When you hear the word “chandelier,” what comes to mind? It’s likely an ornate crystal decoration suspended from the ballroom ceiling of a grand mansion — or maybe pop superstar Sia’s hit song “Chandelier” from 2014.
Turns out that the history of chandeliers is a rich and storied one. Come along as we travel back in time to learn all about hanging light fixtures.
The English name “chandelier” comes from the French chandelle, or candle. First seen in the 9th century, chandeliers were just that: hanging candleholders. The simplest were made from two wooden beams joined at the center to form a cross, with nails on which to secure candles made of animal fat, or tallow.
These lighting sources had two major advantages over traditional tabletop candleholders. One, they illuminated a greater area. Secondly, by keeping the open flames up high, chandeliers lowered the odds of clothing, papers, or other objects catching fire.
From Churches to Commoners
Chandeliers were first used in churches, then made their way to other large, public spaces such as meeting halls. Although they could also be seen in castles and in some more modest dwellings, chandeliers gained their upper-crust reputation early on. That’s because candles, particularly the better-quality beeswax versions, were prohibitively expensive for all but the extremely wealthy Europeans.
Louis XIV, the Sun King, helped usher in an era of elaborate artificial lighting when he commissioned the creation of several extravagant chandeliers for Versailles. Other noblemen and wealthy households followed suit.
The History of Chandeliers’ Material
Up until the 18th century, chandeliers were primarily made out of wood, wrought iron, tin, or a transparent form of quartz known as rock crystal. As the glass making industry developed, chandeliers with glass components became more inexpensive and therefore more common. Lead crystal was easier to fashion and reflected more light than its rock crystal predecessor.
Today, the name Swarovski is synonymous with crystal. The company owes much of its history and popularity to Daniel Swarovski’s 1892 patent for an electric glass-cutting machine. This machine, among other techniques, helped industrialize the production of lead crystal chandeliers.
Gas and Electric Chandeliers
A welcome successor to candlelight — which was messy, smelly, and expensive — came in the form of natural gas. By 1840, gas lamps, lights, and chandeliers were fairly commonplace, at least in large urban areas. Chandelier manufacturers quickly responded by making fixtures to capitalize on this new power source. Older candle chandeliers were also adapted to run on gas.
While certainly an improvement over candles, gas was not without its flaws — primarily, a pesky tendency to explode when exposed to open flame. In part because of this danger, electric lighting would replace gas within the century. You guessed it — electric chandeliers weren’t far behind.
That’s a wrap on our history of chandeliers! Today, these elegant light fixtures are so affordable that you don’t need to be a nobleman or king to hang one proudly in your home. In fact, the hardest part about acquiring a chandelier in 2018 is deciding how to find beautiful chandeliers and which light to choose!