Lampshades, that is. Pig bladder or pink silk vintage lampshades can take ten years off the wrinkles on your face. When it comes to lampshades, you can naturally photo shop your salon “selfie” by sitting next to the right antique lampshade choice.
While the 19th century might have been limited to capturing the moment in black and white, turn of the century ladies certainly recognized the talents of “la vie en rose” lampshades to turn grey, sallow complexions into positively radiating countenances. In the words of one Victorian dowager, “…a dim railway light is still becoming to me.” With the right shade there was no need to stand on the platform.
A bit of lampshade history…
The very first lampshades were designed to accompany domestic oil lamps. Their purpose was not so much aesthetic, but more protection from the open flames. During the 17th century, as oil lamps began to appear in European cities, reflectors were installed to direct the light to the dark streets below. With the introduction of much brighter gas lamps, shades in opaline, glass, parchment and fabric were introduced to dim the light.
In 1879, with Swan and Edison’s invention of the incandescent filament electric lamp, the light source became even more intense. Shades were introduced not only to dim the glare, but to disperse the light within the room. Hence, the origin of the French term for lampshade abat jour (literally “kill the day”).
While candlelight flattered the face, electricity seemed to emphasize the flaws. 19th century ladies took to lampshades in a big way in order to soften the luminosity of their salons. Fabric lampshades with beads, tassels, and lace became all the rage.
Thinking Pink Fabric
More often than not, in the homes of the elite, these shades were pink or at least lined in rose silk. The Oxford Handbook of the History of Consumption refers to “airy pink lampshades” which graced the living-rooms of elite European apartments during the early part of the 20th century. This practice continued through to the 1970s and 80s. Aficionados of the novels of Dominick Dunne will remember characters like Pauline Mendelsohn of An Inconvenient Woman or Lil Altemus in People like Us insisting that lampshades be lined in pink silk. Pink was also the most common colour choice for Victorian fairy lamps.
Despite the fact that these pink fabric lampshades (even when new) were rather fragile, one can still find examples coming up at auction. Restoration and cleaning is not easy, although I have had some success with an electric hairdryer and spray carpet cleaner. Nonetheless, even the most well-worn shade from the past can still positively “light up” a room in a cloud of benevolent pink (if you don’t look too closely at the shade).
With today’s fad of the filament bulb hanging unceremoniously without base or shade, pink or pink lined lampshades might seem a thing of the past. However, even today one can occasionally find contemporary examples of pink-lined shades at the likes of IKEA, leading one to believe that the Nordic cultures, too, understood and still appreciate the narcissistic virtues of the pink shade.
Pig Bladder Lampshades
Another flattering lampshade of choice at the turn of the century was constructed from stretched pig bladders fitted over a wire support. Throughout history, pig bladders have been used in a wide variety of ways offering support for the French adage that everything in the pig is either edible or useful, “tout est bon dans le cochon”. The ancients inflated bladders to construct precursors of today’s footballs. A number of French chefs still consider an inflated pig bladder as the proper receptacle for cooking a chicken. It should be no surprise then that pig bladders were also a coveted choice in lampshades. Popular in Europe in the 19th century on up to the 1950s, pig bladder shades recreate the flattering kind of glow one finds with candlelight.
Of course, today some people might find the whole bladder idea rather distasteful. In order to truly appreciate pig bladder shades, one has to get past more sinister tissue shade connotations like those raised in Marc Jacobson’s best seller The Lampshade: A Holocaust Detective Story from Buchenwald to New Orleans (2010) which delved into the existence of human skin lampshades. And indeed, while it was rumoured that Ilse Koch, wife of the Nazi commandant at Buchenwald, possessed lampshades made from human skin, DNA testing later refuted this urban legend (revealing the material as goat’s skin).
Pig bladder lampshades were available until the 1990s when the last producer in France closed shop. Restored, these lampshades complement contemporary decor more naturally than the aforementioned antique pink fabric shades (which in today’s interiors seem capable of functioning solely as isolated art objects).
With the right lamp base, pig bladder shades can look great even in contemporary interior design emitting a warm glow to the room. Their rusticity definitely compliments wrought iron chandeliers and light fixtures giving a homey, comfortable, country feel.
Pig bladders are much more resilient than fabric shades, hence, one often comes across numerous intact examples at auctions or flea markets. Treated pig bladder is also easier to restore and clean than fabric counterparts. A former lampshade manufacturer recommends cleaning the pig bladder with a damp cloth followed by a nourishing treatment of paraffin oil or clear shoe polish. Once dusted off, refurbished, and matched with the right base, these pig bladder shades can still offer the kind of luminosity which puts everyone in their best light.
Some final lampshade lore…
Home decoration at the turn of the century understood the importance of recreating the candlelight glow with the pig bladder or pink fabric lampshade. Curiously, it was also at about this time that putting a lampshade on your head became a universal symbol of drunkenness. Perhaps the tassels, beads and lace of late 19th century shades looked a bit like a hat or the warmth of the lampshade light encouraged drinkers to let their hair down. The incongruity of putting a shade on the head became an image provoking laughter.
The idea grew in vaudeville and silent films in the 1910s and 1920s. Who can forget Charlie Chaplin in The Adventurer (1917) standing still with a lampshade on his head as the cops pass him by? Or Larry of the Three Stooges (1950) hiding under a lampshade while holding a light bulb which lit up when someone pulled his tie? Indeed, the great (allegedly alcoholic) actor John Barrymore was once described as “…likely to drag down a lace curtain, clap a lampshade on his head, and play a scene from Shakespeare.” This lampshade/drunk imagery continues to the present time. It was not too long ago that President Barack Obama joked to a St. Patrick’s Day Parade crowd, “…Stay as long as you want, but try to avoid putting any lampshades on your head..” Inebriation and lampshades developed into the pun referring to drunken persons as being “lit”.
So, rather off the main subject but with this imagery in mind, enjoy your pig bladder or pink satin lampshades and take that “selfie” as you bask in their complimentary rosy glow….but take care. No matter how good you look or comfortable you feel…try not to give in and put that lampshade on your head! That, indeed, might be an image tough to photo shop in any kind of light.
2 thoughts on “Pig Bladder or Pink?”
As usual, an enjoyable and informative read. Now I have a new subject of conversation for my next cocktail party. Thank you for sharing your unique blend of wit and intelligence.
I’m so happy that I’ve been able to relate to most of your subjets so far, since we own at least one marquetterie de paille, one loupe de noyer chest of drawers, one Hermes scarf, and now our 60cm high brass torsade lamp with its green marble base (might this actually be a Chinese brass turned into a lamp, since it has two Chinesey animals on each side at the top?), sporting a silk (but, alas, not pink..) shade. I have removed the inner layer of silk since I was afraid it would be burned by the three light bulbs, and think it needs a new shade. Thanks to your article, I know now that the shade must be made of silk – or pig bladder. My children think we should put the lamp out for the encombrants, but I like it more now, after reading your article.
Thanks for all your good advice and information. I look forward to the next one!