A.S. has a suggestive table lamp that was tested in the early 20th century by Underwriter Labs Inc., as we see on the label affixed to the top of the lamp. Those certification labels by U.L. have been around for a hundred years, so they are not helpful in dating the lamp. What is helpful is understanding the history of indoor lighting — and this lamp itself tells that story.
You'd think the end of that history naturally should be the triumph of the electric table lamp. But electricity brought to your desk at night was not the immediately acceptable course we assume today. For a period of about 20 years, the civilized world went back and forth between oil, gas, candles and electricity. If you are my age, your parents were the first generation to take indoor lighting for granted. Next time you turn on your table lamp, understand the true gift it is of the lit world.
Let's start at the beginning: 4500 B.C., when oil lamps were invented. Oil remained the staple of indoor lighting for the next 6,370 years. A Scot, in 1835, showed a gathering of citizens in Dundee his light bulb electric lighting system. In 1875, Henry Woodward patented the electric light bulb, and in 1880, Thomas Edison patented the carbon thread incandescent lamp. This could burn for only 40 hours. So indoor electric lighting is a recent invention. In 1926, the fluorescent lamp was invented; halogen in 1935; and LED filaments in 2008.
Prior to 1901, most indoor light sources could only spotlight a small circumference; a chandelier or sconce on the wall could only light a room so much. After sunset, you'd need a candle in a bracket or an oil lamp. In 1890, postcards of fashionable hotels show candleholders, oil lamps — no electric lighting. Surprisingly, these exposed flame devises had decorative silk or paper shades. The candle was made from tallow, smelly animal fat poured into forms, in lower-income homes. Nicer was the beeswax candle, but it didn't hold up in hot weather, as did the candles made from whale oil.
At about the same time as folks were lighting candles at night in the late 1890s, electric lighting was pioneered, and the modern paraffin wax candle was invented.
Thomas Edison is responsible for bringing the first electric lamp to a home, Craigside, in Newcastle, England. But worldwide, the candle and the gas line were responsible for interior lighting until after World War I.
The Illuminating Engineering Society's website states: "the competition between gas and electric lighting was fierce (at the turn of the 20th century) for 20 years it was not clear at the time what would become the dominant form of 'artificial light,' and the question of the most efficacious and economical source was far from settled." A battle, indeed, waged between the American Institute of Electrical Engineers and the American Gas Light Association. The two groups could not agree on a standard of luminous intensity.
If you were interested in electric lighting in 1905, you'd have to go to the "Central Station," the building with the steam-powered dynamos; the stations also owned the wiring, and sold the lighting appliance to their customers. No retail lighting existed.
In 1906, 25 men in the dueling lighting world dined together at New York's Hotel Astor for $1 per plate to hash out the future of lighting; undecided, they formed a society to publish technical details and discussions on all areas of lighting, which is still in existence today.
Electric lighting was never a "given." And since candles had been used for 5,000-plus years, even with electric lighting, users associated lighting with candles.
Hence, A.S.'s lamp is electric, but has six brackets for candles. The lamp also has a finial that supports a shade. The last thing A.S. should do is affix a shade and light to those six candles. The design of this lamp, made in the 1920s, shows a definite nostalgia for "antique" forms of lighting, not only in the reference to candles, but also in the shape of the baluster. The rounded middle is a reference to the bulging shape of oil lamps. The bronze material is another reference to old oil lamps of the past.
Many of these "referential" lamps exist today and are confusing to those of us who simply expect a base and a bulb with a cord. A.S. wonders "why candleholders?" Because most people dislike change, electricity was not inevitable. The value of this lamp is $100.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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