An American Art Form: Exploring the emergence of leaded glass lamps

By Joe Porcelli

Unlike other members of the decorative arts, the common stained or leaded glass lamp has a history that sets it apart in the fields of glass art and interior decorative elements. In its short lifespan of not quite 150 years, what we generically and incorrectly refer to as the Tiffany lamp (Tiffany is a brand name and not an art form or discipline in itself) has enjoyed an interesting existence.

On one hand, the finest examples are considered some of the most valuable, beautiful and desirable objects on earth, fetching fine art prices in private dealings and at auction. On the other, the leaded glass lamp has been commercialized to the point of absurdity, where the most insignificant examples can be found in home improvement stores, flea markets, home shopping programs and junk shops. Despite this drastic polarity, the leaded glass lamp at its finest remains a young, vibrant medium worthy of its continuing and future

This Bouquet lamp, 22 inches tall from the Studio of Joseph Porcelli, earned $19,837 at James D. Julia Auctioneers in 2010. (Photo courtesy James D. Julia)

This Bouquet lamp, 22 inches tall from the Studio of Joseph Porcelli, earned $19,837 at James D. Julia Auctioneers in 2010. (Photo courtesy James D. Julia)


The leaded glass lamp is unique for two important reasons. First, prior to the late 19th century, it has no European heritage or historical precedent. No ancient artifacts resembling a leaded lamp have been dug up. No medieval, renaissance or baroque masters delegated their designs to dimensional glass design as they did to stained glass window fabrication, and no one has, as yet, unearthed any information or evidence identifying the originator, or originators, of the form. Many names are associated with the earliest examples of leaded glass lamp art and craft, but none of them can, or have claimed, authorship. This distinguishes the leaded glass lamp as an artistic and craft-based oddity of sorts, as it popped up almost full blown in both its production and image at some time during the late 19th century.

Tiffany Tulip lamp, 22 inches tall. (Photo courtesy Joe Porcelli)

Tiffany Tulip lamp, 22 inches tall. (Photo courtesy Joe Porcelli)

Furthermore, its development cannot be traced to any one discipline. True, the lamp has obvious links to the stained glass arts and related crafts, given its basis of pieces of colored glass fit together by means of a metal matrix; and also to the art of mosaics, despite the difference in method of construction. Mosaic glass is set into a bed of cement or a similar bonding material while the leaded glass lamp’s glass pieces are surrounded by a metal foil (copper). But the specific product consisting of pieces of colored glass fit together using a flexible matrix to create a representational design onto a three-dimensional form and then set upon a standard support as a finished source of light is exclusively a late 19th century phenomenon whose real source and periods of development remain a mystery.

Secondly, it is an entirely American invention. Just like the light bulb, cotton gin, abstract expressionism, rock ‘n’ roll, Mickey Mouse and Elvis, the leaded glass lamp is all American. In its relatively short history as a decorative art, and despite the fact that the entire field has been dominated by the works of one firm, the leaded glass lamp has become an icon of domestic lighting with exclusive American roots.

To further understand its cloudy emergence in the decorative arts and crafts, it is helpful to consider the developments and conditions that were contemporary to the period. What kind of cultural environment provided the requisite dynamics for such an invention to come to being? The economic and industrial landscape of the period was marked by an unrivalled surge of manufacturing innovation and invention; one of the results being the emergence of what we have come to describe as the industrial arts, an apropos category for the fledgling leaded glass lamp.

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If we accept the time period when the leaded glass lamp first made its appearance, circa 1897, we can also identify an almost perfect storm of economic and manufacture-related conditions that would provide the requisite opportunities for the new leaded glass lamp to flourish. Add to this the introduction of electric, incandescent lighting, and the ground work for the leaded lamp was firmly in place.

The earliest of leaded glass lamps were no doubt fuel lamps illuminated by a gas burner and flame, and in this category, the Tiffany Studios held the reigns. Aided by their involvement with the Bray Patent for gas burners, and up until its expiration in 1903, the Tiffany Studios were able to secure the market and name recognition necessary to establish their lighting products and develop design and production techniques far in advance of any competitors.

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Add to this, the introduction of the “copper foil” technique of framing and joining the individual pieces of stained glass into a lamp form – another of Tiffany’s seemingly “signature” innovations (though no claim or patent for the technique has ever been attributed to the firm, nor to anyone else for that matter) – and you have the makings of the new decorative art form known as the leaded glass lamp.

The popular legend that the idea for the leaded glass lamp was inspired by the need to make use of all of the excess glass left from stained glass window construction has no real basis or logic. For one thing, the types of glasses required for stained glass window production differed from those preferred for lamps. The former relied on glass that easily transmitted light to the point of translucence and transparence, while lamps required glass that was more opaque. Additionally, the design, tooling and production processes inherent in lamp creation are in no way the result of spontaneity or any “off the cuff, end of the day” effort. The process is a sophisticated and perfectly integrated combination of artistic vision, three-dimensional design, precision tooling, glass working technique and component metal (brass, copper and bronze) additives. I will discuss these elements in a future article on the subject.

For a good part of the early 20th century, several American manufacturers such as Tiffany, Handel, Bigelow and Kennard, Duffner & Kimberly, Seuss and a host of others adopted the leaded glass lamp as their own, providing a body of work that remains unique, substantial, rich in invention and timeless beauty and a testament to the innovative spirit of the era.

About our columnist: craftsperson since 1979. He is the former publisher of Glass Craftsman Magazine, the producer and publisher of the GCTV line of glass instructional videos, and the author of “The Lamp Making Handbook” and “Stained Glass, Jewels of Light.” He is currently a full-time glass artist, whose original lamps and bronze bases have fetched record auction prices for contemporary leaded glass.