L.T. from Santa Barbara sent me these two – a matching pair – of paraffin oil lamps, dating to – what I suggest – may be 1880. I can date them, not by the technology alone, but by the style. The late 1800’s was a time of sentimental revivals of past eras, and in these lamps, we see a hint of the nostalgic French Revival style. The hand-painted ladies are fine French coiffured beauties that perhaps did NOT look like your average parlor maid in the 1880’s. In addition, the delicate expressions, demure and chaste, are a clue to how the late Victorians thought of female vulnerability.
We are also given a clue to interior decoration of the late 1800’s. Because these lamps are a pair, they were meant to be set together on a dressing table or vanity, and the latter location – the vanity – was a late 1800’s necessary and upper-class piece of a lady’s boudoir. This indicates that certain objects had a gender. And these lamps signify this interesting design quirk of the time.
French styles and designs were appropriate for women’s rooms and public rooms where women were present and actively participating, such as dining rooms and personal dressing rooms – as well as sewing rooms and lady’s parlors. Men had their own designs and styles for rooms most often containing men, like the smoking room, the billiards room, and the library. Masculine design was anything but French, and more often than not, in the 1880’s, Tudor or Renaissance Revival style furniture and fittings, which were bolder in line and heavier in shape. These lamps would never be in a man’s room.
The idea of gendered objects – if you think about it – makes no sense, but it is such a part of our past cultural heritage that we do not often think about it. I had nannies that, back in the 1980’s when my son was small, told me to get rid of Lock’s French design furniture for fear of his future masculinity. These ideas about gender and appropriate objects are still with us. Think of blue for boys and pink for girls.
Also, indicative of these lamp’s age is the circular burner and the circular wick. The burner – you can still see it – had three prongs to support a glass chimney or hurricane to guard the wick that held the flame. The lighting fluid in the lamp baluster itself was paraffin. Before the use of paraffin, lighting was achieved with kerosene, which was smelly and sooty, as kerosene was derived from coal oil.
These lamps tell the story of quite a momentous invention in the world of lighting – the circular burner, invented in the early 1800’s by Frenchman Aime Argand. His first lamps are today usually one central shaft that holds kerosene with two arms branching from that shaft that hold two light sources. Early lighting collectors call this shape Argant Lamps.
L.T.’s lamps are not of this shape – so we think of them as later and more common paraffin oil lamps, yet the history of oil lamps involves many types of oil – animal fat (especially whale), olive oil, coal oil, then, at last, paraffin.
Since ancient times, people had been attempting to extend daylight hours. In fact, the day we homo-sapiens rubbed together two stones to create light was the beginning of civilization. From those beginnings, we learned that oil would extend the life of a flame and used animal fat and olive oil to light our torches. In fact, the word “lamp” derives from the Greek word “lampas” which means torch. A hand-held light is still called a “torch” if you are British.
The first containers for this oil were bow-shaped with a spout that help a wick, made of clay or terracotta. In later antiquity, lamps became important and were made in important materials like bronze, stone and alabaster.
L.T.’s pair of 1880’s oil lamps (converted to electricity, which was done often, and sometimes poorly, botching the porcelain of the baluster from a crude drill hole for the cord) is not worth as much as you might have assumed having read their storied history. Current taste does not welcome sweet sentimental views of simpering young beauties, and therefore at auction these lamps would perhaps only fetch $400 the pair, or less.
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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