Antique lighting for your period home

Struggle to find the right antique lighting for your old house?

You’re not alone! If you’re like me, you want lighting that’s practical yet faithful to your house’s history. I’ve discussed the lengths you can go to restoring your home in a previous blog post.

I developed a passion for antique lighting when I moved into my house. You can’t beat an old gas light converted to electricity or an early electric fitting for quality and adding period character.

However, I went a bit crazy with this passion, as this huge Art Nouveau ‘gasolier’ in my former dining room shows (it was a bargain, promise!).

Antique Edwardian Art Nouveau chandelier in my former dining room

As a result, I made many mistakes during this early spending spree and many of these fittings have since been sold on.

Getting the right type of antique lighting style for your home is dependent on its location, status and age as well as the period you’re trying to replicate.

So here’s what I’ve learnt.

Oil vs gas vs electric

Like the VHS vs Betamax video recorder battle of the early 1980s, gas and electric lighting competed to take over from oil light in the early 1900s home.

Gas lighting was ahead in urban working and middle-class homes thanks to the invention of coin-operated gas meters.  

In contrast, the upper classes felt gas was ‘common’ so continued with oil and candle lighting until they installed electricity.

Gas lighting was also a rare feature in rural homes as gas works were based in towns and cities.

OIl lights in a 1950s rural interior showing fireplace and Victorian furniture.
Oil lights in a 1950s rural interior

Although Edwardian builders often constructed middle-class houses with electricity, British householders only fully embraced electricity from the 1930s.

Less is more

The Victorians would’ve been dazzled by the light in our homes today as the average gas light or early light bulb was equivalent to a 10-watt bulb, which you can’t even buy now!

Victorians sat directly under a light source when they read or sewed, hence gas lights being positioned next to a parlour fireplace or above a kitchen table as shown below.

Victorian kitchen showing gas light lamp over table.

So don’t be tempted to fill each corner with period-style fittings like a pub!

Above all, people of yesteryear supplemented gas or early electric lighting with oil lamps – a nice extra touch in your drawing room or kitchen.

Antique lighting – status is everything

Some gas lights were elaborate and took on the fashions of the time to appeal to the middle-class market.

For instance, this 1913 Veritas Gas Light Catalogue shows the huge range of lights available in the early 20th century.

1913 Edwardian Veritas gas light lamp catalogue

However, gas lighting in the working-class home was simple as this slum interior photo shows.

Victorian slum interior showing gas light lamps above the fireplace

Upstairs, downstairs

Most urban housing had gas lighting by 1900 but householders used it sparingly due to cost.

People opted for candles or oil lamps to walk to bed, reducing the need for gas lighting upstairs. Above all, the Victorians were suspicious about the health impact of gas so often avoided in bedrooms.

However, I was lucky enough to find traces of old gas light pipes in my bedrooms. Each room had one fitting off-centre above the fireplace and I’ve placed antique gas lights in these original positions for show.

Victorian gas light lamp fitting scar on plastered wall

Furthermore, this old photo shows that bedroom gas lights were also positioned next to windows to replicate natural light.

Victorian bedroom showing gas light lamp in the window. Linoleum flooring and fireplace is also shown.

Up or down antique lighting

Downlit gas lights were only widely available after 1905 so true Victorian gas lights were upright (take note museum curators and set designers!).

Downlit swan-neck fittings like this one in my kitchen were particularly popular. Manufacturers made air vents from ceramic, brass or tin, and later produced chrome-plated versions from the 1920s.

Antique lighting - Edwardian 1905 swan neck gas light lamp

One of the earliest and most widely available upright gas burners was a ‘batwing’ as in my third bedroom. It let off a flat gas jet of blue light.

Antique lighting - Victorian upright gas light lamp with batwing burner

Upright incandescent burners from the 1890s gave out a brighter and cleaner light. For example, I have installed an electric converted version in my parlour.

Antique lighting - Victorian upright incandescent burner on gas light lamp

The Victorian and Edwardians updated their homes as new technologies became available like we do now. But they often converted their old upright fittings to reduce costs.

For example, I have installed a downlight converter on an upright fitting in my main bedroom.

Antique lighting - Victorian upright gas light lamp with downlight convertor

Keep it low

Above all, the Victorians positioned gas lights much lower than modern lights as they were less powerful.

For instance, it was recommended mantle lights be installed at five foot from the floor, whereas hall and bathroom fittings set at six foot.

Low fittings above your fireplace are less of a safety risk, but low central fittings could be dangerous unless you have a table beneath.

Leave them be!

Don’t be afraid to use unconverted gas lights for decoration and supplement them with discreet modern fittings as I have in my bedrooms. Unfortunately, these rooms originally only had one gas light, so not very practical for modern life!

Antique lighting – summing up

Above all, there are many unconverted gas lights or unsafe old electric fittings available on online auction sites which can be rewired but make sure you get a professional to convert them!

However, we found that gas fittings are not easy to convert as connecting parts need to be drilled out. We used exposed gold wiring for fittings with awkward angles as shown here.

Converted antique gas light wiring

An easier but more expensive alternative is to buy ready-converted fittings from a reputable antique light dealer such as Jones Antique Lighting.

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