Wall sconces are one of the few fixtures that we install for different uses, and different levels of light, depending on the room. And it's possibly the oldest type of lighting fixture in existence.
All of the other fixtures inside our houses are mounted either in or on the ceiling, or they sit on a table or the floor. Because a wall sconce is hung on the wall, it provides light without cluttering up the ceiling. It also doesn't take up any space on the floor and doesn't have to have a table to sit on.
What Is a Wall Sconce?
A wall sconce is a unique type of lighting fixture. It's one of only two types of mounted fixtures that can be bought with a switch in it so that it doesn't have to be controlled by a wall switch.
In a corridor, wall sconces can add both light and interest without interfering with movement. They can add more light over a breakfast nook or in a reading corner. They can be the bedside lights in a bedroom, freeing up the nightstand or working where there isn't room for a table beside the bed. They can accent, and provide light for, the table in the entrance hall where we drop our keys and the mail, or for a sideboard or serving table.
Wall sconces can add light to a dark corner in any room and help you make the room seem larger. In a room with a chandelier, matching wall sconces can fill in light around the sides of the room and balance the light from the chandelier, which might otherwise seem harsh.
In most locations, a wall sconce doesn't need to provide a lot of light, or lumens. In the bathroom, though, a pair of wall sconces with brighter bulbs, flanking the mirror over the lavatory or vanity, can provide plenty of light for grooming and, at the same time, be part of the styling, or decor, of the room.
If you're going to install a wall sconce that will have its own switch built-in, all you need to do is cut the opening in the wall for an old-work switch or fixture box—the same box you would mount in the ceiling to add a new flush or pendant fixture—and run the circuit wiring to that spot from above the ceiling or below the floor, or from a nearby receptacle box. For it to be controlled by a wall switch or dimmer, you'll need to take the circuit wiring to the box for the switch before taking it to the box where the sconce will be mounted.
A wall sconce usually looks and works best if it's just high enough not to be accidentally bumped. Say between 6 and 6-1/2 feet above the floor. You might want it lower than that next to your bed or over your breakfast table, and that's fine. Just keep it high enough to be out of harm's way.
Wall sconces are decorative as well as practical, so try to avoid mounting one so high that people will have to crane their necks to see it. They're meant to be seen as well as to see by, and usually won't look "right" if they're more than 6-1/2 feet, or 78 inches, above the floor.
Wall sconces can be elegant, rustic, subtle or bold. Because they've been around so long, you can choose ones for any decor from classic revival through medieval, Victorian or Arts and Crafts to contemporary. They may, in fact, be not just the oldest type of lighting fixture still in use, but the oldest of all lighting fixtures.
History and Origins
The oldest known form of artificial light is probably the ancestor of the flashlight: A torch, or rather a brightly burning stick, pulled from the cooking fire and carried into the woods to see what made that unusual noise, or further into the cave, so that we could see the shape of the cave, our tools and bedding, and each other.
Once inside the cave, though, holding that torch got in the way of doing anything else. So the logical thing to do was to look for something we could do with it that would give us the use of both the light and our hands, and that wasn't likely to create a fire hazard. One way to do that might be to find a place to wedge it into the wall.
Just doing that—wedging the torch into the rock wall—ensconced the light. It put it in a secure place, and that's one definition of "ensconce." So now we had the light, the use of our hands, and the root of the fixture's name. But we didn't yet have the fixture.
People probably started improving the spots where they would mount the torches right away. Over time, it would become a habit to scout for and improve, places to mount the torches most effectively. And as we moved out of caves and started building structures, having places build in for lighting, or having pottery pieces made and attached to the walls for holding torches or candles or oil lamps became more important. When that happened, we had the first wall sconces. And we're still enjoying them today.