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Vintage lamps light up life
By Norma J. Walker

“Mere charm of appearance is not enough – good light is not enough. A lamp – a real lamp – must have both.”

That statement from a 1923 advertisement for Miller lamps makes clear the dual objectives of many early 20th century electric lamp manufacturers. Artistic shade and base design were important, but so was using electricity to give a desired lighting effect. Released from the limitations of kerosene and gas lamps with their fuel and flames, designers were free to explore new shapes and materials. Given that electricity provided brighter light and all of the light could be directed downward, a good design could offer much improved lighting for reading and sewing.

Around the turn of the century leaded stained glass lamps like those made by Louis Comfort Tiffany were popular, but expensive to make thus costly to purchase. Prices for Tiffany table lamps ran into the hundreds of dollars. Slag glass panel lamps, as they’re called today, with a few large pieces of glass fitted into a cast metal frame evolved as a way to create some of the effects of the leaded lamps without the high cost of labor and materials. That made them affordable for many more people. A 1925 Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog shows “metal table lamps” fitted with “art glass” at prices ranging from $6.90 to $19.

Today’s retail prices for slag glass table lamps range from about $500 to $1,500, depending on condition, style, size and purchase venue. Smaller examples called boudoir lamps, usually 14in or less in height, sell for less. Large, elaborate lamps in excellent condition can sell for more.

One of the many charms of these lamps is the great variety of base and shade overlay designs. The lamps’ production years overlapped several artistic movements including Art Nouveau with its intricate curvy lines and botanical themes, Arts and Crafts with its simpler forms and straighter lines, and Orientalism with its Middle Eastern flavor. The discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 sparked interest in all things Egyptian.

Lamp makers

Many manufacturers made this type of lamp. Often the lamps were not signed, but if they are marked, the maker’s name or mark is usually found cast into the metal on the underside of the base. Sometimes a mark is present on the metal edge of a shade or elsewhere on the base. Occasionally a surviving paper label is present. Miller and Bradley & Hubbard are two of the best known makers, in part because their marks are frequently seen.

Miller was established in 1844 in Meriden, Conn., as Joel Miller and Son. The company got its start in lighting manufacture by producing metal candleholders, and then moved into kerosene lamps, gas lighting, and electric lighting as times changed. The name of the company changed too, becoming Edward Miller & Co. for a time, then The Miller Co. A mark of Miller or E M & CO on the base indicates a Miller lamp.

Miller produced more expensive leaded glass lamps, but seized the opportunity to sell lighting for the middle classes as more and more homes were wired for electricity. The company sold lamps in bulk to utility companies in large cities who retailed them to their customers. A 1920 Philadelphia Electric Co. catalog shows lamps with prices from $12.50 to $60, depending on size. All the lamps are described as being “cast metal openwork” over “light amber art glass” and could be ordered in a variety of metal finishes including French brown, Grecian antique, Etruscan bronze and Florentine relief.

While lamps were made with glass in colors other than amber, or caramel as it is often called now, amber predominates. According to a lighting catalog from the period, “Amber is the color used in all [our] lamps. Amber has, by scientific tests been proven to be easiest on the eyes, and most restful when reading.”

Also located in Meriden, Conn., the Bradley & Hubbard Manufacturing Co. produced many slag glass lamps. Like Miller, this maker was already well-established in the lighting arena as a manufacturer of kerosene lamps when electricity came along. The company had its beginnings in the 1850s as a clock manufacturer. Bradley & Hubbard also made other metal goods like bookends, inkwells and spittoons. Marked slag glass lamps typically have a “genie” style oil lamp surrounded by a triangle and the words Bradley & Hubbard Mfg. Co. found somewhere on the base and the company name in uppercase text on the inner rim of a shade.

buy ambien without prescriptionOther period manufacturers of slag glass lamps include the Empire Lamp Mfg. Co. in Chicago, Pittsburgh Lamp, Brass, and Glass Co. in Pittsburgh, and H. E. Rainaud Co., in Meriden, Conn.

The Wall Street crash of 1929 gave birth to the Great Depression and people became more concerned with economic survival than buying pretty things. The market for dramatic, heavy lamps with glass shades faded and manufacturers responded with cheaper, lightweight lamps with paper or fabric shades. Slag glass lamps remain the embodiment of a time when the country was surging forward with a lightness of spirit and the bright promises of electricity for all.


re-creations and restorations

As with any decorative art object, an educated eye and a dose of common sense remain the best defense against reproductions, imitations, bad restorations and repairs, and married pieces.

Lamps are particularly vulnerable to marriages, unoriginal pairings of bases and shades, because of breakage and changing interior design preferences over the years, as well as the ease with which a switch is made. Some marriages make attractive combinations acceptable to those who only care about a visually appealing lamp, but they are undesirable to those who want a period lamp with a shade original to the base. To avoid a married piece look for eye-pleasing shade-to-base proportion, consistency of design elements on shade and base, and the same patina and signs of aging on the metal of the shade, cap, finial and base.

Replacement parts like cords, plugs, sockets and finials are readily available. Period lamps have often been rewired for safety. Some slag glass lamps were originally used with gas and have been converted to use electricity. Glass can be repaired or replaced, but a perfect color and texture match can be hard to get. If a lamp has some original panels and one or more replaced ones, a color difference between replacements and originals can be more distinct when the light is on.

Reproductions of shades and bases exist, together and separately, made by both large-scale manufacturers and individual artisans. To avoid a reproduction Nadja Maril, an antique lighting specialist and author of books on early lighting, advises looking for a detailed, well-defined design and patent dates on the socket assembly, along with a signature and metal patina. The metal used in slag glass lamps was typically not high quality bronze, but some cheaper alloy with a tendency to pit and discolor with age. Base and shade metal giving the overall impression of being shiny with a shallow or sloppy design suggests reproduction.

Another thing to look for when determining authenticity is dirt, not just loose dust but compacted old dust. Cleaning the glass panels under and close to the metal overlay is a difficult job, so grunge on a period shade is common.

Shades were usually cast in one whole piece or in identical pie-shaped sections joined together. Both methods resulted in design consistency from the top of the shade to the bottom. Some reproductions have a lower section of border glass panels that appear to have been constructed separately and then attached to an upper bent-panel section. Period shades typically have bent metal clips holding the glass in place; some cheap reproductions made in China use flat metal tabs attached with screws.

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