Collectors turning on to student lamps


September 05, 1993|By Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen | Lita Solis-Cohen and Sally Solis-Cohen,Contributing Writers

With Labor Day's arrival, folks are returning home from vacation, schools and offices are moving back into high gear, and thoughts are turning from sunburns to burning the midnight oil. Those not content with ordinary lighting increasingly are looking for lamps with age and character: lamps that can light up a room in more ways than one.

People are searching attics, flea markets and dealers' shops for vintage lighting devices, and discovering that there were bright lights long before halogen bulbs.

As more Americans get turned on to old flames, antiques shows, collectors' clubs, seminars and books are illuminating the finer points of collecting antique lamps.

DTC Among the bright spots is a new soft-cover book, "Student Lamps of the Victorian Era," by Richard C. Miller and John F. Solverson (Antique Publications, $31 postpaid from Mr. Miller, 309 East Main St., Ravenna, Ohio 44266), which despite often awkward text is a valuable resource because of its fine photographs, reproductions of old advertisements and pull-out price guide. It's an important handbook for anyone wanting to do homework before buying or selling student lamps, which are shining anew in homes, offices and the antiques marketplace.

Student lamps are late 19th- and early 20th-century kerosene-burning devices identifiable by a central post supporting an easy-to-fill detachable fuel tank (called a "font"), and an adjustable-height arm holding a kerosene burner with wick, all topped by a decorative glass shade and chimney. (Shades typically are colored, come in a variety of designs, and measure 7 or 10 inches in diameter.)

Most of the bases are brass, although their shapes, sizes and finishes vary widely. Many models have been electrified over the years. While the majority of student lamps are table-top varieties with one or two arms, rarer floor models, wall sconces, three- and four-arm versions and hanging chandeliers were made, too.

Not just for students

Contrary to what their name implies, student lamps were not reserved for dormitories or libraries. During the Victorian era they were everywhere. American lamp marketers coined the term "student lamp" because these devices which cast no "under shadow" were practical sources of light for use while reading and writing.

When it comes to late 19th-century American table lamps, "student lamps are really the top of the line . . . they can become the focal point of a room," according to J. W. Courter, president of the "Aladdin Knights of the Mystic Light," a collectors' club for devotees of 19th- and early 20th-century lighting devices. (Annual dues, $20, can be mailed to Mr. Courter, Route 1, Simpson, Ill. 62985.)

The heyday of student lamps was from the late 1850s (when odor-free kerosene, a petroleum derivative, was commercially introduced as a fuel) until the early 20th century when household electric lighting became widely available.

With prices ranging from about $3 to $10 each for the simplest mass-produced student lamps, and around $15 to $30 for fancy models, few Victorian homes were without one of these functional and decorative lamps. Major American lamp manufacturers such as the Manhattan Brass. Co., of New York; Plume & Atwood Manufacturing Co., of Waterbury, Conn.; Edward Miller & Co., of Meriden, Conn.; and Bradley & Hubbard Manufacturing Co., of Connecticut, produced a bounty of student lamps marketed under names like "Perfection," "Vestal," Spenser," "Mammoth" and "Colonial Reading Lamp."

Today, vintage student lamps generally retail for around $300 to $2,000 each depending on design, rarity, condition of the base, and the quality, color, form and condition of the glass shade and chimney. Rarer and fancier examples, with richly decorated fonts and burner units, cast-brass and hand-tooled bases shaped like exotic birds or Aladdin's genie lamp, or elaborate custom-designed models, can sell for around $2,000 to $10,000 or more.

Prices on the rise

"Student lamps have been steady risers and their prices haven't peaked then fallen," observes Dr. Miller, co-author of the new book. Dr. Miller, a dentist, says he bought his first antique student lamp for "not much money" in 1963, and that he's "always loved the ornateness and quality craftsmanship" of the

Victorian era.

Shades sold separately

Collectors should check for original parts and period shades when buying student lamps, recommends Charles Neri, 313 South St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19147, (215) 923-6669, one of the top vintage-lighting dealers in the country. Shades and chimneys (the glass tube inside the shade protecting the flame from drafts) originally were sold separately from the bases, so it's not critical to a student lamp's value that they be original to the lamp. Victorian-era shades are more desirable and valuable than modern reproductions.

Antique-lighting dealers generally price and sell student lamp shades separately from the bases, permitting collectors to select shades in colors and designs to match their decor and budget.

Student lamp prices at Mr. Neri's shop range from around $495 for a single-arm circa-1880's Manhattan Brass Co. model with a period 7-inch-diameter plain white or green glass shade, to about $3,500 for an elaborate two-armed circa-1890 lamp with a green leaded-glass shade made for John Wanamaker, the Philadelphia department store. So-called "Harvard" style student lamps, with ornate cast-brass bases resembling Aladdin's genie-lamp, start at about $1,500 for single-light models, and rise to $5,000 or more for rarer double-light versions.

According to legend, the popular Harvard student lamps got their name because when they were introduced in the 1880s, someone at Harvard University liked them so much an abundance was purchased for use in the school's libraries and offices.

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