Lighting Ideas for Victorian Homes

How to Match Style to Style

Victorian hallway with a chandelier and a small security lamp
Victorian hallway with a chandelier and a small security lamp. Spaces Images/Getty Images

Do you live in a home that was built between 1840 and 1900? That's the reign of Queen Victoria, a period known as the Victorian Era. And the interesting question is, if so, what style is your house?

Many of us think that "Victorian" specifies a style of architecture or construction, but it doesn't. The truth is that there are at least ten different styles of houses that were built at some time during that sixty year period, including Italianate, Gothic Revival and Queen Anne.

The good news, as far as choosing lighting fixtures goes, is that there were only two types of fuel available. For most of the Victorian period, from its beginning until the early 1890s, homes were lighted by gas fixtures, in addition to oil lamps and candles. From the early 1890s, and continuing beyond Queen Victoria's reign until World War I, electricity was starting to become available and dual-fuel gas-electric fixtures became increasingly popular, especially for new construction.

In terms of lighting and light fixtures, the first fifty years of the Victorian Era, or Period, are part of the Gaslight Era. Gas lights were installed to light our offices, factories and streets, They were also installed to light our homes. In a dining room, foyer or large parlor, the choice might be a gas chandelier. In smaller rooms and work spaces, including bedrooms, hallways and kitchens, a gas pendant light might be the choice. In any room and in narrow halls, gas wall sconces were often installed to widen the space or to provide light without taking up valuable floor space.

As electricity became available and the effort to make it reliable was underway, those same spaces had electrical wiring installed with the gas piping, and fixtures which could use both forms of power or fuel appeared. The fixture choices were still related to the size of the space that needed to be lighted, of course, so gas-electric chandeliers were hung in parlors, entrance halls and dining rooms. Kitchens, hallways and bedrooms might have gas-electric pendant lights, and narrow halls, or very large rooms that needed more light sources to fill the space might have gas-electric wall sconces.

Which Fixture is the Best Choice?

In addition to fitting the size of the fixture to the size of the space, look for details such as engraved, colored or shaped glass shades that fit with the style of your house and the style in which you're decorating the room they'll be lighting. Look for period details in the fixture, like handles for gas valves in the pipes that lead to the gas burners and turn-button switched for the electrical sockets. Look for gas burner bowls that are open and point upward, and electrical sockets and shades that open downward.

Look for fixtures that best meet the need for light. That may seem obvious, but keep in mind that a twenty-light chandelier designed for a tall entrance or stairwell might overwhelm a parlor, and that a six- or eight-light fixture that would give just the right amount of light over your dining room table might leave the front hall looking a bit dim.

If you're installing several fixtures in the same room or hallway, and they're a mixture of types, such as wall sconces over the sideboard in a dining room with a chandelier, you should be able to find, and will probably want, fixtures designed to be together. Try not to feel constrained by the style, but also consider how the different fixtures will look when they're in one room together.

Finally, check carefully on the restrictions that every fixture has on the maximum bulb size. That limit is set to protect the wiring in the fixture from becoming overheated and creating a dangerous condition -- possibly even starting a fire. The question you need to answer before installing the fixture, then, is whether the number of bulbs times the wattage of those bulbs will give you as much light as you need. You can usually install a dimmer to reduce the amount of light. Increasing it above what the fixtures are rated for may be possible, but it isn't really safe.