Tiara of Lights: The History of Chandeliers

By: hunter
Chandeliers have always seemed synonymous with elegance, wealth, and beauty. Immortalized by Hollywood, one might believe that no grand house was complete, unless it had a lavish cut-crystal chandelier hanging in the formal dining room. Surprisingly, the true history of the chandelier dates back to a time long before beautiful southern belles and movie stars. In fact, the first chandeliers were quite humble, when compared to their modern counterparts.

The word 'chandelier' comes from the French word 'chandelle,' meaning candle, and the earliest forms of these lights simply consisted of a wooden cross, designed with a small spike at each end. Candles, made of animal fat in those days, were attached to each of these wooden spikes and the chandelier was then supported from the ceiling. Since there was no electricity, the only alternatives were a small sputtering tallow that could be carried about, wall sconces which only illuminated small sections of rooms, or the glow of a fireplace. The chandelier, therefore, offered a better form of lighting and was commonly used in places such as medieval churches and abbeys during the 15th century.

The first chandeliers that were designed for private use, were only found in the homes of the very wealthy or powerful. The humble farmer or common tradesman had little use for such forms of lighting, most planning their days around the rising and setting of the sun. Modest homes were often poorly constructed and tiny, the concept of a chandelier being little more than a fire hazard to such domiciles.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, the chandelier began to find its way into the homes of more prosperous merchants and, as housing quality began to improve, finally into the homes of the working class. While wealthier homes boasted ornately-crafted chandeliers of brass, the more common households used wood, wrought iron, and tin sheet for their chandeliers. Additionally, the chandelier began to evolve as artisans began to experiment with light refraction, using mirrors, polished brass plates and quartz crystals.

In 1676, an English glassmaker, George Ravenscroft, introduced leaded glass to the world of lighting. Softer to work with and better able to refract light, this soon became the preferred material for chandeliers. By the late 1800's, a better method of cutting the leaded glass would be perfected by Daniel Swarovsky, of Austria. This would mark a turning point for the chandelier, where it would cease to simply be functional, but would now become a work of art.

The invention of electric lighting and better methods of manufacturing have only served to help the chandelier survive throughout the ages. Modern creators have taken this art form to new levels, creating chandeliers beyond one's wildest imaginations; glass slippers, martini glasses, chandeliers that look like thousands of glowing flower blossoms or even u.f.o.s, it would seem that the possibilities are endless. Ranging in price from hundreds to thousands of dollars, there is a chandelier for every home and, seemingly, every decor theme imaginable. Having outlived the test of time, it appears to be a lighting form that is bound to remain, and keep surprising us, far into the future.
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