This article focuses on 19th-century night lights known as fairy lamps, which were the first lamps that were safe to leave on without supervision. It describes advertisements for the lamps, as well as their multiple uses (from discouraging burglars to calming children afraid of the dark) and various designs. It originally appeared in the September 1940 issue of American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.
Some years ago a police commissioner in a large city offered the practical suggestion that one small electric light bulb left on while the family was out for the evening was one of the best forms of burglar insurance that any householder could have. The supposition was, of course, that the average marauder would think twice before trying to make informal entry into a house lighted even dimly, since it implied the presence of some one capable of raising an outcry.
However, this excellent idea did not originate with the era of electricity. According to an English advertisement, there was in use during the last quarter of the 19th Century a small glass lamp which was referred to by its maker as the “Burglar’s Horror.” In a day when there could be no halfway measures with the flickering gas jet, and there was always the off-chance that the temperamental kerosene lamp might explode, a type of night light that could be safely left unchaperoned had obvious advantages.
The mechanism of this small lamp was simplicity itself. There were three parts to it: a saucer-like base into which fitted a clear-glass container for a stubby candle capable of burning nine hours, and an oblong shade which also performed the functions of the ordinary lamp chimney. Such a lamp could be safely left lighted in an upper or lower hall throughout the night if desired.
Burglar’s Horror was not its name, however, but just one of its attributes. Its maker was S. Clarke and a copy of his advertisement, dated 1892, and now in the collection of Dr. Edward Rushford of Salem, Massachusetts, cites: “Clarke’s Patent Fairy Lamps, in Queen’s Burmese Glassware, as purchased by Her Majesty the Queen.”
The advertisement, done in color, shows chandeliers made of these lamps; a highly colored single lamp with floral globe; and one of the pyramid type with clear diamond-point base and colored shade. Prices on the Queen’s Burmese glassware ranged from one shilling, sixpence, to eight shillings, sixpence, depending on the type of shade and base. The firm also provided the stubby nine-hour candles designed for this particular kind of lamp.
It seems to have been an idiosyncrasy of the Romantic period in both English and American life that advertisers should occasionally break forth in rhyme. Mr. Clarke was one of these and should indeed have broken the last bit of sales resistance on the part of his readers with these lilting lines:
“When nights are dark; Then think of Clarke; Who’s hit the mark precisely; For his night lights; Create light nights; In which we see quite nicely.”
When one considers that the light generated was about equal to that of a votary candle shining through a colored or frosted glass shade, modern opinion might hold that the above verse erred on the side of over-optimism. But in their day these dainty little night lamps were probably considered adequate, and obviously they were extremely useful pieces of household gear. They scared away thieves; soothed the nervous child left alone in the nursery; consoled the invalid; prevented the one who ministered to an afflicted member of the family from falling over a footstool in the process; and guided the convivial soul, returning late, safely upstairs. Also, according to F. W. Robins, author of The Story of the Lamp, published last year by Oxford Press, they were much used by the British in illuminations until superseded by the modern colored electric-light bulb.
In addition to their usefulness they were certainly decorative, for the same technique was employed in their making as that which produced the colorful blown-glass baskets, pitchers, vases, and other ornamental pieces which were their contemporaries. Satin glass in pastel shades, combinations of clear and frosted glass, fine-cut clear and colored glass, bases with crimped edges, shades in two colors with ribbed or swirled pattern, all these and other Victorian manifestations were used in these little lamps. The Burmese glassware so favored by Queen Victoria was a peach-colored satin glass with a floral decoration.
Imported to America, the patented Fairy lamps seem to have been reasonably popular, judging from the examples that still survive. Nor were they all imported. According to Ruth Webb Lee, the Hobbs Brockunier Company of Wheeling, West Virginia, made them, as did other glass factories of the Ohio Valley. In fact, she holds that the majority of American-made ones were turned out by manufacturers of this area during the ’70’s and ’80’s. There were about twenty glass factories in and around Pittsburgh at that time, eighteen of which were absorbed in 1892 by the United States Glass Company.
Today the fifteen-watt electric-light bulb performs the functions once claimed for the patented Fairy lamp by the ingenious Mr. Clarke, but the dust of years no longer accumulates on these little reminders of a stuffy but exceedingly comfortable age. Collectors now seek them eagerly because of their beauty of color and quaintness of form. My own collection was started more by accident than design, when I one day stumbled on what was to me a strange and unfamiliar little glass object in a second-hand shop. It was one of these lamps of rose-colored frosted glass with a white floral decoration on its shade. This, and its diminutive proportions, so appealed to me, that I bought it. Soon afterward I found one of pale yellow satin glass and it seemed a good idea to acquire it. Then a rose-and-white flecked one proved equally appealing. So, for better or for worse, I became a collector of these Victorian night lamps.
As with all collecting, I have found them unexpectedly and under unusual conditions. Nor are they always intact. Base, candleholder, and shade being of glass were not only easily separated but still more easily broken. I have found shades with base and candleholder missing. Once I came upon six of the little clear pyramid bases which a dealer had just acquired as “unusual salt dishes.” Both colored and clear-glass bases, as well as the clear-glass holders, have been shown to me as sauce dishes, which is quite understandable if one is not familiar with this type of lamp. It has become my practice to pick up every reasonably priced odd part I find, in the hope of being able to match it sometime later. All of which is just part of the fascination of collecting.
Judging from the ones I have collected, these lamps varied in shape and decorative detail from the egg-like simplicity of the example to the extreme right in Illustration IV, which is of pastel yellow satin glass with a diamond-shaped quilting pattern for both shade and base to such ornate examples as the yellow-and-rose flecked one with unusually tall base at the extreme left in the same group and the clear, cranberry-red one at the extreme left in Illustration I. The base of the last mentioned lamp is most elaborately crimped and the shade is distinctly vase-shaped.
The rose-flecked one (Illustration IV) has a hand-crimped base, vertically ribbed shade, and is attributed by Mrs. Lee to Hobbs Brockunier & Company. The simply formed lamp standing next to it is of pastel green-colored glass with painted decoration consisting of a floral background with a bird just flying to its nest. The third lamp in this same group is of frosted blue glass with white loops. Horizontal ribbing adorns the base which has the unusual feature of a handle. I have only one other so equipped.
Especially reminiscent of the ornamental vases and baskets in blown glass which were being made during the same years are the lamps shown in Illustrations I and II. Next to the cranberry-red example in Illustration I, already referred to, is one with a crimped base of blue mother-of-pearl glass. The shade is white frosted glass with a design achieved by the use of an iron dip mold before blowing. Then comes another with crimped base of red glass with horizontal lines of white. The shade is also red and white but with a loop design in spiral effect. The example at the extreme right is of rose-and-white flecked glass. The base is crimped and vertical ribbing adorns the shade.
Reading from left to right in Illustration II, the distinctive feature of the first lamp is its petticoat-like frill of crimped blue satin glass. The base which it decorates and the shade are both of clear white glass. The example next to it is of Burmese glass, the type bought by Queen Victoria. The base was cast in a mold, the shade blown and adorned with a painted floral decoration in colors. The lamp next to it is relatively simple and is of pink-and-white flecked glass with vertical ribbing for both base and shade. The fourth lamp is of lemon-yellow satin glass with both the base and shade crimped.
These lamps were also made in colored glass of fine-cut pattern. Two examples of this technique are shown in Illustration III. The one at the left is of the pyramid type, which I referred to earlier. The shade is amber glass, the base clear. Both are finely cut as is the shade of the lamp in the center of rich green. Here the cup of the base is of light red and rests on a foot formed by five leaves in darker green. The third lamp is in pleasing contrast to its more ornate contemporaries because of its simplicity of outline. It is of rose- colored frosted glass and has a floral decoration of white on its shade.
The candle containers in all of these lamps seem to have been nearly always of clear glass. I have one, however, which is not illustrated, with a metal candleholder. It has an unusually heavy crimped base of mother-of-pearl satin glass; the shade is of white frosted glass with a design similar to that of the second lamp in Illustration I. It rests on a frosted glass collar simulating two rows of leaves. I bought this lamp from an elderly woman of Huguenot descent who stated that its original cost was twelve dollars and that its principal use in its day was as a night lamp in her downstairs hall.
She did not say whether the small lamp was left there to discourage burglars or to provide light enough for some one to find his way downstairs for a midnight snack. There had been another lamp like it in a beautiful shade of pink, but an earlier collector had acquired it. Her family had obviously been well prepared for any nocturnal event for which light was needed.
This article originally appeared in American Collector magazine, a publication which ran from 1933-1948 and served antique collectors and dealers.