Streetlights to Serial Killers: a Brief History of Lampshades

Imagine a light bulb hanging from a ceiling, swinging back and forth. The rest of the room can be conjured from just that initial image: the walls are probably cracked or concrete, a broken chair may lie on the ground, and the atmosphere is definitely cold. The naked bulb summons scenes from interrogation rooms, torture chambers, and basements of serial killers. Yet just one important detail—one addition to the scene—can undo all of that doom and gloom. That one addition is a lampshade. Suddenly we’re transported to a room of decadence, elegance, and warmth. The lampshade comes late within the history of mankind’s struggle with light and darkness, offering a subtle middle ground where light can be dimmed and manipulated. But the story of lampshades isn’t just one of opulence—as you’ll see, darkness has a way of overtaking the light, even when protected by beautiful covered fixtures.

The first form of lampshades appeared in 18th century Paris. As street lamps began to line the French capital’s streets, fixtures were put in place so that the gas-lit lanterns would glow downward, creating pools of illumination in the otherwise darkened roads. The streetlamp, along with the lampshade that controlled and filtered the light, led to a new era in which urban society was no longer dictated by the presence of the sun.

It was only with the invention of the incandescent light bulb in 1879, however, that lampshades became a crucial aesthetic object of interior design. As more and more homes during the Victorian Period swapped candles for bulbs, a necessity to accessorize and control this new source of light was needed. Thus the lampshade moved out of the dingy streets and into the domestic sphere. Lampshades of the Victorian period were made from a variety fabrics and were adorned with all sorts of add-ons. Tassels, fringes and lace layered elegant shapes and served to transform the lampshade into a decorative item of it’s own.

Just as candle sticks were made of silver and gold and engraved with custom designs, so too, did the light bulb need its own accessory to prop it up, control it, and ultimately aestheticize it. In so doing, the lampshade became a modern symbol of comfort and conspicuous consumption.

By the end of the 19th century, artists and designers were experimenting with the form of the lampshade. American artist Louis Comfort Tiffany started to produce lampshades made of stained glass that would glow majestically when placed above a glowing bulb, somewhat reminiscent of stained glass windows. The Tiffany and Victorian period fixtures remain some of the most iconic versions of the lampshade and still influence major interior designers today.

But the history of lampshades is not completely bright. On at least two occasions there have been allegations of lampshades being made out of human skin. While proven untrue, there have been myths that Ilse Koch, the wife of the commandant of the Nazi concentration camp of Buchenwald, possessed lampshades made out of human skin. The subject was discussed within Marc Jacobson’s book, The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans. But again, after many months of researching whether or not an antique lampshade was made from human skin, it was proven through special DNA testing that the material was goat’s skin and not human. Possibly inspired by the Nazi myth, infamous American serial killer Ed Gein created a lampshade made of human flesh. That and other grotesque wares were discovered by policemen when they raided his house upon arrest. Such blemishes in the history of the lampshade show that more than just dimming light, the special object can also blacken it.

Nowadays, the lampshade has become for the most part, a standard issue item, thought of in terms of kids mini-desk lamps and handy living-room fixtures. But nothing can stop them from

Being the perfect invention to dim an overly bright bulb. Now if only we had something to protect us from the dark when we flicked the off switch…

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