Vintage Electric Lamps: Complete Guide and How to Identify
Updated: Apr 13
What Does a Vintage Lamp Look Like?
Vintage lamps can come in all shapes and sizes, and identifying them at first can seem a little daunting. But there are a few telltale signs of an authentic old school lamp that you can use to tell whether or not you're looking at an antique. Once you know some of these basic characteristics, you won't fall victim to buying a pricey reproduction and you can even start to tell when the lamps you look at were made.
When it comes to old electronics, people often have a few questions around their safety and use, so let's get that out of the way first before diving into how you can identify old electric lamps.
Are Vintage Lamps Safe to Use?
Vintage and antique lamps are perfectly safe to use as long as you use common sense. If they appear to be in rough shape (particularly the power cord and plug), you may want to have your lamp professionally inspected before switching it on (I once plugged in an old tube radio and was met with a lot of smoke).
However, if all aspects of your lamp appear to be in good shape, don't worry about plugging it in and giving it a try. Having an extra lightbulb on hand in case yours didn't come with one or in case the old one is burnt out is also a good idea.
In the rare instance where your lamp may have been rewired (check for a new plug and cord), you may want to switch it on with some caution in case an amateur job was done of it. If the worst happens and you get no light—there's still no cause for despair, you can actually get antique lamps professionally rewired (sometimes for even as low as $25). If you need parts and fancy doing the job yourself, there are also a few good spots on the internet for old lamp parts.
Signs of a Reproduction Vintage Lamp
Power cord and plug - this one is so easy to spot but also easy to miss if you don't think to look! If you happen upon what you think is an authentic vintage lamp but it has a modern looking power cord and plug then it is very likely a reproduction. At the very least, it's not an original (survivor) lamp.
How to spot: vintage or antique electronics (of all sorts) do not have polarised plugs, a.k.a. one fat prong and one skinny one. The prongs are also usually pretty easy to bend.
No maker's mark - you can usually find a maker's mark near the bottom of your lamp or on the underside if it is old. The adverse of a maker's mark is a country of origin sticker. A sticker usually means your lamp is newer (not antique, but it may still be vintage). If the sticker says Made in China or India though, that means you could have a reproduction on your hands. Maker's marks are a great way to find out more information about a lot of antiques, such as: how old they are, where they were made, and who made them.
How to spot: search near the base of your lamp or under the base to find a maker's mark. If you don't see one, try other areas. PS. if you can't find one anywhere, it may still be a vintage lamp, you may just need the help of an expert to identify it.
Lamp materials - getting to know antique lamp bases and shades can be a process; but in general, if you see a modern plug on a lamp that looks old and you're still not sure—see how the shade looks and feels. Is the glass heavy or light? Are there any parts that look and feel like plastic? What is the base made of?
How to spot: look for paper, linen, or silk shades; look for tassels or lace. Look for heavy glass, or painted glass (Tiffany shades have unique identifiable patterns), and solid metal (like brass or bronze) or wood for the base. These are all usually good indicators of an old lamp.
If you're looking for a unique piece to add to your home, scoring an old school lamp can be extremely satisfying. Not only are they decorative, they're also practical, and some of the best collectibles are the ones you can actually use.
Now that you know how to spot the reproduction lamps from the real ones, it's time to go out and find one. Good luck!