Soft Lights, Early Nights

Soft Lights, Early Nights
Vintage Kerosene Lamps

In the period 1880 to 1900 the full potential of the three basic energy systems for domestic lighting was finally realised. Oddly, an efficient method for using gas and oil lighting took hold just as electricity was being accepted and moving toward its ultimate triumph. The patenting of the impregnated silk mantel by Baron von Welsbach in 1885 enabled gas, kerosene and petrol lamps to compete with the electric filament lamp of 1879. In 1900, von Welsbach contributed to electric lighting with his Osmium Gluhlampe, the original of the Osram light.

Compare the light given by a single candle; a single, double or round wick kerosene lamp and a fishtail gas jet; with the bright white light of the incandescent mantle. For households beyond the gas and electricity lines, the kerosene and petrol mantle lamps, along with ordinary kerosene lamps and candles, remained the only lighting devices.  It was not uncommon for houses even in the suburbs to use gas, kerosene and candle lighting – certainly houses in the country used kerosene for the main rooms and candles for other places.

KEROSENE LAMPS:  From catalogues it can be seen that manufacturers supplied a range of kerosene lamps for different needs in each room of the house. Portable hand lamps were ideal for carrying from room to room, small nursery lamps were placed in the children’s bedrooms and as a comfort for the sick and infirm. Plain table and wall lamps were considered utilitarian and could be found in the kitchen, bedrooms, hallway and anywhere else a reasonable light might be needed. These were usually of the glass fount type with cast-iron base from Britain or Europe, or the nickel central draught variety from the United States.

The best rooms in any house were lit with the ornate creations of lamp factories vying for a share of a very competitive market. With machinery and mass production there was virtually no end to the possible variations and to the richness of ornamentation. In America the Rochester central draught burner patent of 1886 was applied to all kinds of lamps, in particular to parlour, banquet and library lamps. These all used the removable fount principle and had “vases” of decorated glass, porcelain or cast metal. Some were remarkably opulent with central columns of glass or cut stone. Perhaps the best loved of all were the hanging library lamps with pressed and rolled brass framework and fittings, a number of circles of lustres or prisms and 14 inch dome shade and vase to carry the fount in gloriously decorated glass. With their patent extension fittings they could be raised and lowered for efficiency of operation.

Kerosene mantle lamps, such as the Aladdin first introduced in 1908, were a boon to many households. From that time onwards there were the incandescent pressure lamps running on kerosene or petroleum. Famous names such as Coleman and Primus are with us still.

Victorian Gas Chandelier

GAS LIGHTING:  From the middle 19th century Australian cities have had gasworks and huge gasometers to store and pressurise the gas. At first gas was mainly used in street lighting and for shop windows and interiors. Public buildings were also early users of gaslight and then in time it became accepted for houses. More expensive and more “modern” houses from the 1860s into the new century were fitted out entirely with gas, other humbler abodes often survived with a few strategic fittings and otherwise relied on candles and lamps. By 1900 gaslighting was the predominant mode in urban areas, but was soon to be challenged by the growing use of electricity.

Wall mounted gas lamp

The gaslight fittings we prize today are the ornate Victorian gasoliers, the decorated wall brackets, the stained glass hall lamps and the later art nouveau fittings with their beautiful “art glass” shades. Gas and oil lamps both have the disadvantage of using up oxygen and creating carbon dioxide and carbon deposits. Along with smoke from wood and coal fires, such deposits darkened paintwork and wallpaper as well as damaging paintings and fabrics. Those who have lived with gaslights recall the flattering softness it gave to everything and the ease of operation, compared with oil lamps.

ELECTRIC LIGHTS:  The first decorative electric light fittings were very much after the style of the later gaslights and employed virtually the same “art glass” shades. The globes could be hung or set vertically, or projected outward at an angle like a drooping flower, an effect deliberately enhanced by the flower-shaped shades and at times foliage-like metalwork of the fittings. Modern houses in the Edwardian era might have a number of delightful electroliers, carrying up to six lights with tear-drop, egg or frilly flower shades. The two-light electrolier would be decorative enough for the best room with single pendants or wall brackets placed through the house. For utilitarian areas such as the kitchen or lesser bedrooms there would be the familiar white glass or enamelled metal shade with the rose and counterweight system being used where adjustment in height was needed.

Victorian Electric Table Lamp

Desk lamps using electricity often had their own particular character with shades like sea-shells in brass.  The Tiffany lamp in leaded glass has long been prized by discerning collectors. Even the standard fluted brass column used for oil lamps was quickly adapted and given a large flounced silk shade.

In the two decades between the wars electric light fittings sought to emulate candles in sconces, “olde worlde” lanterns and a host of other borrowed images. By the thirties they had gained individual character through the use of modern design principles referred to generally as art deco.

With more efficient lighting people have tended to stay up later; the era of soft lights and early nights was a reality for earlier generations.

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