Choosing a 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 in the Ruby Lane blog.
What it the correct chandelier for the period of my house?
When I work with museums, they often consider demographics.  In other words, what could the person who could afford the house have been able to afford in furnishings. 
For a houses built before manufacturers introduced gas lighting in 1840, if the homeowner could afford a chandelier, it would have been either whale oil or candle.  Some of the most common styles for lighting in this period are Georgian, Federal, and French Empire.
By 1840, gas begins to illuminate homes.  The very earliest style was predominately Rococo Revival.  This style, with its plump clusters of grapes and extravagant floral motifs, dominated gas lighting, and even whale oil lighting, until around 1860.
Circa 1860 two interesting things happened to gas lighting.  The first was the introduction of a style very different from the curvilinear Rococo.  It was a rectilinear style called Neo-Grec.  The other new feature was the introduction of White Metal as the construction material.  White metal defines a family of lead or zinc based alloys of which Pewter and Britannia metal are members.  Personally, I have always suspected the Civil War prompted this change in materials.  The North and South militaries melted down so many lighting fixtures to make armaments that there may have been a post war shortage of brass.  It is also possible that lighting manufacturers wanted to avoid the chance of this happening to their fixtures again.  White metal, being weaker than brass, required more metal for strength this necessity gave the lights a bulkier appearance. 
By 1880, brass returned along with new manufacturing techniques and a new style.  The eighteen eighties was an expansive and expressive time with new explorations around the globe and the introduction of Japan into the visual language of the time.  Designers employed kimono motifs, stylized renditions of vases filled with flowers, and Oriental porcelain into lighting fixtures.  Rose Medallion, Satsuma, cloisonné, as well as French porcelain from the town of Longwy that imitated cloisonné began to find their way onto all household accessories of the decade.  This exciting new style we call the Aesthetic Movement and many of the lighting fixtures of the period we call Anglo-Japanese.  An enlarging middle class also required increased mass production.  This mass production led to the use of details such bent ribbon and flat castings both of which were easier to reproduce than the ornately detailed castings of the previous eras.
1890 saw the dawn of the industrial age, which provide low cost consumer goods to sell the new middle class.  At the same time, inventors were exploring the uses of electricity to run mills and provide light.  Manufacturers of gas lighting began to adapt their lights to the new electric technology.  Hedging their bets, they introduced lights that combined gas and electric lighting on the same fixture.  This adaptation is much the way you can buy a combination VHS/DVD movie player today.  In addition, the combination lights retained gas lighting as a backup when the newer system failed or when the local mill got priority electric usage.
Even though Sears, through their mail order catalogs, continued to sell combinations gas and electric lighting well into the nineteen twenties to rural customers, by the turn of the twentieth century electric lighting was entrenched.  Lighting manufactures, no longer limited by the constraints of flame and the need for ventilation, heat dissipation, and upward pointing arms, began to explore designs never before possible.  A very innovative lighting company in Philadelphia named Caldwell started production in 1910.  The owner toured the world visiting museums and buildings, drawing design inspiration from a historic and worldwide perspective.  By 1910, there were a large number of lighting producers in this country.  Some were small local firms assembling lights from mass produced standardized parts while others, such as Caldwell, were pushing the envelope of design possibility and manufacturing techniques. 
By 1920, a homeowner could purchase lighting in an enormous array of designs from old New England style Georgian to exotic lights in the shapes of pagodas or hot air balloons.  Even though antique dealers think of the twenties and thirties as the era of Art Deco, deco was predominantly the style of the trendy. 
Much as it is today, the majority of homeowners back then went for styles that made them feel comfortable.  Personal style emerges from an emotional place.  For some people their style is the style they grew up with, for others the complete opposite, and for others a romanticized past from before they were born.  When a customer asks me, what is the correct light for the period of my house, I first ask them, are you making a museum or decorating a home.  
Nest month: What is the correct shade for my lighting fixture?

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