Let’s start out with a question that many people think they know the answer to: Who invented the lightbulb, and when? If your answer was Thomas Edison around 1880, then you’re off by a country mile. The first lightbulb was invented in England in 1809, long before Edison’s birth, and Edison purchased the patent for the bulb that he later improved to be commercially viable. It then took another 25 years for the lightbulb to make it into portable lamps for residential use.
Early electric lamps are usually art nouveau
The first electric table and floor lamps were mostly oil or kerosene lamps that their owners had converted by their electricians. It wasn’t until the second decade of the 20th century that manufacturers began designing and making fixtures specifically intended for electric operation. Thus, the oldest electric lamps will usually be art nouveau in style with their distinctive leaded or molded glass shades and elaborate bases with classical design motifs. Because electric lamps didn’t require complicated burners, fonts and hurricane shades, the sky was the limit material- and design-wise, so as time passed lamps took on many different forms.
The value of converted lamps
As for value, converted lamps tend to be worth roughly what their unconverted equivalents are worth. There are exceptions of course, but most of these lamps are declining in desirability, and consequently, value. Most are worth $300 or less. The first lamps designed for electric operation tend to be worth the most. There’s Tiffany, of course, at the top of the heap, and the very best of these lamps can be worth over a million dollars, but also look for signatures like Pairpoint, Handel, Jefferson, Pittsburgh, Miller, Bradley & Hubbard and Moe Bridges. Many of these lamps can be worth $1,000 or more.
Lamps made from the 1920s onward were usually made by drilling holes for sockets and wires into vases, ginger jars and figurines. These lamps are usually only worth a fraction of what the base would have been worth had it not been drilled, even if the drilling was factory-done.
Beginning in the 1950s, creative designers started producing innovative, modernistic fixtures that celebrate the beauty of well-controlled light. Today the best of those modern designs can bring as much, if not more, than any of their older counterparts.
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