(Editor’s note: DeeDee Wood is the store manager at Tharpe Antiques, in Easton, part of the Talbot Historical Society.)
The word chandelier comes from the Latin/French word “candelabru,” which means candelabra, or a place for candles, in English. Opulence and elegance are synonymous with the great sparkling lights of the rich and famous, but the roots of the candelabra go far deeper, and have origins in the caves of the ancients.
Some of the earliest lighting made by humans was discovered in the caves in Lascaux, France, where they used torches in caves so that they could make their ancient pictorial paintings. Archaeologists found a lamp buried in the floor of the cave, with soot still intact.
There are examples of many types of oil and grease lamps dating back to 17,000 BC as well, showing that illumination of the night was always a problem to solve for humanity.
The ancient Sumerian and Egyptians made molded candles, alabaster and colored glass lamps with wick holes to burn the light bright into the night. Oil lamps were produced for larger use in Egypt, Greece and Rome. Materials such as stone, gold and bronze were used during this time period. Roman lamps were well known for being decorative and purposeful.
The Byzantines made what we most closely associate with modern chandeliers during the 6th century, creating candles crudely nailed to a cross board and hung from the ceiling. They were drippy and smoked a lot, causing people not to stand underneath such a hazard. The wicks needed to be trimmed and pulley systems allowed people to bring the contraption up and down as it was needed. Wicks that did not require trimming were not introduced until the 19th century. Candles were a scarce commodity, and you had to be wealthy to afford and burn them.
Another kind of chandelier was the Moorish hanging lamp of the 8th century, a kind of geometric, symmetric lamp with Islamic style and strictly used for purpose. Europeans copied such designs and had iron corona lamps a century later, using the hanging concepts of Moorish lamps.
Some of the earliest chandeliers were used by the very wealthy in medieval times, and could be moved around from room to room. They were often smokey, smelly and required much maintenance. They were also fire hazards. As time went on, around the 15th century, chandeliers became more complex and hand bases, rings and designs to them. Decorative features were beginning to be created and the chandelier began to show up in homes of nobility, clergy and merchants. The chandelier was a symbol of wealth and power.
In the mid 1700’s, the Industrial Revolution began. It changed the world, including the chandelier.
They became more available to a new middle class, and the middle class wanted to show off their new found prosperity and fortune. What better way to show this new wealth then to own a sparkling chandelier.
Because of the rise of machines, chandeliers were more affordable and available, as machines churned out far more home decor products than ever before. Personal lighting was finally in the middle class home.
During the 18th century, glass chandeliers were made by Bohemians and Venetian artisans. The concept of prisms, or hanging crystals was introduced, and developments in glassmaking, particularly cheaper ways to make lead crystal, helped form what we know today as the crystal chandelier. Venetian glassmakers were masters in the art of making refractive, elegant lighting and beautiful prisms. Italian glass manufacturers in Murano made new kinds of light sources and created intricate flowers, leaves, fruits, color enhancements and unique cuts, using a unique type of glass called soda glass. This new type of chandelier was called ciocca, meaning bouqet of flowers in Italian.
Baroque and Rococo styles became popular in the 18th century.
They evolved and influenced designs of chandeliers. Europe and Russian lighting now included these style influences and one could see swirls, leaves, garlands, cupids and other embellishments on the chandeliers of this period.
During this time in 1750, Bohemian glassmakers designed a famous chandelier called the Maria-Theresa style chandelier, named for Marie Antoinette’s mother, who was then the Empress of Austria.
The mid 19th century brought about gas lighting and fixtures called gasoliers were produced, causing previous candle chandeliers to be converted. During the 19th century, many neoclassical and revived styles were used in chandelier production. Next came electric lighting, and some chandeliers used both gas and electricity. As time went on, electric-only chandeliers became the standard in households. It was still a status symbol to have a chandelier in your home during this time period, and they were converted instead of being destroyed because they cost an initial, enormous amount of money when they were first installed as candle chandelier lighting.
The electric light bulb changed the chandelier world in 1879, causing many changed to occur in how a chandelier might look. The lights could now face downward to enhance the new light bulbs. Names like Tiffany and Swarovski were included in the names of innovators who saw elegance, nature and form in lighting, all with the invention of the electric light bulb.
As the 20th century brought about electricity as the normal way of lighting, chandeliers lost their power status symbols and the once great chandelier makers, such as Baccarat in France and Hancock, Rixon and Dunt in England, lost some of their foothold in the world of power and wealth in the lighting realm.
Chandeliers became decorative focal points to rooms in modern times, and often were used less to illuminate, more to decorate.
Ancient caves in France were illuminated by early man using a simple, crude lighting system, and the royals of Versailles danced the night away under sparkling prisms of the finest glass. Both examples are a need for human beings to illuminate the darkness, one using strictly for necessity, one for both necessity and grandeur. Whether the chandelier was used to impress peers or light up the night, it certainly has a long and rich history in the world of lighting and function. As needs change and inventions are altered, the chandelier has also ebbed and flowed along with history, necessity and invention, still lighting our homes and palaces today, and for years to come.