08 Jan Lighting Up Our Old House
When Jill and I bought our Victorian house in January 2000, it had been abandoned for a year after having been owned by a notorious fraternity for 10 riotous years. The house was wrecked and everything of value had been stolen from it. There were no light fixtures in the house, just bare bulbs — if that — dangling from the ceilings. We have spent a decade bringing the house back. Finding lights has been one of the most enjoyable tasks.
The first thing we noticed was that a good, era-appropriate ceiling light can transform a room. In fact, even an empty room will look more or less finished if it has a killer light fixture. We got our first batch of vintage lights from a guy named George, who owned a tiny antique light shop in Fells Point. His shop was like a museum. We dropped $1000. that afternoon, which was a whole lot of money for us at the time, but we brought home seven cool, old lights. Most of them we still have. George’s shop, by the way, is long gone.
This week, Jill and I completed our lighting upgrades, which is to say that we’re nearly done with lights (though I know that we’re never really done in this old house). We’re big fans of something called “early electric,” light fixtures made from 1890-1920. Keep in mind that, up until that time, people knew only gas or oil lighting — or candles (poor folk had candles and oil, rich folk had gas). That’s one reason why most early electric lights didn’t put off much illumination.
But the fixtures were gorgeous — most were luxury items. Also, many of the early models showed off the light bulbs. That’s right: folks back then thought the naked light bulb was super cool and high tech, so they tried to show them off. You see that effect in old theater marquees.
Other designs featured costly “art glass” shades, which nowadays will run you from $100-1000. each. Jill and I have found some at auctions to fit our early electric fixtures. Another thing you’ll notice in these lights is their similarity to gas fixtures, which only makes sense. At the time there were also fixtures that combined gas and electric because nobody was sure that electricity would catch on. That sounds outrageous to us now but, remember, nobody had anything to plug into electrical outlets. In the first two decades, people used electricity only for lights and fans. The electric iron didn’t catch on until the 1930s. Electric washing machines didn’t catch on until the 1940s and so on. That’s why the electrical panels in old houses is so small and have to be replaced.
Nearly all of the light fixtures we buy need repair. But light fixture repair is one of the easiest DIY jobs you can attempt. To make a light work, you only have to attach two wires to two screws at the light end, and then the same at the plug end. Jill and I have collected lots of old lamp parts and screws and other stuff so that we’re always prepared for every kind of lamp repair.
When our old house was built in 1897, it had both gas and electricity. There was one electrical outlet in each room and one electric ceiling light in the largest rooms. There were gas sconces everywhere else, including the hallways and some closets. Any Victorian house will tell the same story: few lights. The Victorians lived in gloom. Jill and I have run new electricity to all of our hallways and closets. If the original owners were to return for a time-traveled visit, they would be squinting in amazement at all the light in our house.
Even so, our house is probably not as bright as yours because so much of our lighting is early, which means we have colorful and sometimes moody art-glass shades and atmospheric table lamps. It’s the kind of light we seldom see anymore because, back in those days, lighting wasn’t nearly as utilitarian at it is today — it was often an aesthetic statement. If you want to see the full array of lighting in our house, check out our slide show of lighting here: Ron and Jill’s light show.