Dear Helaine and Joe: We found this lamp buried in an attic closet, and are guessing it once belonged to my wife’s grandmother.
Can you tell us who made it, when it was made and the value? It stands about 2 feet high, is extremely heavy and on the bottom is marked “Made in France.”
Dear M.M.: Lamps are meant to give light. There are table, floor and even pole lamps to illuminate a room. There are boudoir lamps to throw a little light on dressing tables. And there are even task lamps used to focus a beam on a written page or on a work project.
But the lamp in today’s question is none of these.
It is a newel post lamp, used in Victorian and Edwardian homes to light the staircase to avoid falls and other misadventures. The newel post lamp was affixed to the top of the newel post, which is the column found at the foot of a staircase and used to support the railing or banister.
If the stair curved as it rose to the second floor, there might have been a newel post at the turn, and one of these lamps might have been placed there as well. On occasion, in really large houses, lamps of this kind might have been placed on posts along the railing on the upper landing. But for the most part, the lamps were used at the foot of the stairs on a post that could be very ornamental.
Sometimes newel posts were lathe turned wood, but sometimes they were hollow and could be architectural in style. For the most part, lamps started being placed on newel posts in the mid-19th century, but most of the ones collectors find today are from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Early newel lamps could be fueled with various fluids, including whale oil. Later, gas, kerosene and finally electricity fueled them. The example in today’s question appears to one of the later models and probably graced a newel post sometime in the early 20th century. We believe the piece is from the first quarter.
Newel post lamps often have a central figural component. They often feature neoclassical style women, cupids, Mercury or Hercules, blackamoors, gladiators, perhaps a boy with a pole over his shoulder or representations of agriculture, which describes the figure in today’s question with its mustachioed man walking in a field with a rake and a basket.
Newel post lamps can be found carved from wood or cast from metal, such as brass and bronze, but a large portion of them were made from spelter or pot metal, the main component being zinc. The glass components that cover the light bulbs on this newel post lamp were probably made in Bohemia (the modern-day Czech Republic), and the base appears to be gilded and painted spelter. And as the marking says, it was “made in France.”
Fair market value on the piece is probably in the $200 to $300 range with a retail value in the neighborhood of $500 to $600.