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Dining room lighting & decorating advice from 1922

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Antique dining room in vintage home (1)
Dining room decor & lights

by Ethel Davis Seal, drawings by Marion Dismant

Some years ago, when hanging domes were doing their merriest worst to the appearance of nine out of every ten dining rooms, I spent an hour or so in as charming a domeless dining room as I have ever seen, a room that was indeed much ahead of the times.

Wainscoted for nearly six feet in paneled wood painted a flat putty color, one was unprepared for the pure joy of the colorful black-grounded chintz that was hung as paper is hung on the rather narrow strip of upper wall that ran between the wainscot and the grayish-cream ceiling.

Gleaming on this dark expanse were lighting fixtures of pewter-colored metal that must surely have been forerunners of many of the sconces and fixtures that are within the reach of many of us today; and, used in this room, spaced at proper intervals on the dark-flowered background, the effect of them was arresting, each holding its ivory candle case that delicately led to the small satin-finished bulb of electricity at the tip.

Antique dining room in vintage home (3)

Providing just that necessary finish of detail to the scheme of lighting there were tall silver candlesticks set on the oblong walnut table, with its richly carved edge, its wide runner of Italian lace and linen, very beautiful against the background of black and creamy tones, dusky walnut, and the deeply vivid rose of the curtains.

Truly charming and quite dependent on its lights for the measure of beauty achieved: in proof of which, I ask you to imagine the effect here of a multicolored glass dome swung neatly above the linen and lace of the dining table, with ruination in every multicolored ray!

Tasteless domes of old

We have only to cast our eyes backward to remember the horrors of toned red, green or yellow opaque glass four-sided or circular domes finished in bead fringe that “dome-inated” more past dining rooms — if I may be allowed the apt coinage — than present-day owners of silver-colored fixtures care to admit.

Perhaps at some time or other in our past we have all had a dome. But since the advent of indirect lighting and the popularity of alabaster and near-alabaster the domes are frankly inverted and inoffensively while, so that even the least expensive of modern apartments and houses are spared much of the fantastic horror of the lighting fixtures of yore.

However, the frailties that every fad is heir to manifest themselves in this case in assemblages of drooping and frilly bulbs, pendants upon clanking chains, hanging from the central light. And the upper middle area of many otherwise promising rooms contains a thousand-legger of a light that absolutely ruins any chance the room might otherwise have of being beautiful.

We wish to observe restraint in all things, so why is it that upon the immediate accomplishment of cheapness things always begin to show ridiculous elaboration? In consequence, the alabaster bowls that were such an improvement on the glaring domes are in grave danger of being cast from our homes into the outer darkness.

Antique dining room in vintage home (2)

Alabaster not always the answer

At any rate, the opaque translucence of alabaster is no longer the magic watchword at the door of who’s who in dining-room lights. We now invariably take our lights silk-coated or vellum-dressed, when we do not demand the friendly presence of tall unshaded candles on our tables and on our walls.

In this new era of proper lighting fixtures, a soft but adequate glow, rose-colored or golden, permeates to the farthest corner; one is seen, and sees others, under the most flattering conditions; and one partakes of dainty dinners with a sense of well-being and delight entirely lacking in the garish crudity of a room that is wrongly lighted.

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How to properly light the dining room

There are two distinct methods of correctly lighting the dining room, though many times these may be combined in one room so that one has, at the turn of a switch, either method at one’s finger tips, so to speak. The first method includes an adequate number of sconce fixtures on the walls of the room, with table candles for mealtime; the second makes use of the hanging light placed over the table.

In the room with the hanging light, one may, of course, use wall sconces also; or wall sconces may constitute the only method of lighting, doing away with the necessity of either hanging light or candles. But the type of light, the color and type of shades, if these are used, the sort of candlesticks — the choice of these is laid down by the general rules of good taste, though there will be found infinite variety within the pale, whether one’s problem is simplified by the joy of electricity or complicated by the difficulty of gas.

The joy of sconces

Every day sees new and delightful arrivals in the world of wall sconces. In these electric wall brackets the finish is of first importance; one considers the advantages of antique gold, colonial brass, polished old silver, polychrome, enamels of various colors, old bronze, weathered old brass and colonial pewter. The newest offerings are old silver and enamels, it seems, and there is a distinct trend toward the use of mirrors and small drop crystals. Many of the fixtures may be had in any number of finishes, but if a certain fixture is desired and it is found that the wanted finish is not made up in stock, it can usually be ordered at a small additional charge.

The smart hanging lights for use over the table include the unshaded fixture composed of bulb-tipped candle lights arranged in an attractive design and suspended on one central chain; the same sort of fixture provided with a large silk shade, the lower edge of which hides the bulbs from sight, but allows the candle cases to show; the large shade of vellum or silk, open or closed at the bottom and suspended on a heavy silk-tasseled cord; and the candle-group fixture supplied with small shades.

Shade for your lights

The first of these might be anyone of the hanging candle-group fixtures shown in the illustration, minus the shade. The hanging fixture with the blue shade is in old bronze and polychrome or colonial pewter; it has three lights and costs $40 without the shade, or $70 with it. The shade is 20-inch size and comes in old blue or old gold.

Many people are quite adept at shade-making themselves, and if so, there are limitless possibilities opened up for practicing economy while having good-looking lights.

The hanging light above the table has many times been successfully shaded by inexperienced fingers; and a “real” fixture is not needed for this if the shade is beautiful enough in itself, one or two bulb lights being sufficient, and if suspended on a silk cord all the better. Shade that may well be the making of the homemade fixture are shown in the illustrations, all of them being quite possible of achievement.

Choosing colors

The shades used on lighting fixtures are usually in tones of rose or yellow, since the glow reflected from these is more becoming and restful. If another color such as blue is desired it should be lined with yellow or rose so that the light will still be pleasant. A shade that compromises and enhances all room color schemes will be found in the choice of vellum or parchment; this has a delightful translucence; the inside may be left the yellowish color of the material itself, and the outer side may be decorated in any color combination, with the addition of black, or even black-grounded, like the parchment shade shown in the illustration.

Rose-colored lights are always popular and effective, as is proved by their use in this dining room on the top of the first page, featuring the knife-boxes with the Hepplewhite sideboard.

There are plenty of blue notes in the color scheme of the room, though the rose lights augment the scheme charmingly, with the result that the room is very much more attractive than if it were entirely rose-hued to match the lights.

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