Many a modern invention has impacted the way we live today: the telephone, the automobile, the computer…One type of technology you may not consider much, but that impacts your life every day, is lighting (just think how bereft you feel when the power goes out!). Indeed, a few truly significant lighting designs initiated great leaps forward in how Americans worked, farmed, learned, and entertained.
Gas lamps, by their very nature, had to point up. That meant they were great at illuminating the ceiling and upper portion of the walls – not so great at illuminating areas where people actually needed more light. Enter the Plum and Paisley. They were first manufactured in the early 1880s by Thomas Edison’s partner Sigmund Bergmann. Bergmann designed the Plum and Paisley to work with Edison’s new invention: the light bulb. Some of the very first electric fixtures, they could cast light downward, a breakthrough in lighting design.
O.C. White, a consummate tinkerer and dental surgeon, patented numerous adjustable joints in the late 1800s. His inventions led to the first modern dental and photographer’s chairs – and, once Edison’s bulb came along, adjustable lamps. Before White, factory and offices were dim to dark. O.C. White’s fixtures revolutionized American industry. His lamps could be bolted or clamped directly onto lathes, looms, mills, and presses; they could also be pulled closer and angled in just about any direction, giving workers unprecedented brightness and flexibility.
Electricity was slow to reach rural America – installing the necessary infrastructure took much longer where farmhouses were far apart. Colt, a New York company, specialized in manufacturing fixtures that burned acetylene or carbide gas, lighting that was easy to install and maintain in areas not served by electric companies. The Rockwell and Ironside were among the hardworking creations Colt crafted for hardworking Americans. Their smart design incorporated metal cages to protect anyone working underneath them, should the glass globe shade break.
Humble though it may look, schoolhouse lighting did a grand thing: it brought light to teachers and schoolchildren all across the country. Simple schoolhouse designs were intended to be functional and fuss-free, hence their clean lines and generous proportions. Thanks to their utility, schoolhouse lights soon migrated beyond the classroom, illuminating libraries, offices, and other public buildings.
In the late 1800s, people began to realize that cleanliness and good health went hand in hand. Sanitoriums and hospitals were the first places to turn away from ornate metal lights and hardware in favor of easy-to-clean porcelain options. It didn’t take long for homeowners to take up the trend. By the early 1900s, crisp, cheerful porcelain fixtures were ubiquitous in kitchens and baths; by the 1930s, sleek and sophisticated Deco styles increased porcelain’s popularity.
In the postwar era, American attitudes about architecture and entertaining shifted; homes became less formal and ornamented, more open and relaxed. Light fixtures of the time channeled this laid-back, optimistic sensibility with bright colors and spare Scandinavian-inspired lines. And as space travel captured the nation’s imagination, stars, spaceships, and rockets further influenced lighting design, in the form of perforated shades that cast constellations of light, flying saucer–shaped pendants, and planetary globes.