A Timeline of Lighting History

Learn more about what influenced lighting designs between 1865 and 1970 with this illustrated timeline.

Rococo, 1860-1865

Design DNA: Mixed a romantic embrace of nature and European tastes for Baroque revival
Character: Elegantly detailed transition from oil-burning forms to gas and kerosene
Materials: Richly modeled brass castings, etched and cut glass shades
Features: Entwined leaves on chains and decorative arms, font-like central bodies
Fueled By: Rise of the brass industry and the influence of Italianate architecture
Key Cultural Developments: Kerosene introduced in 1859, Civil War envelops the country

Renaissance Revival, 1865-1870

Design DNA: An eclectic and liberal reimagining of Renaissance design motifs and themes
Character: Highly elaborate fixtures with substantial presence and rich materials
Materials: Mixture of brass, bronze, and spelter (zinc) castings; gilt and painted finishes
Features: Heavy ornamental castings, figural motifs or statuettes of people and animals
Fueled By: Rising wealth and Reconstruction aspirations following the Civil War
Key Cultural Developments: Renaissance Revival influences ran deeply through architecture and décor

Neo-Grec, 1870-1875

Design DNA: Simpler, cleaner qualities, as seen in Greek to Renaissance architecture
Character: More restrained and angular continuation of earlier elaborate ornamentation
Materials: The height of the mix of bronze and spelter castings, gilt and painted finishes
Features: Distinctive fine scrolling motifs covered flat cast surfaces, small-neck gas shades
Fueled By: Growth of industry and accumulating wealth following Reconstruction

Eastlake/Neo-Gothic, 1875-1880

Design DNA: Rooted deeply in reinterpretations of English medieval and Gothic themes
Character: Restrained compared to Neo-Grec, conventionalized English Neo-Gothic forms
Materials: Shift away from spelter and into more brass and bronze, new polychrome colors
Features: Noticeable incising and flattening of design elements, cleaner “modern” lines
Fueled By: “Liberal” expressions of Englishman Charles Locke Eastlake’s design principles
Key Cultural Developments: Huge impact of 1876 Centennial Exposition and rise of ecclesiastical architecture

Aesthetic Movement, 1880-1885

Design DNA: Profoundly influenced by Japanese design and the believe in “art for art’s sake”
Character: Bold, angular lines with striking asymmetry, mixed materials, ahistorical
Materials: Predominantly red brass and bronze, Longwy or Satsuma porcelain inserts
Features: Flat conventionalized flower castings, hammered textures, insects, cut jewels
Fueled By: “Artistic” design trend and the craze for all things Japanesque and exotic
Key Cultural Developments: Early exploration of electric fixtures, introduction of wide-neck gas shades

Bent Brass, 1885-1890

Design DNA: A “modernized” hybrid of medieval simplicity and Aesthetic artistic tendencies
Character: Substance and decoration rely more on scrolling effects and sculptural forms
Materials: Richly finished brass or black hand-wrought iron, opalescent and colored glass
Features: Pre-Art Nouveau proliferation of spirals and whips and elegant bent brass tubing
Fueled By: Rise in popularity of Romanesque architecture of H.H. Richardson and others
Key Cultural Developments: Tail end of the great Aesthetic Gilded Age mansions and picturesque effects

Empire, 1890-1895

Design DNA: Ostensibly a revival of French Empire design (think Josephine and Napoleon)
Character: Return to elaborate and delicate ornamentation—quintessential “Victorian”
Materials: Cast polished brass defines this style, with darker antique copper rising later
Features: Finely filigreed pierced castings with wreaths, ribbons, torches, and garlands
Fueled By: A move toward historical styles and the rise of feminine purchasing power in the home
Key Cultural Developments: Elaborate Victorian design would fall into decline after the Panic of 1893

Eclectic Revivals, 1895-1900

Design DNA: New inspiration drawn from historical styles following Chicago World’s Fair in 1893
Character: Heavier reliance on traditional styles, still expressed in familiar Victorian forms
Materials: Fixtures almost entirely brass, using a wide range of manufacturing methods
Features: Cost-cutting resulted in simplified silhouettes, thinner castings, more spinnings
Fueled By: Slow economic recovery, diverse architectural styles, affordable electric lamps
Key Cultural Developments: The 1893 Columbian Exposition initiated a return to symmetrical classical design

Schools of Design, 1900-1905

Design DNA: More academic yet artful embrace of a broad range of authentic period styles
Character: Bold, transitional, and experimental, moving away from “Victorian” stem & pipe
Materials: Brass in full array of techniques, some wrought iron, art glass and bent glass
Features: Highly architectural in style/detail, detailed castings, gas/electric combinations
Fueled By: Popularity of accurate historical architecture styles, coordination with hardware
Key Cultural Developments: Extensive expansion of commercial, institutional, and ecclesiastical buildings

Arts & Crafts, 1905-1910

Design DNA: English Arts & Crafts movement, medieval style, handmade construction
Character: Emphasis on new “modern” forms, celebrating the craft and hand of the maker
Materials: Brass and copper, often hammered or hand-formed and -riveted, leaded glass
Features: Often very “square” forms, art glass panels, brushed brass, dining room “domes”
Fueled By: Arts & Crafts proponents like Elbert Hubbard, Gustav Stickley, and Frank Lloyd Wright
Key Cultural Developments: Stickley’s The Craftsman magazine, return to nature, DIY and spread of bungalows

Classical Revival, 1910-1915

Design DNA: Pendulum swing back to architecturally familiar classical forms and motifs
Character: Substantial, formal, conservative, projecting power and permanence
Materials: Quality brass castings and spinnings, blown and pressed molded glass shades
Features: New “shower” fixtures and bowl chandeliers become extremely popular
Fueled By: Interrelated rise of the affordable Mazda B tungsten lamp and bowl fixtures

Colonial Revival, 1915-1920

Design DNA: Heavily influenced by interpretations of Georgian-era design, itself very classical
Character: Formal and conservative like Classical Revival, but more elegantly restrained, delicate
Materials: Brass, brass, and more brass, with crystals and cut glass shades to add sparkle
Features: Chains, candles, tassels, garlands, and painted molded satin opal glass shades
Fueled By: Growing provincial self-esteem and the influential work of Wallace Nutting
Key Cultural Developments: America rises to prominence during World War I, stoking national pride

Conventionalized Colonial, 1920-1925

Design DNA: Perhaps the highest point in America’s long-running revivals of the colonial era
Character: A less academic and more safe and standardized version of Colonial Revival
Materials: Brass, with cheaper steel versions offered disguised by popular painted finishes
Features: “Pan” fixtures dominate the market, with candles, down-shades, exposed bulbs
Fueled By: Building boom as cities grew and expanded into the new automobile suburbs
Key Cultural Developments: American pride, national identity and manufacturing growth after World War I

Romantic Revival/Mediterranean, 1925-1930

Design DNA: Romantic interpretations of rustic European “Old World” styles and motifs
Character: Extremely ornate chain-hung fixtures with filigree and scrolling lines
Materials: Intricate cast white metal, elaborate stamped or wrought iron, colored crystals
Features: Colorful polychrome finishes, candles, shields, caravels, tipless globe bulbs
Fueled By: Influence of new exposure and access to Europe following World War I
Key Cultural Developments: The rise of Hollywood, with exotic theaters and swashbuckling movie heroes

Art Deco, 1930-1935

Design DNA: “Modernistic” design, introduced at the 1925 Paris International Exposition
Character: Complete rejection of historical styles as design inspiration, angular and bold
Materials: Gilt polychrome cast iron/aluminum, Bakelite, chrome, tinted glass shades
Features: The heyday of the “shaded light” and the liberal use of color and decoration
Fueled By: French modern design of 1925, which would not sweep the American market until 1930
Key Cultural Developments: This explosion of new style occurred at the same time as the Great Depression

Streamline Moderne, 1935-1940

Design DNA: The true arrival of Modern style, as ornamentation is rejected along with history
Character: Sleek, aerodynamic, streamlined, and quintessentially Modern clean lines
Materials: Aluminum and steel, especially in large spinnings, milk and custard glass
Features: Concentric rings, louvers, bead-chain shades, slip-on cup or saucer shades
Fueled By: The cult of speed expressed through planes, trains, ships, cars, and zeppelins

War Era, 1940-1945

Design DNA: Lighting fixture design goes into deep hibernation during World War II
Character: What little lighting is produced follows late 1930s forms but in cheaper materials
Materials: Brass/copper/aluminum/steel rationing results in more solid glass components
Features: All-glass elements like canopies and center bodies, earliest fluorescent fixtures
Fueled By: Fixture advances are mainly industrial as factories and war installations are built
Key Cultural Developments: Fluorescent lighting introduced at 1939 New York and San Francisco World’s Fairs

Postwar, 1945-1950

Design DNA: New war machinery in factories and scrapping of old tooling breaks traditions
Character: Industrial outputs slowly shift to domestic with humble, familiar forms
Materials: Steel and aluminum war materials and methods determine domestic direction
Features: Transitional and non-challenging design is frequently forgettable, lots of glass
Fueled By: Slow national economic recovery and retooling for domestic production

Proto-Modern/Themed, 1950-1955

Design DNA: New “All-American” identity inspires proto-modern colonial hybrid, kids’ fixtures
Character: Hints at early Modern design appear, often awkwardly expressed in mixed forms
Materials: Brass, steel, and aluminum predominate in economical manufacturing methods
Features: Populist “themed” fixtures, painted color, and ubiquitous bent glass shades
Fueled By: American optimism, domestic recovery, and desire to return to normalcy
Key Cultural Developments: The explosion of television projected new stories of American homes/families

Mid-Century Modern, 1955-1960

Design DNA: American Modern designs often followed Scandinavian and European examples
Character: Sleek and classically “Modern” with jet- and space-inspired silhouettes
Materials: Brass, steel, and aluminum spinnings; early plastic; wood and natural materials
Features: “Starlight” pinholes, painted colors, imported glass, cord and pulley fixtures
Fueled By: Rising national prosperity and confidence, new generation of modern consumers
Key Cultural Developments: Color TV, science fiction and early space programs, 1957 launch of Sputnik

Mid-Century Modified, 1960-1965

Design DNA: Late-‘50s Modern liberally mixed with safer traditional styles to broaden appeal
Character: More colorful and eclectic, with both high Modern and low-brow ersatz design
Materials: Usual metals, plus fiberglass, plastics, ceramics, wood, and natural materials
Features: Modern with funky twists, strong colors, swag chains, tinted “optic” glass shades
Fueled By: Space race, new materials, full national embrace of modern design and living
Key Cultural Developments: Rise of the Space Age, beginning and end of Camelot, suburban ranch expansion

Mid-Century Contemporary

Design DNA: Italian, English and Scandinavian lighting designers lead Modernism forward
Character: Pure Modernism is infused with elegance and emotion
Materials: Fiberglass and plastic for Mod, chrome/brass and crystal for Contemporary
Features: Sculptural pipe/tube assemblies, bold colorful organic forms, smoky topaz glass
Fueled By: Earlier attempts to make high Modern accessible, resulting in more balanced mixes
Key Cultural Developments: Vietnam War/Civil Rights drive counter-culture revolution, free love, new ideas

Tags: Bo Sullivan OHJ October 2014 Old-House Journal Period Lighting

By Bo Sullivan

The son of a preservationist/antiques dealer and a scientist-turned-old-time-hardware-store-owner, Bo Sullivan grew up in a 200-year-old house in a 300-year old-town that had been forgotten by time. He spent his teen-age years digging up bottles and bits of china, and exploring cobwebbed attics and abandoned garages. After graduating from North Carolina State University School of Design with an architectural degree in 1988, Bo spent several years as a designer and carpenter renovating older homes before beginning a 20-year association with Rejuvenation Inc. in Portland, Oregon. It was here that he encountered his first roll of M.H. Birge & Sons wallpaper.

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