Good eye by Peggy Whiteneck

Discover Vintage America - JANUARY 2019

Lamps are useful collectibles; let there be light!

During the dark days of winter, we long for the light that is often in precious little supply even in daylight hours. Antique and collectible lamps, and candleholders of various types, keep the shadows at bay.

Fenton "pancake" lamp, so named for its flattened blown round base, this one made in French Opalescent Coin Dot glass. Fenton pancake lamps were made in a variety of colors and treatments, and most were electrified.



Antique and collectible lamps are popular not only among collectors but also among younger collectors who, as we've noted in recent Good Eye columns, tend to focus their purchases on functional items. Lamps with colorful glass shades and base parts have been especially popular, none more so than those made by Louis Comfort Tiffany from the 1890s to 1930s. These stained glass masterpieces are in high demand today, and on the few occasions when they come up for auction, they are enormously expensive (in the thousands of dollars).

Since Tiffany lamps are beyond most people's economic reach, they have been widely imitated for much less by other companies; some of those lamps are well made in their own right and can be a good way to get the look without breaking the bank. The lookalikes do, of course, beg the question of how to distinguish an authentic Tiffany. The lampshades on a genuine Tiffany are sometimes stamped Tiffany Studios New York. (Caution: items marked "Tiffany & Co." are not made by the same company!) Most genuine Tiffany lamps also have bronze bases.

Considering the cost even of most brand new lamps today, the only slightly more expensive and usually more beautiful Fenton Art Glass lamps can be a good alternative. Since Fenton had a particular fondness for Victorian light forms, not all Fenton lamps, e.g., the large "Gone with the Wind" lamps with round shades and bases, will be to modernist taste. But many of Fenton's smaller lamps, such as the "pancake" style, are modern enough in both shape and undecorated glass, to fit nicely into a modern décor. While Fenton made the glass for its lamps, it farmed out the metal bases and other hardware to other companies.

Old oil lamps shed a bit more light than a candle, but they can be smoky, and the glass chimneys must be frequently cleaned to eliminate the smoke deposits. Consequently, many of these have later been modified for electricity.

Elaborate crystal chandeliers with hanging teardrop pendants and icicles are sort of outré these days, but ceiling lamps were made by various companies, including Tiffany and Tiffany imitators. While some of the simpler examples of older overhead lighting can still be found on the secondary market, most people today prefer table and standing lamps for their room ambience, opting for a standard contemporary fixture for overhead lighting where needed.

Holders for Candles

Before there was electricity, there were oil lamps and wax candles – and the latter are still popular today as we still haven't figured out a way to ensure a stable power grid, especially in states that see a lot of snow and ice. One well-known classic shape has a round finger handle on the side; these were made in various metals, including brass, pewter, and silver, the oldest dating back to the 17th century. Candelabra to accommodate candles along several branches may be too fancy for modern households, but they do shed more light.

In the Victorian era before the advent of electricity, people used "fairy lamps" for hallway lighting in the 19th century version of the nightlight. This English invention was also made by Mount Washington Glass in America. Those most often seen on the secondary market today, however, were made by Fenton Art Glass and, once again, may be too Victorian for many young people though they remain popular with older collectors. As the saying goes, "Everything old is new again," so fairy lights seem destined to remain with us as a popular collectible and decorative accent.

Peggy Whiteneck is a writer, collector and dealer living in East Randolph, VT. If you would like to suggest a subject that she can address in her column, email her at