Victorian Lamps

By Karen Parr-Moody


Fans of the 1939 classic "Gone with the Wind" will remember the scene in which Rhett Butler celebrates the birth of daughter Bonnie Blue by lighting a cigar. He stands in his dapper smoking jacket with Mammy, in one of the many rooms in the Atlanta mansion he bought for himself and Scarlett. True to their nouveau riche ascent, the Butlers have decorated this room with all of the pomp of Victorian finery — including the lamp on the nearby desk. But Frankly, my dear, this particular lamp — which would, after this film, be dubbed the "Gone with the Wind" lamp — wasn't created until the mid-to-late 1870s, while the scene depicted is just a few years after the Civil War ends. That's just one of the  many historic bloopers that surround this classic film. 


Another lamp-centric mistake in "Gone with the Wind" happens when a wounded Ashley Wilkes is brought back from the raid where Scarlett's husband, Mr. Kennedy, was killed. Melanie grabs a lamp and one can see an electrical cord hanging down from the lamp. It wasn’t until 1879 that Thomas Edison launched the first commercially successful electric lamp. In fact, the earliest "Gone with the Wind" lamps would have still operated with kerosene. And even with the advent of electricity, people in major cities adapted more quickly than those in rural areas, who kept kerosene lamps lingering in their parlors until the 1920s, when electricity became widespread. 


GasLamp currently has several of these classic “Gone with the Wind" lamps for sale, such as this beautiful green pair in the photo, left ($275; Booth W-415). Such a lamp was usually made of an ornate cast base and mid-section. It had a double shade structure, with a large, showy globe-shaped shade on top and a matching glass bottom that was usually a bit smaller. These glass pieces at the top and bottom could be plain, or might be hand painted, usually with floral motifs, and there was a glass chimney projecting through the upper globe. The globes also may have some sort of molded scene; the lamps shown here have pioneer-style wagons on either side, done in a tonal fashion so as not to compete with the painted design. At the time of this lamp's arrival on the Victorian scene, it was wildly popular. Manufactures made them in all sorts of shapes and colors, and out of various materials such as mica, horn and porcelain.


Like so many light fixtures of the Victorian era, the "Gone with the Wind" lamp was essentially an offshoot of the hurricane lamp. Also called chamber lamps, these oil lamps were initially created by Swiss physicist and chemist Francois-Pierre Aime Argand in 1783. Argand's lamp not only had a free-floating wick, it had a glass chimney that protected the flame that rose from the wick against drafts and wind. (Beyond what we think of as a specific "Gone with the Wind" lamp, a quick scan of that film's photos reveals that simple hurricane lamps are used in nearly every scene.) The hurricane lamp, for its time, was quite a world-changing innovation; it burned brighter and gave off less smoke than the other types of oil lamps of the era. Argand’s innovation ushered in the manufacture of all sorts of new oil lamps. 


The diminutive oil lamp in the photo, right, is an example of an oil-fueled hurricane lamp ($25; Booth W-415); the romantic scene printed on the front, along with the angels on the sides, are Victorian indeed. This would be handy to have around when one's power goes off, or for simply creating some ambiance in the room. 


Another lighting device of the Victorian era was the lovely French girandole, such as the one in the photo, left, which dates  to the 19th century (one of a pair, $409.95; Booth B-219). Girandoles first came into use in the second half of the 17th century and were essentially ornamental branched candlesticks used in luxurious French home decoration. Much later, they would be modified for electricity. A variety of materials were used in the making of girandoles, including hardwoods, gilded bronze, and silver. The girandole in the photo is set on white marble with original cut crystals. Most girandoles depict a historical story; the gilt brass portion of this one shows a pair of lovers, Paul and Virginia from Bernardine de Saint-Pierre's 1787 "Etude de la Nature."  





















The  gorgeous cranberry glass lamps in the photo, left, are certainly dazzlers.  The lamp on the left has a brass base and fittings, and crystal prism drops with a swirled shade. After 1905, Fenton reproduced lamps popular during the Victorian era, such as the one at right with the trademark ruffled edge and "coinspot" pattern. 


During the Victorian era, the public was obsessed with artificial illumination, desiring a light for every corner of their homes. Fortunately for collectors, manufacturers responded to the consumer demand for lamps, which were designed in a tremendous variety of shapes and styles. Over time, the candle and oil burning lamps of the Victorian era were replaced with electrified lamps, or they were retrofitted with electric parts. However, the glass chimney shade was left in the design, despite its no longer having a practical function. 


For collectors today who seek that little touch of elegance, a Victorian lamp is a beautiful illuminator of a pivotal time in history. 

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