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!).
As a result, I made many mistakes during this early spending spree. I have now sold many of these fittings.
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.
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 over a parlour fireplace or above a kitchen table as shown below.
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.
However, gas lighting in the working-class home was simple as this slum interior shows.
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, Victorians had suspicions about the health impact of gas so often avoided gas lighting 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.
Furthermore, Victorian house builders often installed bedroom gas lights next to windows to replicate natural light, as this photo shows.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Keep it low
Above all, the Victorians positioned gas lights much lower than modern lights as they were less powerful.
For instance, a Victorian book on house building recommends mantle lights were installed at five foot from the floor, and 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, I found that gas fittings are not easy to convert as connecting parts need to be drilled out. I used exposed gold wiring for fittings with awkward angles as shown here.
An easier but more expensive alternative is to buy ready-converted fittings from a reputable antique light dealer such as Jones Antique Lighting.