Thursday, February 12, 2015

Electric Lamps for Everyone

QUESTION: Several years ago, I bought an early electric glass lamp at a flea market. Although it was filthy and needed lots of TLC, I decided that I just couldn’t live without it. After giving it a thorough cleaning and having it rewired, I noticed how much it looked like the Tiffany lamps of the early 1900s. Upon further inspection, I noticed E M & Co. impressed into the base. So far, I’ve been unable to discover who E M & Co. is? Can you tell me who made my lamp and a little about it.

ANSWER: You’re the proud owner of a beautiful silhouette lamp—called that because of the silhouettes created by the shade when the lamp is on—made by the Edward Miller & Company of Meriden, Connecticut.

Unfortunately, when people think of metal and glass lamps of the early 20th century, they usually associate all lamps with Louis Comfort Tiffany. Then their eyes light up with dollar signs. But most of the lamps from this period were not made by Tiffany.

When Tiffany first began making his lamps, they were expensive to make and expensive to buy. Prices for them ran into the hundreds of dollars. Slag glass panel lamps, as they're known  today, had a few large pieces of glass fitted into a cast metal frame that simulated the effects of the more expensive leaded glass lamps. That made them affordable for the average person. A 1925 Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog offers metal table lamps fitted with "art glass" priced from $6.90 to $19.

Many companies made this type of lamp. Often the lamps weren’t signed, but if the makers did mark them, they usually cast their mark into the metal on the bottom of the base. Sometimes they placed a mark on the metal edge of a shade or elsewhere on the base. Some lamps had paper labels, but most of them are long gone. Edward Miller & Company was one of many lamp makers.

The Miller Company began in 1844 in Meriden, Connecticut, as Joel Miller and Son. Originally, the company produced metal candle-holders, then moved on to kerosene lamps, gas lighting, and electric lighting. The name of the company changed, also, becoming Edward Miller & Company, then The Miller Company, both under the mark E M & CO on their lamp bases.

Although Miller produced expensive leaded glass lamps, the company took advantage of the opportunity to sell lighting to the middle classes as more homes became 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 Company catalog shows lamps with prices from $12.50 to $60, depending on size.

Miller took advantage of the latest discovery in lighting—electricity. Up to the last decade of the 19th century, everyone owned and used either gas or kerosene lamps. But the light they gave off was dim. The discovery of electricity led to lamps that glowed brighter in a downward direction, thus offering improved lighting for reading and sewing.

Though electrical lamps offered lots of advantages, there were problems with the carbon filaments in early incandescent light bulbs that didn't last long. The bulbs turned dark inside from carbon, and they used a lot of electricity per watt of light. The invention of the tungsten filament bulb and improvements to it made between 1906 and 1910 established electric lamps as a practical and reliable alternative to gas and kerosene.

These early electric lamps offered a variety of base and shade overlay designs, influenced by several style 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. And with the discovery of King Tut's tomb in 1922 , people’s interest in everything Egyptian grew.

Lamp creators took their inspiration from all of these influences, giving consumers a choice of floral designs, geometric patterns, or scenes with camels, palm trees and pyramids. Other designs reflected Neo-Classical Revival architectural and furniture styles, employing fluted columns, garlands, and urns as design elements.

Manufacturers produced slag glass lamps with amber glass, as well as other colors. Amber was the dominant color because it proved to be the most restful for reading. These lamps often have more than one color of glass. Makers sometimes used various colors of slag glass to simulate sunsets or water behind their metal frames.

Today, these same slag lamps sell for $500 to $1.500, depending on style, size, and especially condition. Smaller varieties, known as boudoir lamps, sell for less while larger ones sell for more.

With the onset of the Great Depression, the market for more expensive dramatic, heavy lamps with glass shades faded and manufacturers responded with cheaper, lightweight lamps with paper or fabric shades.

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