerosene, but were later converted for electricity. The classic Victorian lamp style is now called "Gone with the Wind," even though the type wasn't made until the 1880s, well after the Civil War. This kind of lamp usually has a short metal pedestal, a glass or metal base containing a font for holding kerosene, and a matching glass shade sitting atop the metal mechanism for controlling the wick. The shade surrounds a clear glass chimney, which protrudes from the top of the shade. Manufacturers of Victorian parlor lamps include The Pittsburgh Lamp, Brass, and Glass Company, Fenton, Fostoria, Handel, and Phoenix.

Electric Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts style lamps originated during the same time period but differed considerably in design. Art Nouveau is all about natural forms, with curved lines and textured surfaces. Think flowers, leaves, fruits, animals, and birds. Art Nouveau was largely a European movement and many stunning lamps from this period are by French makers such as Lalique, Gallé, and Daum Nancy. The Arts and Crafts style, less ornate than Art Nouveau, was primarily developed in the United States and the British Isles. Its emphasis was on hand-crafting with close attention to the natural beauty inherent in the materials used to make objects.

The most famous practitioner of the Art Nouveau style in the United States was Louis Comfort Tiffany. Tiffany and Company made elaborate stained glass lamp shades, often with floral motifs. Some Tiffany bronze lamp bases were sculpted to look like vines, tree roots, or lily pads. Other companies that made quality stained glass lamps during the early Twentieth century include Duffner & Kimberly, Bradley and Hubbard, Handel, Pairpoint, and Chicago Mosaic.

Tiffany experimented with many kinds of art glass and designed other lamps that were nothing like his familiar stained glass style. His patented favrile glass used in the shades was imitated by the likes of glass lamp shade makers Steuben, Quezal, and Durand.

The Arts and Crafts movement was typified by Frank Lloyd Wright with his Prairie School architecture and Gustav Stickley with his Mission style furniture. Both Stickley and Wright designed lamps that fit in with their other designs. Arts and Crafts lamps tend to have a solid, geometric look using smooth and straight lines. Bases might be wood, metal, or ceramic. Subdued color rules. A classic Arts and Crafts lamp is the type made by Dirk van Erp who used hammered copper for a base and thin sheets of translucent mica for his shades. Other famous creators of Arts and Crafts lamps were the Fulper pottery and the Roycroft community. Large lamp manufacturers like Bradley and Hubbard that made Art Nouveau styled lamps also designed lamps in the Arts and Crafts style.

Two other types of lamps associated with the 1900-1920 time period are reverse painted lamps and slag glass lamps. Reverse painted lamps feature a design, often a landscape, painted by hand on the inside of a glass shade blank. The paint was then fired into the glass. These lamps were made by Handel, Pairpoint, Moe Bridges, Jefferson, Pittsburgh and others. The Pairpoint "puffy" is a prized lamp of this type, with molded glass forming design elements like flowers that puff outward.

Slag glass lamps have shades with glass panels that fit into ribbed metal frames with various kinds of clips and slots. Sometimes the base also has glass panels. The shade often has a metal design overlaying part of the glass. The glass is frequently an amber or caramel color, but sometimes light blue, pink, yellow, or green. While Tiffany was selling expensive stained glass out of his New York studio, local gas and electric companies were buying slag glass lamps in bulk and reselling them to the middle class. Manufacturers associated with slag glass lamps include Empire Lamp & Brass Mfg. Co. and Edward Miller & Co., as well as Pittsburgh, Handel, and Bradley and Hubbard. Many slag glass lamps are not signed with a maker's mark.

Regardless of the style, manufacturer, or price range of an antique lamp, you can take the same approach when looking at a candidate for your collection. Keep your purpose in mind. Your standards might be different for a lamp you want to use for light, one that you intend to display without lighting, and one that you're selecting as an example of a particular type.

Examine a lamp in stages, reviewing its overall appearance, shade, base, and working parts. This methodical approach will keep your head involved in your decision to buy or not when your heart has already fallen in love with something that might not turn out to be such a good purchase.

First, look at the lamp overall and ask yourself some questions. Does it appeal to your eye in terms of proportion or does the shade seem too large or too small for the base? Does the lamp seem consistent in its design, with shade and base both having characteristics of the same historical period and the same design motif? Lamp shades and bases were often sold separately, but they should look as though they were meant to go together. Many "married" pieces are on the market with a pairing of base and shade that is not original. Sometimes one piece is much newer; sometimes both pieces are of the same period or even from the same manufacturer, but were never intended as a match. Does it look old? Many antique lamps have been reproduced or imitated, some as a revival of a style, some to be sold as reproductions, and some with the intent to deceive.

Next, look at the shade. If it is glass, check for breaks, cracks, replaced pieces of stained glass, or replaced slag glass panels. If it has a beaded or crystal fringe, check for completeness. If it has metal parts, look for breaks and repairs. Look for a manufacturer's name or mark. Inspect the base, using the same approach.

Finally, look at the works, the font and wick burning mechanism in a kerosene lamp or the wiring in an electric lamp. If you want an original condition lamp, this is important. Serious collectors will pay a premium for a lamp with all its original parts. If you plan to rewire the lamp to make it useable or safer, this doesn't matter as much. Silk-wrapped cord and round plugs indicate early wiring that has a better chance of being original to the lamp.

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