The history of porcelain light fixtures — classics for 1920s, 1930s & 1940s homes


I love porcelain bathroom sconces of all colors and designs. I had a sense these were popular in the first part of the 20th century, but wasn’t sure of their dates or history. So, I reached out to Bo Sullivan of 

Arcalus Period Design  to learn more. Bo is the guru of vintage lighting history and consultant to Rejuvenation, is pretty much the top source for reproduction vintage porcelain lighting, and just as I expected, he was super helpful on this topic providing great information — and lots of vintage photos, which, from here forward I show in chronological order (put your cursor over each photo to see the year). –>

Some of the basics that I learned about porcelain lights: The style becme popular in the late 1920s. Like other porcelain bathroom and kitchen fixtures and tile, porcelain lights were desired because they were “sanitary” in an age very cautious of and careful about warding off disease. Their styling was charming… they were available in a range of colors and decorative designs … and the cost was relatively low.

Porcelain lighting was dominant in bathrooms and kitchens throughout the Depression years and continuing to the end of World War II.

Porcelain sconces and ceiling fixtures — even some chandelier designs — continued to be sold widely through the 1950s, although more “atomic” chrome-plated fixtures overtook ‘old fashioned’ porcelain lighting in terms of widespread popularity once the Populuxe years (1953-onward) were in full throttle.

Porcelain light fixtures were mostly used in bathrooms, but you could also find them in kitchens and even bedrooms. Some had shades covering the bulb, but there were designs with exposed bulbs, too. In addition to solid color fixtures, you could also get designs with small flowers and also pin striping in metallic paint.

Bo was able, quick as a wink, to give me more information on the genesis of porcelain lights… he identifies some of the key brands…. and we even learn about parsing the term ‘vitreous.’ Bo also sent me all of the photos here — all from the Rejuvenation archives. Thank you, Rejuvenation!


Bo explained:

While the earliest common examples of the type appear in the mid-1920s, the category really hit its stride parallel with the explosion of colored sinks, tubs and toilets that were introduced beginning in 1929.  I’d call them a 1930s phenomenon rooted in Modernistic (Art Deco) and Streamline trends, that continued into the 1950s.  Lots of colors were available to coordinate with bath fixtures, and even full metallic glazed options were made.

A few of the major manufacturers included Pass & Seymour (Alabax), Paulding (Kaolite), Durock (Efcolite) and Porcelier (known for having some of the more elaborate, decorative and dainty styling on the market).  There were porcelain fixtures from many smaller manufacturers also, like Levolier, Franklin, and some lighting companies contracted to have their own lines made for them, including Markel, Lightolier, Frankelite, Sears and Montgomery Ward.

And for our friends to the north, “SS” porcelain fixtures by Smith & Stone Ltd. were “Made in Canada by Canadians with Canadian Capital.”

There were dozens of “-oliers” on the market in every variation you can think of…. the -orama of its day.  Porcelier was a company that specialized in porcelain fixtures.  Levolier was a different company (and not Lightolier) that had one of the earlier porcelain fixtures on the market, attached.

Most porcelain fixtures were distributed through jobbers/distributors rather than being sold directly by the company that manufactured them.

Digging in, there is a lot of potential vocabulary confusion that warrants a quick aside.  One important distinction to be aware of is the difference between “porcelain” (or vitreous china, like your toilet) and “porcelain enamel” (or vitreous enamel, like on an old stove).  In both cases, “vitreous” means “like glass” – something that chemically changed when fired at high heat, becoming glass-like.  If the base is clay or ceramic, it is porcelain (not true porcelain necessarily, which is a specific type of ceramic material, but “porcelain” in the same way that “silverware” isn’t always made of silver, but has come to mean flatware in general), and if the base is metal like iron or steel, it is porcelain enamel.

I have an active ebay search going for ‘porcelier sconces’ — because there, my sense is that this word is thrown around like ‘Kleenex’ for tissues. I ask Bo — why would that be? Has ‘porcelier light’ become synonymous with ‘porcelain light’? Nope, he doesn’t go along with my kleenex-theory:

Fixtures manufactured by the Porcelier company were marketed as “Porceliers” (often side-by-side with Kaolites and Efcolites – can see why those names didn’t stick) so I imagine that would be the source, though in my experience I would not say that “porcelier” is a generic name for any porcelain fixture.  Maybe in certain parts of the country it is more common though.  I usually just hear them referred to as porcelain fixtures.

My last question to Bo was, Are these fixtures particularly “rare” or “collectible” today? He responded:

The plainer white porcelain “staple” or generic-type fixtures are no more rare than any other vintage lights I’d say, and the ivory-toned ones with exposed bulbs and little painted floral accents – “Grandma fixtures” we used to call them around here – are still an acquired taste for many.  What I would call rare would be the high-style Deco-era fixtures in metallic or colored glazes, especially with the right coordinating shades, which could have been custard glass and/or striped with painted or metallic lines to match.  Interest is strong, but not necessarily wide enough to be driving prices up beyond what dealers know to be fair for a cool and unusual fixture of the era.  I.e., I think there is plenty of room for greater appreciation of these kinds of lights.

One detail worth mentioning is that these lights often had a “convenience outlet” cast into them – convenient for shocking yourself to death.  When we rewire, we always disable this outlet to be safe and meet modern codes.

Yes, readers: If you buy a vintage light — consult with a properly licensed professional to ensure it is safe and/or needs to be rewired. You need to do this even if the light is New Old Stock.

Thank you again, Bo Sullivan and Rejuvenation for this story.

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Comments

  1. Chris says

    Thanks for this article, Pam! While I enjoy reading about all the different eras — and I know that your blog is more specifically focused on mid-mod-mad — my house is from the 30s. What a treat to have an article that applies to my home! It’s like finding an extra milk chocolate coated toffee (my fave) in box of already wonderful candies.

    You made my day!

  2. cheryl m says

    I enjoy reading about the mid mod renovations here on your blog Pam, but hooray a post for my house’s aesthetic! My early 30s house has a partially intact pink (pink and white) bathroom. The original pink porcelain sconces (and milkglass shades) are still here to light the room, and are well coordinated with the pink glazed trim details on the wall (floor cove, bullnose midway up, trim around tiled arch alcove for tub, and 1/4 round at the ceiling), that I also suspect is original to the house. The floor tile (also still intact) is white and pink unglazed hex tile.

    I’ve just about finished a vintageification-refresh of my house’s other (not original bath), including a set of less-common porcelain sconces that took about 5 months to get my hands on (eBay trawling).

  3. dulcie says

    Light fixtures are my favorite, I always gravitate to the lighting section first on my trips to the ReStore. I can look at them for hours.

    I’ve got a couple of the enamel type lights in my house, but they’ve been badly used, painted and rusted in places. I’m trying to figure out the best way to clean them up so they can go back to their original glory.

  4. TappanTrailerTami says

    Ahhh, thank you for a post on my favorite era, and one of my favorite collectibles of all time – Porcelier – not just lighting, but they also made a whole slew of kitchen wares, including percolator sets, porcelain waffle irons and toasters, etc!

    A note for the readers here – like Bo says, bare bulb fixtures tend to be an acquired taste. I’ll point out some of the not-so-obvious advantages of them, whether they are porcelain, or one of the ultra ornate polychrome metal deco chandeliers, simple metal ceiling lights, or sconces from the 20’s or 30’s. The era of when showing off your light bulbs was “in” and showed your visitors that you had the “latest and greatest” lights in the neighborhood.

    Advantages: 1. No glass or plastic shades to catch dying bugs! YAY!

    2. No glass shades to have to take down and wash, or remove to change a light bulb.

    3. These are SOOOO excellent on a dimmer switch because they remind one of the ambiance of old movie theater lighting, just beautiful.

    4. Bare bulb fixtures (including most porcelain fixtures) are still relatively affordable in comparison to some of the other antique or vintage lighting out there. If you hunt carefully, you can get some real deals.

    5. Porcelain in particular doesn’t generally degrade over time as metal finish fixtures can – they pretty much stay looking wonderful for a long time (forever?).

    • Heart says

      Thanks for your tips TTT. My 1927 house came with cold painted, polychrome metal ceiling lights I like the historic ‘bare bulb’ look, never thought of a dimmer, Thank YOU!

  5. TappanTrailerTami says

    And to add to Pam’s safety warning on having your lights checked out by a professional:

    If you have lights re-wired be SURE your professional replaces the cardboard insulator sleeves! They get dry/cracked over 40-80 years, and are a fire hazard. Don’t accept a re-wiring job that doesn’t include this.

  6. Shannon H. says

    Lighting with bare bulbs doesn’t appeal to me and no doubt didn’t for some people back then too. I remember when I was a kid (in the 1970s) there was an old plastic or plastic-like yellow lamp shade up in the attic dormer room that had two round metal clips for fitting over a light bulb.

    My grandma’s house had one of those two bulb ceiling fixtures in the dining room and some of the light switches were still the push button kind. I wonder if the next owners changed all that? Probably.

    • Heart says

      Yes, those clip on plastic shades were cute, I think Woolworth’s sold them as after market shades. Loved the old push button switches too, bet they’re still available somewhere.

  7. says

    Thanks for the great article Pam.

    If your readers like the pictures of Alabax fixtures, they’ll be happy to know that Rejuvenation has just introduced a new family of Alabax reproductions, in white, black, and gray:
    http://www.rejuvenation.com/model/campaigns/porcelain

    If folks want to see just the old porcelain fixtures in Rejuvenation’s restored selection, try this link:
    http://www.rejuvenation.com/catalog/categories/restored-antiques/featured/porcelain

  8. Barb S. says

    I have a multi decade-orated house, and I also enjoyed reading the history of these early light fixtures. Most of the time I am decorating on gut instinct, and I am pleased to find out my “Porcelier” is from the right decade. Our dining room-foyer combo is 30s & 40s. Now I am dying to take it off the wall and look for a label!

    TappanTrailerTami, I agree! I’m a HUGE fan of bare bulbs, myself… I appreciated the extra safety info too, and about the “convenience outlet”.

  9. Chutti says

    Awww. I just liked everything there.
    Glad to get some sense of the history. Our house is a multi-era hybrid: built in 1920, with an addition in 1956. We’re taking both back to period.
    Just bought a porcelier-looks about 1930’s to go over our late 1920’s Spark stove in the kitchen.
    As for the comments on push buttons and exposed lights-we are eagerly replacing them all-mostly done after year 1.
    Hadn’t thought about dimmers on exposed lights, but love the idea.

    Some of the polychrome stuff just really excites me. I’m lucky that hubby the artist can restore them to original. Our best polychrome score so far: a pushbutton dual switch that matches the bedroom light fixture. Never seen another one! Stay tuned for pix of the polychrome restoration for my pink and blue bathroom. Should be a deco delight.

    And yes, thanks for the reminder about the extra outlet in the light fixture. I just always remember those cords hanging down in unsafe places, anyway.

    Great stuff!

  10. FortiesFan says

    Believe it or not, the garage is a great places to find vintage porcelain sconces (and other fixtures) at estate sales. Many times, the house underwent a “do-it-yourself” bathroom renovation at some point. The Depression-era mentality of never throwing good things away still lingered, so the homeowner would carefully wrap up the old light fixtures and store them in the garage. The best part is that the fixtures are usually not priced, and those running the sale are usually willing to let them go for a song.

    • pam kueber says

      Yes! You are right! I have found lots of great deals on vintage lighting in basements and garages. Ummm, I have vintage lighting store — in my attic!

      • Heart says

        And MY garage! I can’t resist rescuing old light fixtures lol “They just don’t make em like they used to” <3

  11. couldbeveronica says

    I know this thread has been long asleep–but I was just packing up china to move from my 90’s tract ranch to my new 1966 DAYLIGHT RANCH (woohoo!) and noticed that the teapot my grandmother passed along to me was a Porcelier! I’m guessing it was manufactured after the company relocated to PA from OH in the 30’s. I’ll send a picture of the teapot–and of my ranch with WOOD PANELING AND BEAMS IN THE KITCHEN (also woohoo!)–if anyone is interested (and if someone explains to me how to do it).

    • pam kueber says

      Congrats, couldbeveronica, connect with me via the Contact form on this blog (at side and on bottom) and I can give you info on where to send me pics.

  12. Nery says

    Hello all:
    I recently purchased a old cottage and have five of these Porcelier Porcelain ceiling light fixtures I would like to sell. Ebay has the same ones I have and are asking $500 each. I am willing to part with all five for $1500 the bundle. please contact me via email if interested.

  13. Dave says

    I saw a light socket adapter today and it looked to me like it had two extra prongs on the side of it and it was marked as 240 v it was just a add on to the screw in socket take the bulb out screw this one in and put your bulb back in but on the side was the two prongs for another plug not a regular plug bot two u shaped prongs and it was stamped 240 v just wondering what plunged in there. The design was wild there was one from the middle prong and one from the outer rim can you give me some kind of answer of what they might have used this for

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