People have used lamps for thousands of years, from oil-filled clay to modern examples which exude style as well as light. Overcoming the darkness and having light at hand's length wasn't as easy to do as it might have seemed, and a look at how lamps and shades began sheds light on our domestic history as well.
Lights and Shades
Ancient lamps used oil made from animal fat, butter, olive oil and other natural fuels. These lamps (and candles) gave off some light, but they smelled or turned rancid (and smelled even more). The smoke turned the room into a foggy mess, and a spilled oil lamp could spread fire quickly. Candles were not much better, dripping hot wax onto floors, furniture and people.
Still, lamp designers kept trying new fuels and new styles in order to improve interior lighting. Lamps had mirrors added to reflect more light into the room. By 1763, the French used hanging lanterns or street lamps with polished metal to light the dangerous highways and byways of Paris.
A major change to lighting soon came from gas lamps, which were fed through gaslines laid around cities. Gas burned brighter than most fuels, but if the rooms were not well -ventilated and the flame went out, then the room's occupants could suffocate. Gaslights were not common in rural areas, so another type of lighting was needed, and that came in the mid-19th century, when kerosene became the fuel of choice for lighting.
The kerosene lamp was not really new, the design having been used with other fuels. The lamp had a central wick, a base which held the fuel and a chimney which kept the flame safe from drafts while still drawing oxygen. Kerosene itself burned brighter and with less smoke than other combustants, and the fuel became a staple, still used today.
The new lighting was harsher and brighter. The next step was the addition of a lamp shade to soften the light, and since the chimneys could get very hot, the shades were made of glass to prevent fires. Later, electric lights also required shades for ceiling, wall, floor and table lamps. Once shades became popular, companies began producing them in the millions, and today antique lamp shades are avidly sought after by collectors and designers.
Manufacturers and Styles
By the 1880s, lampshades were among the most prominent items in a home. Whether the shade was a plain, pressed glass or an elaborately pieced work of art, a shade turned up in every room.
Shades were shaped like flowers, shells, poufs of fabric, balls, cylinders - whatever the designer could imagine eventually turned up in a lampshade. The Art Nouveau period, with its emphasis on curves and the natural world, inspired perhaps the most famous lamp and shade company, Tiffany, to create shades which have brought more than $1 million at auction. But there were many other companies that made glass lampshades which are collectible and sometimes, extremely rare.
Duffner and Kimberly
Although this New York glass company was short-lived, during its few years in business their lamps and shades rivaled those of the more famous Tiffany company. Their designers included Gazo Foudji, a Japanese artist who trained in French art schools.
Duffner and Kimberly lamps were leaded or mosaic glass, where tiny pieces of colored glass were held in position by metal foil. Their designs included abstract and floral patterns, with rich red and gold colors. If you are interested in Duffner and Kimberly lamps, watch for the following:
- The lamps had a special locking mechanism to secure the sections.
- They were electric lamps, not kerosene. They came in table lamps, inverted hanging lamps and other styles.
- Sometimes, the shades or bases are signed; other times, there are no markings. So if you are unsure whether you have a Duffner and Kimberly shade and lamp, take it to an expert.
- Shades (with the lamp base) in excellent condition (no missing parts, no chipped or cracked glass) command $10,000 and up, depending upon the style.
- Buying a Duffner and Kimberly table lamp can be done through auctions, but don't buy unless the seller guarantees the lamp for what it is.
The Pairpoint Corporation produced lamps beginning in 1897. They were well known for their Pairpoint puffies lampshades with pushed out or "puffy" sections. The company received a patent for the process, which involved pouring molten glass into molds, and then polishing and painting the glass. These "reverse painted" shades required extreme skill to manufacture since the artist had to lay down the paint in reverse; the front of the rose was, in fact, facing away from the artist.
- Pairpoint shades were sometimes signed - and sometimes not. Today, the lamps are being reproduced, and the unwary could end up purchasing a Chinese example. A visit to the website Real or Repro can help you watch for fakes.
- Finding a puffy can mean checking out auction houses online. A recent sale at Chasen Antiques included a puffy which sold for nearly $12,000 (the originals sold for $20).
Like many lamp companies, Handel was producing glass shades in the early 1900s, along with Tiffany and Pairpoint. The Handel Company was famous for reverse painted shades. The shade was usually a conical shape, and the painting may have been a landscape, still life or floral scene. Handel shades were lovely, and more affordable than Tiffany examples.
- Handel artists signed most of the painted shades, so look carefully for a signature, or a brand name and style number.
- The Handel shades were not made by the company, but purchased as blanks and then painted.
- One of more interesting Handel styles was the "teroca" lamp, made with pieces of slag glass set into heavy metal "frames" or decorated with overlays. "Slag glass" was heavy, smooth glass, which sometimes had two colors mixed together, like orange and red.
- Handel lamps sell for between $1,000 and $5,000 (more if it is very rare example). Many other companies made "Handel style" lamps, both reverse painted and slag, so be very careful when purchasing a Handel.
- The widest selection of Handel lamps for sale on the Internet are at Handel Lamps, where you can find table and boudoir lamps, along with spectacular chandeliers.
In addition to the more famous companies above, glass lampshades were manufactured by other less remembered, or even forgotten, companies. Small factories in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia produced pressed, blown and hand-decorated glass shades by the score, and many examples can still be found in antiques shops and online.
Among the types of rare glass shades you may encounter are:
- Cranberry glass is made by added small amounts of gold to a batch of glass, which gives it the rich, pink/red color. When cranberry glass had polished, raised white dots added to its surface, it is called hobnail. Hanging lamps of this type were popular during the Victorian era, and are difficult to find with the original hardware. A complete lamp can cost more than $5,000.
- Quezal art glass was made by the Quezal Art Glass and Decorating Company in New York beginning in 1901. The lustrous glass often had threads of glass in contrasting colors pulled through the surface to form a feather shape on the surface. Quezal shades were often used in groups on a table lamp or chandelier. They were somewhat delicate, and today bring relatively high prices, from $200 and up, apiece.
- Peachblow glass was made by many companies and is very collectible. The glass came in many colors, from deep pink, to pink and yellow, to a blushing pale pink. The lampshades are very expensive when found, and a complete lamp rarely comes to market.
- Ball shades, while not a particular type of glass, deserve a mention for the popularity. They are often found on the "Gone with the Wind" lamps, and were made by many companies, including Fostoria. These lamps and shades were popular in the late 19th century, a generation after the Civil War. But because the film incorrectly used the lamps on the sets, the name stuck. Ball shades generally fit into a base, which had a non-removable ball or lamp bottom. It is very difficult to match top and bottom, so if you purchase a ball shade, make sure you have a base which works with it.
Shedding Light on the Past
If you do purchase rare glass shades, be careful to use only a very weak bulb, since modern bulbs can heat the lamp to the breaking point. Still, lampshades are lovely, and collecting them sheds a whole new light on the past.