Writer and Researcher
Amy Gale
Living with Antiques Writing Samples
amygale@amygale.com 212-787-5971
“Historic Houses Wrestle with Energy Rules” Hartford Courant (March 28, 2008), H11 Congressional energy policy is probably not a big interest for most collectors, but a recent law is going to put antiques in a new light. The incandescent light bulb will be phased out, under the Energy Independence and Security Act.   Beginning in 2012, all light bulbs will have to meet efficiency standards. The compact fluorescent bulb (the only type to meet the standards) will soon be illuminating tables and chairs that were, in many cases, made in the age of candlelight. It’s a challenge for owners of historic houses—and for anyone who happens to own a chandelier that uses tiny flame-shaped bulbs. Fluorescent bulbs have a reputation for giving off a stark light, and some are oddly shaped. (The most recognizable is spiral-formed.) Responsive manufacturers are offering toned-down models in traditional shapes. Nonetheless, it will be many years before there is the same range of lighting currently provided by incandescent bulbs. The experience of the Hotchkiss-Fyler House, a Victorian house museum and home of the Torrington Historical Society, is instructive. Director Mark McEachern recounts the museum’s efforts a few years ago to use the energy efficient bulbs.   They worked for the non-public offices and storage facilities, but were less successful in the period rooms. The fluorescent light was, he says, “cool” and “did not show off the richness of the furniture.”  So the museum went back to using low-wattage incandescent bulbs to emulate turn-of-the century lighting. The Hotchkiss-Fyler House was designed for both and gas and electricity, which were the advanced forms of artificial lighting, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Electric lighting was cleaner and brighter, but for many years its use was restricted to street lights and other forms of exterior illumination. The problem was the quality of the light, which was harsh and intense. It was, in fact, the development of the incandescent bulb, in the 1870s, that made electricity the acceptable alternative to gas. Getting the right light is just one dilemma posed by the switch to fluorescent lighting. Finding bulbs that fit the early electric fixtures can be tricky, says McEachern. Not only must the bulb fit the socket, but it must look like a historic bulb. Phasing out the incandescent bulb will make the search even more difficult. There are also conservation concerns because some fluorescent bulbs emit higher levels of ultraviolet rays than do incandescent bulbs. Saving on your electric bill is pointless if it means damaging your collection of Amish quilts. The Victorian home was, by modern standards, pretty dim, but it was a locus of brightness compared to earlier centuries. Interiors were once very dark. Just how dark is evident in the candlesticks and sconces that are for sale at Eve Stone Antiques Ltd. in Woodbridge. A perusal of the inventory shows that while there was stylistic variety, there was little variety in the form of lighting. Society was, for many centuries, divided between those who had wax candles and those who had to make due with tallow. “Stinky and messy” is how co-owner Susan Stone describes the use of animal fat for home lighting. The molded stumps of fat tended to smoke and puddle, and the smell was nauseating. Wax candles were less offensive but just as ineffectual at dispelling the gloom.  They were also expensive. Many households passed their evenings huddled around one candle. Five or six—the number you would be lucky to rummage up during a blackout—would be reserved for gala nights. Stone explains that brass and silver were used for lighting fixtures because of their reflective qualities. Mirrors, which were then a luxury item, were deployed for the same effect. Nonetheless, she adds, “less dark” was the best that could be achieved. Conveying this ambience—without compromising safety—is the mission of historic house museums, like the Thankful Arnold House, an 18th-century salt box that is the home of the Haddam Historical Society. There are no electric lights in the period rooms, says executive director Elizabeth Malloy.   Occasionally, she gives twilight tours—“You can see where you’re going,” she assures—but even by daylight, the house can be shadowy. It’s a look that probably is too stringent for anyone living in a historic house today. Sitting in the deepening gloom could dispirit even the most historically fastidious. Living with 18th-century things is not at all the same as living in the 18th century. Nonetheless, industrial-style lighting is not the solution. “We’re all for saving the planet,” says McEachern.  But planning for the future should not prevent seeing the past.