Let there be light!
By Maxine Carter-Lome
It was New Year’s Day 1880 and visitors were flocking to Menlo Park, New Jersey to see Thomas Edison’s newest invention – the electric light. As the “New York Herald” reported that day, “Extra trains were run from east and west, and notwithstanding the stormy weather, hundreds of persons availed themselves of the privilege. The laboratory was brilliantly illuminated with twenty-five lamps, the office and counting room with eight, and twenty others were distributed in the street leading to the depot and in some of the adjoining houses. The entire system was explained in detail by Edison and his assistants, and the light was subjected to a variety of tests.”
The success of his electric light brought Edison to new heights of fame and wealth; however, Edison didn’t exactly invent the incandescent bulb, rather he improved upon the ideas of men that came before him. It was Edison, though, that figured out how to make the light bulb practical and therefore commercially viable. Still, the public was leery, so in the early days electric lights came with the following warning: “This room is equipped with Edison Electric Light. Do not attempt to light with match. Simply turn key on wall by the door. The use of electricity for lighting is in no way detrimental to health, nor does it affect the soundness of sleep.”
It has been said that Edison devoted 30 months to develop a complete system of incandescent electrical lighting and tested over 3000 filaments before he came up with his version of a practical light bulb. It was this curiosity and perseverance that led Edison to amass a record 1,093 patents – still untouched by any other inventor.
Much of Edison’s ground-breaking work was done at his laboratory and residence, Glenmont, in Llewellyn Park in West Orange, New Jersey. Built in 1880-82, Glenmont was a marvel of advanced housing at that time with hot and cold running water, indoor bathrooms with flush toilets, central heating and refrigeration. Edison wired the home for electricity in 1887. Today, Glenmont is a National Historical Park and houses over 300,000 items and approximately five million documents representing Edison’s 60-year career as an inventor, manufacturer, businessman and private citizen.
By the dawn of the 20th century, indoor and outdoor electric lighting was commonplace in a growing number of American homes and businesses but that did not mean that other, older forms of lighting were being snuffed out.
In 1909 Victor Samuel Johnson introduced America to the Aladdin lamp. Aladdin lamps were unique in the use of a round wick to provide an even flickering flame, and a rare earth mantle that glowed to produce the light of a 60 watt light bulb when heated by the flame from the kerosene lamp. Like Edison before him, Johnson did not invent the kerosene (oil) lamp but rather created a more desirable and marketable version of what had come before. In 1915 Aladdin won a Gold Medal at the Panama Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco for having the best kerosene lamp in the world with their model 6 Aladdin lamp. The company used this honor to advertise a $1,000 reward to anyone who could prove that another lamp was better. The money was never paid out and by the early 1930s seven million Aladdin lamps had been sold! Today, Aladdin lamps are highly collectible but there is a lot to learn about what to look for and what models are valued most by collectors. Learn more on page 28.
By the 1930s lamps had gone from utilitarian objects to decorative works of art and key elements in both interior and exterior design. It was no longer about having light but having good taste in lighting. F.S. Chase, president of the Chase Brass & Copper Co. of Waterbury, MA and his designer, Lurelle Guild, saw an opportunity in Depression era buyers who wanted the look of luxury but at a price they could afford. The company, which had pioneered the use of inexpensive metals – brass, copper, chromium – in the design of giftware items, began designing a limited selection of brass lamps and fixtures (“lasting Chase brass” was impervious to rust). More interestingly, Chase promoted the concept of “through-design” in home lighting, which encouraged 1930s homemakers to remove the “hodge-podge” of “ugly, out-of-date lighting” and replace it with an affordable choice of period-specific lighting. This allowed Chase lighting to complement and enhance the room’s central design theme. Learn more about Chase Lamps with Donald-Brian Johnson on page 34.
Artists and artisans of every aesthetic design movement have taken a turn at designing lamps and lamp shades, and employing a wide variety of materials for both. That’s what makes lamp collecting so interesting and diverse, and with the passing of time, more of an investment. When it comes to collecting and investing in antique and period-specific lighting the experts say authenticity is everything, which extends to restoring antique lighting. Not every lamp or lighting fixture you come across will be worth restoring or can be restored properly. Knowing what to look and when to look for an expert is key. Learn more on page 30.
Hope you are reading us today by the glow of your favorite lamp.
Let there be light!