lighting and electrical

Illuminating the Past

Here's an enlightening look at the evolution of period lighting styles.


Click here to read sidebar, "Key Technological Developments in Lighting, 1880-1940"

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This late Victorian-style chandelier, the Macleay Park, has period-authentic gas-style fittings, ornate castings and a fluted brass body. All photos: courtesy of Rejuvenation, Inc.

By Bo Sulllivan

Period-appropriate lighting plays a key role in bringing wholeness and character to older homes. Yet many homeowners – even those who seek to respect the style and era of their houses – seem to select lighting more from their heart than from history. Can old-house lovers have their period-appropriate cake and their personal taste, too?

Most of us relate to our homes by their historical style – Queen Anne, Craftsman, Tudor. Since few period homes were pure expressions of a particular style, most inherently embody the qualities of one or more. That’s why style is a great place to start when working to restore the “soul” of an old house. However, the restoration process is often less about following the rules of a style than it is about being sympathetic to the emotional spirit (or romance) that makes any style more than a laundry list of dispassionate details.

Each of the period-style summaries that follow includes a handful of those dispassionate details, but each also includes a little historical context and a little romance, supplemented by a short list of qualities that try to capture the spirit or personality of that style. Focusing on the romantic spirit and key qualities of a style is a way to sidestep the “period perfection” trap, while still creating meaningful (and personal) connections that bring wholeness and “soulness” to a home.

Victorian Lighting, 1880-1910: The Romance of the Fanciful and Exotic
Style Qualities: Graceful, Picturesque, Artistic, Elaborate, Ornamental
Colonial Lighting, 1905-1940: The Romance of Colonial America
Style Qualities: Conservative, Refined, Elegant, Formal, Traditional
Arts and Crafts Lighting, 1900-1925: The Romance of Handcraft
Style Qualities: Natural, Bold, Rustic, Warm, Square
Classical Revival Lighting, 1895-1935: The Romance of Classical Antiquity
Style Qualities: Natural, Bold, Rustic, Warm, Square
Romance Revival Lighting, 1920-1940: The Romance of the Storied Past
Style Qualities: Semi-historical, European, Romantic, Wrought, Decorative
Modern Lighting, 1925-1960: The Romance of the Future
Style Qualities: Clean, Sleek, Futuristic, Abstract, Angular

Few Americans during the last decades of the 19th century considered themselves “Victorian” as we use the term today. Most imagined themselves liberal, forward-thinking and quintessentially “modern.” Eager to pursue the most current technologies and styles, Victorian-era homeowners embraced a freewheeling eclecticism that gave their architectural and decorative efforts an individuality, richness and material opulence that have rarely been seen since.

Victorian lighting was defined by the two leading trends of the day – technology and a taste for ornamentation. As the primary light sources were dim gas burners and carbon-filament bulbs, fixtures were often multi-arm affairs with numerous sockets or jets to maximize light output. Until about 1910, electricity was expensive and poorly distributed, so “combination” fixtures that used both gas and electricity were common. Most fixtures were turned on or off directly at the fixture and hung quite low relative to today’s standards.

Like the houses in which they hung, Victorian fixtures tended toward elaborate and graceful designs that aspired to be “artistic and beautiful” – the highest compliment of the day. Most utilized finely detailed decorative-glass shades that enhanced the light without obscuring it. Fixtures were constructed of polished brass or bronze, often finished in gilt, silver-plate or rich antiqued treatments. At the high end, the entire history of civilization served as design inspiration, and exotic influences appeared and disappeared rapidly. In more humble homes, fixtures were decorative without being overly ornate. Lighting styles of this era included Renaissance Revival, Romanesque (Medieval), Aesthetic/Anglo-Japanese, Empire, Exotic, Art Nouveau and Victorian Vernacular.

The John Day wall bracket, from Rejuvenation, features 1920s Colonial Revival detailing in its cast-brass arm, oval backplate and bell-shaped shade holder.

It wasn’t until after America’s 100th birthday in 1876 that the country gave its humble origins much thought, but once folks began looking back at their Revolutionary-era heritage with respect (rather than indifference), there followed a rediscovery known as the Colonial Revival.

Inspired by a romantic view of honest heroes and simpler times, early 20th-century Americans enthusiastically brought the best of Colonial-era architecture and design into their homes. While Colonial-inspired trends and décor have come and gone in the years since, the appeal of the era’s basic qualities – tradition, restraint and quiet charm – has not.

Fixtures (as well as houses) in the Colonial Revival style reflect the same admirable traits idealized in the character of the Founding Fathers: formal but not stuffy, elegant but not ostentatious and refined but not boring. Colonial Revival lighting also has a bit of a split personality. On the one hand, we find the elegant and sophisticated polished-brass or silver-plated fixtures enhanced by sparkling crystals and wheel-cut shades, while on the other are the rustic and “hand-forged” designs that celebrate wrought iron and the blacksmith’s hammer. Either way, frequent features include chains, dangling finials and sockets that evoke the memory of candles or oil-burning lamps of the earlier period.

Lighting styles of this era included Colonial Revival, Sheffield, Georgian/Adam and Late Colonial Revival.

Passionate champions of noble endeavor, Arts and Crafts reformers in late 19th-century England reacted against the Industrial Revolution and Victorian-era excess with a new vision of beautiful and useful objects crafted with pride, simplicity and integrity.

The Sherwood, a ca. 1915 Arts and Crafts wall bracket with a hand-blown art-glass shade, measures 6 ins. wide x 9 ins. tall and has a 7-in. projection.

Boosted by a little Yankee entrepreneurship, this vision blossomed in America around 1900. Here, the marriage of traditional handcraft with our love of nature and labor-saving devices resulted in powerful new forms – such as Mission furniture and the Craftsman bungalow – that uniquely represented our country’s character.

The primary legacy of the Arts and Crafts movement in lighting is that it brought together two rich and romantic materials – brass and opalescent art glass – in fresh and original ways. Opalescent art glass radiated the glowing warmth of hearth and home, while brass was easy to work and took finishes readily (popular ones included brushed, sanded and mottled brass or copper).

Best known of the Arts and Crafts lighting styles was Mission, which emerged about 1905 to become lighting’s equivalent of the bungalow – simple, honest, accessible and unpretentious. Defined by square forms and lack of ornamentation, Mission fixtures were found in homes of many different styles. More elaborate Arts and Crafts designs might include leaded mosaic glass work, unusual square-link chain or hand-hammered brass lanterns. Even the most basic and straightforward fixtures possessed a progressive and modern sensibility that challenged the Victorian and Colonial Revival status quo. Lighting styles of this era included Arts and Crafts and Old English, Mission and Craftsman.

Rejuvenation’s Ladd’s Addition is a Classical Revival-style bowl chandelier. The ca. 1922 fixture features elegant acanthus-leaf and garland accents.

The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago introduced many things to the American public, including Cracker Jack candy and the Ferris wheel, but perhaps it’s most lasting influence was on architecture. Constructed almost entirely in the Classical Revival (or Beaux Arts) style, the “White City” signaled the end of colorful and exotic buildings. Within just a few years, the artful, picturesque, asymmetrical designs of the Victorian era were being replaced by columns, capitals, coffers and pediments inspired by Greek and Roman architecture.

Classical Revival fixtures were heavy and substantial looking, projecting an aura of permanence and power. These fixtures, as well as the shades that adorn them, can usually be distinguished by boldly detailed Classical motifs such as egg and dart, ribbon and bay, acanthus leaf and Greek key. In addition, the introduction of the tungsten-filament light bulb around 1910 made more opaque forms of glass viable, and large indirect and semi-indirect bowl fixtures become popular in dining rooms and other large spaces. The brass and bronze parts found in Classical Revival fixtures are often solidly cast and meticulously detailed. Common finishes included polished and brushed brass, as well as the blue-green patina known as verde gris or verde antique.

Inspired by an original sold by Sears, Roebuck and Co. in the 1930s, the Glenwood Old English candle bracket is suited to Mediterranean-, English/Tudor- and Spanish-style homes.

Lighting styles of this era included Classical Revival, Beaux Arts, Baroque/Rococo and French/ Italian Renaissance.

World War I created both shocking horrors and powerful fascinations for an America just emerging as a global leader. Spurred on by the tales of returning soldiers, the profound influence of Hollywood movies and a new speed and ease of travel, Americans became freshly engaged with Europe and its storied history and culture. Fascination soon evolved into full-blown craze as the romance and novelty of the past spawned a rush of revivals across the country’s rapidly expanding urban and suburban landscapes. In lighting as in architecture, this was a designer’s dream come true. Manufacturers sought to capitalize on a thousand years of European history with rustic, ornamental and often fantastical fixtures that evoked Mediterranean villas, Norman castles, English cottages and Spanish haciendas. Materials were as diverse as historical inspiration, and fixtures in bronze, cast iron, wrought iron and white (or pot) metal strove to capture all the detail and drama they could. Fixtures were typically painted for artistic effect, often colorful polychrome treatments that featured green, blue and red highlights over a metallic lacquer base coat. New materials also characterized shades, which ex-plored the warmth and beauty of mica, parchment, silk and exotic glass treatments like decalomania or amber crackle.

Lighting styles of this era included Old English/ Tudor, Spanish/Mediterranean, European Revival and Storybook.

A popular Streamline fixture, the Dorena is a ca. 1941 “wall pocket” light. Light dramatically washes the upper wall while diffusing softly downward through a frosted-glass accent panel.

Introduced to the world at the influential 1925 Exposition des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes, the style known as Modernistic (“Art Deco” would not be coined until 1966) was a groundbreaking artistic movement that rejected historical precedent as a basis for art and design. Shocking and liberating, the style embraced a completely new, forward-looking aesthetic that was angular, flat, clean and organic. Inspired by industry and emblems of its power and advance – factories, skyscrapers, airplanes, steamships – Modernistic design swept the United States in the late 1920s and ’30s, gradually evolving into trends like Streamline Moderne, Machine Age and Mid-Century Modern.

At the vanguard of this artistic advance, lighting carried the torch. “Modern” materials like glass, porcelain, aluminum and Bakelite were molded into bold lines energized by speed or elaborate Art Deco motifs. Around 1930, a new tarnish-free finish known as chromium entered the market, along with a French-inspired type of lighting that featured distinctive “slip” or “slipper” shades that fit exclusively in a specific companion fixture. Another new fixture form emerged around 1935 that used a saucer-like shade that rested in a cup-like socket. During World War II, shortages of materials resulted in fixtures made almost entirely of glass. The 1950s saw a move into space-inspired fixtures that evoked rockets, satellites, star fields and UFOs.

Lighting styles of this era included Art Deco, Late Deco, Streamline/Moderne, Postwar and Mid-Century Modern.

Bo Sullivan is senior designer and historian at Rejuvenation, Inc., a leading manufacturer and retailer of period-authentic lighting and house parts in Portland, OR.

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