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Fiberglass Lampshades

by Glynis Ward

From "Fifties Homestyle: Popular Ornaments Of The USA" by Mark Burns and Louis DiBonis. Photo by Norinne Betjemann. Harper And Row, 1988.

There's a certain beauty in a slightly dusty, mildly tarnished old lampshade. When turned off, it fades into the background of a room, its lackluster off-white almost disappears. But when lit, the lampshade springs to life, radiating the warm-toned glow of age. The mere mention of "50's lamp" sets the imagination into thinking all sorts of wild and weird shapes, oddly shaped shades and overwhelming bad taste.

During the Victorian period, like all home décor of that time, lamps turned from being plain and functional to highly decorative and sometimes dangerous! Lampshades of both silk and paper were used, and often proved disastrous. During this same time, glass production was at the forefront of science, and the first incandescent light bulbs were being discovered, and fiberglass was beginning to be produced. Liquid glass was forced through a metal sieve, and then spun in either short or long threads in to a desired form. The first American fiberglass lampshade was shown at the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, 1893.

From "Turned On: Decorative Lamps From The Fifties" by Leland and Crystal Payton. Photo by Leland Payton. Cross River Press, 1989.

In 1882, Thomas Edison had opened his first power station in New Jersey, and by the early 20th century, homes of the rich were being wired for electricity right through the original gas systems. At first gas lamps were merely converted to take electric bulbs, but soon people learned that electricity would free them to place light in areas which before were impossible. Electricity was wired into ceilings, and lamps could protrude sideways from a wall. The luxury of the new electricity was reflected in the increasingly decorative electrical lamps.

By the 1920's, there were several lampshade manufacturers in America. Many shades were made from silk and paper, (much more safe with a bulb!) although the Art Nouveau influence also brought an interest in formed metal shades and art glass such as produced by Tiffany. But these very fancy shades were just as expensive as their lamp bases. Suburban America wanted decoration, but at an affordable price!

Reproduction fiberglass lampshades abound. One tip to find vintage shades: check the shade for signs of wear. If the fiberglass resin is shiny and clean, it might be a repro.

Fiberglass was proving to be an excellent material for the home. It was very strong and could take endless wear and tear. During the late 40's fiberglass was being molded into furniture, and pressed paper thin and made into lampshades similar to paper and vellum shades. These consisted of metal frames with the fiberglass wrapped around them, and held onto the frame though holes with lacing. The fiberglass was most often left white, but sometimes was colored an off-white, pink, pale green or turquoise blue. The surface of the shade was frequently decorated with popular motifs (leaves, squiggles, atomic shapes, stars) in either gold or black.

From "Turned On: Decorative Lamps From The Fifties" by Leland and Crystal Payton. Photo by Leland Payton. Cross River Press, 1989.

In the 50's, science was influencing every facet of life. Household objects began to take on space age characteristics lamps went from strange to bizarre! Thickly molded fiberglass, similar to that used in furnishings was molded into funnels and placed around bulbs. Flat shades covered some, echoing the disc shape of a flying saucer. Metal arms held the shades at all manner of odd angles. The fiberglass of these shades could be pressed flat, or left "furry" for texture.

During the 60's, plastic shades began to replace fiberglass. Its use became more experimental and began to be used as insulation, for boats and other vehicles, and as electrical insulation. But the old shades are still with us, because fiberglass does not break down or wear out easily.

Links of interest:

How to clean lampshades, including fiberglass shades

An amazing lamp with wild lampshades!


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