Prior to the invention of the electric light, most lighting was achieved using portable oil lamps and candles that lit a small area, but larger spaces needed to be lit by chandeliers and sconces that were mounted to the ceiling and walls. These fixtures could be fitted with multiple lamps or candles.
Around the middle of the 19th century (before the implementation of electricity), we began piping natural gas into buildings and homes. This gas was primarily used for heating, cooking and lighting. At that time, many candle chandeliers and sconces were replaced with modern gas-lit designs. The gas lighting fixture only continued for a few decades and was then quickly replaced by the electric fixture by the beginning of the 20th century. Many existing gas fixtures were converted to electric by passing wires through the gas lines and replacing the burners with sockets. Even today, virtually all lighting fixtures are made from the pipe and fittings that were originally intended for gas use.
It wasn’t until about 1915 that the concept of a ceiling fixture came into existence (candles couldn’t be close to the ceiling for obvious reasons). The first ones were simply a porcelain socket with a bare bulb (and this style is still made and used today), but over time people developed more decorative designs with diffusers of all sorts.
Old fixtures are easily rewired for modern use
Today, folks love to find and use old fixtures from the early days of lighting. Fortunately, virtually all old fixtures can easily be re-wired for safe use with modern bulbs. Fixtures in the mission or art deco styles are most sought after, especially if they come with their original glass or mica shades. Older Victorian styles still have some value but are going out of vogue, at least for now. Fixtures from the 1940s usually aren’t worth much, but futuristic-looking fixtures from the 50s and 60s are in very high demand. Most fixtures from the 70s onward have very little desirability, unless they have distinctively mid-century modern styling.
If you’re remodeling or moving, show a picture of your lighting fixtures to an antiques dealer before throwing them away. Good examples can sell for $1,000 or more. Most important is that you keep all mounting hardware when removing old fixtures. A missing original ceiling canopy can cut the value of a chandelier in half.
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