What Should The Shade Look Like On My Chandelier?

As with most antique specialties, there are questions that customers repeatedly ask. I deal in antique lighting fixtures primarily wall sconces and chandeliers many from before the turn of the century. Some questions I often hear are: What is the correct chandelier for the period of my house? What should the shade look like on my chandelier? How do I determine the quality of a glass shade? How big should my dining room chandelier be? I will answer all these questions in a series of articles on the Ruby Lane blog.

What should the shade look like on my chandelier?

Before the advent of electric light flame provided most of the household illumination, therefore glass was the preffered material for shades. In most cases, to identify which period or type of lamp is appropriate for a specific glass shade; lighting dealers will look at the size of the fitter. The fitter of a shade is the hole, lip, or rim of the shade that either is held by screws or rests in a cup or ring.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, all lighting was either whale oil or candle. During this period candle light tended not to have shades outside of clear hurricane style covers to keep the candle protected from drafts. Whale oil lighting such as Sunumbra, Solar, and Astral lamps often had decorative shades. Generally, they would have been fat at the bottom curving in and flared at the top. These shades would have been decorated with a variety of patterns cut into the glass. Clusters of grapes were ubiquitous as were vines. The fitter will typically be straight lips or holes and will measure 6”, 5 ½”, 4 ½”, or 3”.

Gas lighting arrives in the US around 1840 and, from the first, often had shades to diffuse the light, protect the flame from drafts, and add detail. Throughout the gas era gas candles also existed. These will be 4” tall white glass tubes covering the gas tube with the gas flame coming out the top to simulate a candle. Gas candles typically will not have shades although the candles themselves, as well as the bobesche beneath them, will sometimes carry decoration such as twists or layers of color.

The earliest gas shades 1840 to 1870 tended to be round with a 2 5/8” lip fitter in the bottom. These globes will have large hole in the top of various sizes. If the hole in the shade was 5 1/2”, it could be inverted and used on a whale oil lamp. Not all 2 5/8” gas shade were round there were half shades as well as an in and out shape we call a Turban. There were even straight-sided shades either vertical or slanted. The majority however were round.

In approximately 1870, gas shades underwent a radical transformation from the narrow 2 5/8” fitter to a 5” lip fitter. Many of these shade still had a rounded shape but were much shorter and with larger top holes. Today lighting dealers refer to these shades as “fishbowls.” Some designers gave fishbowl shades one-inch flair on the top edge. We call these “crown tops.” Bear in mind that these changes to the shades were not immediate or universal. There is much overlap in these styles but the general date still holds since by 1890 there were practically no 2 5/8” shades being made and few 5”. Fishbowl and crown top shade were also made with a 4” holder but we suspect these came later in production perhaps around 1880.

In addition, both 5” and 4” shade were used on kerosene lights at this time. Kerosene took over from whale oil in around 1860. Like whale oil, kerosene lamps found their way onto chandeliers and wall sconces. Incidentally, one feature I find interesting on kerosene chandeliers of the 1870’s and 1880’s is the inclusion of a detail somewhere on the arm of the fixture, which resembles a gas valve. Gas was more expensive than kerosene and this may have been a bit of verisimilitude to make the owners feel more affluent than they were.

Around 1880, the gas lighting industry settled on a 4” lip fitter as the standard and this size maintained until the end of the gas lighting era approximately 1920. By this time, glass shades begin to show up with much more complex shapes than the previous eras. Deep pleats and ruffles as well as shades with multiple planes and panels demonstrate the advancing abilities of glass manufacturers.

Late in the gas era, “inverted” gas lighting attempted to create the impression of down light. To do this the technical problems were many and, owing to the complications of providing both airflow and dealing with heat rising into the mechanism, inverted gaslights have a cumbersome appearance. Owing to their appearance, most inverted gas lighting found a home in warehouses and factories.
As soon as electric light bulbs arrived circa 1890, the absence of flame had a profound effect on the design of both shades and light fixtures. The first and most dramatic was the ability to point the light downwards. Not only that, but lights could point diagonally an option never before available in the history of lighting. Another of the many advantages electricity provided to lighting designers was that the shade surrounding the lights source could now be much smaller.

The first shades around light bulbs almost universally had 2 ¼” lip fitters and were narrow typically 4” in diameter. There soon followed 3 ¼”, 4 ¼”, 5”, 6” and larger closed globes to hide the light bulb. Whereas, lip fitters on gas shades merely reduced the chances of knocking the shade out of its holder, lip fitters on electric shades allowed the shade to hang upside down.

For the first twenty years of the advent of electric light, manufacturers who previously made gas lighting began to alter their lights to electricity. This adaptation lent the earliest electric chandeliers a decidedly gas lighting appearance. In addition, a limited amount of electricity required gas light as a backup. Much as today we can buy a combination VHS/DVD player, back then chandeliers and sconces combined gas and electric light on the same light. To accommodate this transitional technology shade manufacturers produced matching sets of shades in both gas and electric sizes.

Past the turn of the century, gas lighting is phasing out and electric lights began to take on an appearance of their own. Glass shades for these lights embraced this transition adding many new fitter sizes as well as shapes. Straight fitters in 1 5/8” or 2” show up surrounding electric candles in imitation of the now hundred-year-old styles of the early eighteen hundreds whale oil period.

Beyond the 1920 the proliferation of fitters settled down to a standard set of sizes many of which we retain today. However, in an effort to create their own unique look lighting designers will often have glass shades made for them outside the standard fitters. This is fine unless you break the glass.

When people call my shop, looking to replace a glass shade, I first ask them what size is the fitter. Then of course, I have to explain what a fitter is. Whether the light is brand new or from the nineteen thirties, when they tell me the size of the fitter I can tell them, with reasonable certainty, if they will be able to find any shade that will mount on their light or if they may as well toss the light out. Today I can walk through a lighting showroom and point out to you all the lights, which, given today’s rapidly changing styles, incorporate glass shades for which there will be no replacement in two years. Currently our greatest innovation appears to be planned obsolescence.

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