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Decorative lamps, from elephants to emperors, stir nostalgia for days gone by

Decorative lamps, from elephants to emperors, stir nostalgia for days gone by

Stylish lamps used to be a decorating staple during the 1940s and 1950s.
Decorative lamps, from elephants to emperors, stir nostalgia for days gone by
Greek mythology was the inspiration for this lamp depicting Icarus and his ill-fated flight toward the sun.
Photographer: Barry Sloan

Kate Halasz often meets people looking for enlightenment. But they’re not looking for spiritual or philosophical enrichment. They want the electrical brand.

This type sits on a corner table or night stand — lamps that provide 100 watts of bright white for illumination and ambiance. These are lamps from decades past, when personality and peculiarity were generally part of the designs.

“They used to have panther lamps, these were TV lights that were long and thin, they had lights that shined from the back that helped your eyes adjust when you were watching television,” said Halasz, who owns Aunt Katie’s Attic, an antiques store off Route 5 in Scotia. “There was a man who came in here recently and found one, he just about did a cartwheel in the store.”

Modern lamps do not have the same flair. Manufacturers may not want to take a chance on marketing a wooden lamp with a spinning miniature ship’s wheel and extras like a working barometer and trade route maps on the shade.

“This is for somebody who likes ships and the sea,” said Halasz, who has the nautical lamp in stock. “Maybe it’s for somebody who was in the Navy.”

POPULARITY FADED

Halasz said stylish lamps used to be a decorating staple during the 1940s and 1950s. “Everybody had them in their window,” she said. “People liked this kind of thing, but you don’t see this kind of thing every single day.” Folks might still see them in December; the quirky, dressed-up leg under a lamp shade makes an annual December appearance on television during broadcasts of the film “A Christmas Story.”

For lamps on top of the television, panthers had company. Lions, dogs, birds, cars, ships and wagons were among the models available. But, like clothing and hair fashions, decorative lamps faded away.

“Everything just became so cookie-cutter,” Halasz said. “In the 1960s, everybody wanted to look like everybody else. In the 1970s, they went to the real wild, big, glass-based lamps with the super-tall lamp shades. I didn’t like anything from the ’80s and in the ’90s; it was all contemporary, very straight lines.”

Reglor lamps were pop culture conversation pieces made during the 1940s and 1950s. The California company began making artistic and slightly eccentric lamps in 1947. Amateur sculptor Rena Stein teamed up with husband Bernie, who cast her designs in plaster and turned them into dignified receptacles for General Electric and Westinghouse bulbs. When Rena’s cousin Gloria entered the picture, the company received its name. The two women combined parts of their first names to form “Reglor,” which was inscribed — along with the year — into the bases of many of their lamps.

CHARACTER LAMPS

Reglor made shining stars of Egyptians, matadors and gladiators. Even Icarus, whose man-made wings took him on an ill-advised trip toward the sun, received a place on the company roster. His spring green-painted wings contrasted against a darker forest green face and legs. And while the mythical Icarus was foiled by heat that melted the wax on his arms full of feathers, his electrical counterpart never would have worried about fading colors from the sun or rain. A sombrero-sized lamp shade protected him from most household elements.

Brent Millington, owner of The Antique Store in Ballston Spa, remembers the type. He said ornate and stylishly sculpted lamps may have fallen out of favor because people were spending too much time keeping them beautiful. “It was probably people got tired of dusting them,” he said.

Mike Davis, owner of Bournebrook Antiques Center in Troy, said character lamps were popular during the 1950s. “They’d have people’s faces on them and different scenes on them,” he said. “Going into the 1960s and ’70s, they became a little bit more middle-of-the-road and practical.”

Davis said his store has displayed some strange personalities.

“We have a little table lamp that was made out of pink glass, pink nobby glass. It’s a 1950s piece, and it shows a dancer at the base with the pole coming up behind her where the light goes and she’s throwing her head over her right shoulder,” he said. “And the manufacturer made a little bit too much of a curve in the head and it looks grotesque. Some of them love it, but most of them get really turned off by this cute little table lamp with a dancer on it that looks like she’s broken her neck.”

Davis said some vintage lamps have remained popular.

“Bankers’ lamps, those are the green lamps . . . we can’t get enough of them,” he said. “People still love them for their desks, so that’s a tradition that’s stuck.”

Edith Alois, whose Vintage Art on Jay Street in Schenectady sells older-style clothing and home furnishings, often has antique lamps for sale. “It’s nostalgia,” she said. “People grew up with these lamps in their homes and they want them back. It’s all about style, imagination and artistic flair . . . and it’s a reflection of your personality. You make your home a place that reflects your personality.”

NOSTALGIA FACTOR

Halasz agrees on the nostalgia factor.

“I think the old lamps remind people of their youth, things that were really cool in grandparents’ houses,” she said. “I think they just appealed to people because they were cool, they were new to them back then.”

Alois buys some of her merchandise at auctions and estate sales. She doesn’t hit many garage sales, partly because the “Antiques Roadshow” television program has convinced many people their old-fashioned lamps and other dusty retrievals from attic and basement are worth fortunes. Usually, they are not.

Alois likes the older pieces for their looks — a gilded, cherubic infant lamp was on one of her shelves last month — and their craftsmanship. Lamps from the 1960s and 1970s had weight, made with marble and brass. “They’re not going to be knocked over by your cat or your elbow,” Alois said.

Antiques dealers said lamps by well-known designers such as Tiffany and Quoizel remain valuable. Many older style lamps from less-than-famous manufacturers can be purchased for under $100, some under $50.

“They’re not coming like they were coming even two years ago, not since everything slowed down in this economy,” Halasz said of her lamp customers. “But when someone comes in and sees a lamp that really fires them up, they will definitely buy it.”

People on spring cleaning safaris should never just throw out a salvageable antique lamp, or anything else, Halasz said. They can be fixed and polished.

“Give it to me,” she said. “I’ll find a home for it.”

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