Cover, Lighting for Street Traffic Control (c. 1927)
Edison Lamp Works Cover, Lighting for Street Traffic Control (c. 1927)

This post is part of a monthly series that explores the historical applications of building materials and systems through resources from the Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL), an online collection of AEC catalogs, brochures, and trade publications. The BTHL is a project of the Association for Preservation Technology, an international building preservation organization. Read more about the archive here.

Let there be light!

The evolution of architectural lighting can be traced through trade catalogs in the BTHL. The story starts with the gas lamp fixtures of the 19th century and then progresses to the technological advances of electric lighting. Combination electric and gas lamps were even used, briefly, as the public transitioned from one technology to another. The incandescent lamp reigned supreme for more than 50 years until the introduction of fluorescent lighting, in the 1930s, which quickly took over as the principal illumination source for the modern office and store.

The electric lamp presented a new opportunity for lighting designers, who shaped fixtures in a variety of architectural motifs—Classical, Colonial, Art Deco, and Modern are common names in light fixture catalogs, particularly those marketed for residential use. With origins in candles and gas lighting, chandeliers made the aesthetic conversion to electricity easily, for example. Electric lamps could also be used in places where flames could not, such as in recessed, cove, and even underwater lighting.

Later innovations include the integration of lighting into ceiling systems, a development that prevails today. The BTHL has hundreds of lighting catalogs that cover a wide range of lighting applications from airports to show windows.

The Edison Incandescent Electric Light, Edison Electric Light Co., c. 1887
This early lighting publication presents the advantages of the incandescent lamp over electric arc or gas lighting, including: safety, versatility, and economy. Today the incandescent lamp is challenged by a new generation of sources, including solid-state lighting.

Gas–Electric Combination Fixture, Welsbach Commercial Co., Columbus, Ohio, c. 1900
The “hybrid” lighting fixture of its day combined gas and electric lighting. While the fixtures were stylistic creations of the gas era, the ability of electric lights to be installed “downward” was a feature not possible with gas lighting. This combination fixture was available for a couple of decades before incandescent lamps finally secured the market.

Electric Fixtures 18, The Mitchell Vance Co., New York, 1913
Wall-mounted and ceiling-mounted fixtures receive equal play in this catalog. The highly decorative glass globes and shades, in a wide variety of design motifs, are typical of this era.

Residential Lighting Equipment, Kayline Co., Cleveland, c. 1920
Lighting fixtures inspired by a variety of architectural styles—Florentine, Colonial, Medieval, Rococo, and Italian Renaissance—speak to the eclectic revival era of domestic architecture popular at that time. The design of incandescent lamps to simulate candles showcases the trend for new technologies to imitate older ones.

Yuletide Lighting, National Lamp Works of General Electric Co., Cleveland, 1926
The use of decorative lighting for Christmas predates electricity, but electric lights were undoubtedly safer than candles for Christmas trees. General Electric (GE) introduced electric Christmas tree lights in the early 20th century. By the 1920s, a variety of electric lights for exterior use were also available.

The Lighting of Schools: A Guide to Good Practice, Holophone Co., New York, c. 1927
Still popular today, the single glass pendant light is frequently called the “schoolhouse globe.” This catalog features a range of fixtures as well as technical data about illumination levels.

Lighting for Street Traffic Control, Edison Lamp Works, Harrison, N.J., c. 1927
The traffic light is a ubiquitous part of the urban landscape that we take for granted. The first electric traffic lights were developed in the 1910s. By the 1920s, GE had a complete line of red–yellow–green traffic lights available.

Architecture of the Night, General Electric Co., Schenectady, N.Y., 1930
GE published this series of articles to suggest the potential of architectural illumination. The use of flood lighting for architectural effect remains common today.

The Muralier Formal, Art Metal Co., Cleveland, 1937
The Modern movement was quickly embraced by fixture designers. This 1937 catalog features Art Deco and streamline-style fixtures, some of which come with color filters for additional effects.

The Dream of Scientists Becomes an Accomplished Fact, Hygrade Sylvania Corp., Salem, Mass., c. 1940
Fluorescent lamps became the dominant light source for office and retailers in the mid-20th century. This catalog is a great testimonial to the advantages of this then-new technology.

Theatre Lighting, General Electric Co., Cleveland, 1938
The use of lighting for dramatic effects is illustrated in this catalog. From the illuminated marquee to interior cove lighting, the theater was a great opportunity for lighting designers to demonstrate their talents.

Daylume Surface Lighting Elements, Day-Brite Lighting, St. Louis, 1958
The integration of fluorescent light fixtures and suspended ceiling grids was an innovation of the 1950s. The Daylume fixture was an early entry into the marketplace and offered molded translucent covers in a variety of sizes and surface patterns.

The Light Idea: Virden Lighting, John C. Virden Co., Cleveland, 1959
The midcentury modern movement certainly had an impact in the design of light fixtures. This catalog features both traditional and modernist designs.