S.S. has a lamp that her husband picked up at a garage sale, which is in the figure of a young gondolier full body, for the base, rendered in gold with lipstick pink lips, dressed in Venetian bloomers and a little vest.
She sent me a photo a while ago and writes to me now she is ready to have me write about it. Took her some time to decide.
And I know why she was waiting to hear about this lamp. Exotic lamps can be valuable if they are 19th century.
S.S.’s lamp is not 19th century, but it is very much American mid-20th-century.
This lamp and Chalkware lamps like it are either not valuable at all, because of what they represent — or to some collectors — priceless, because of their reflection of a certain era and a certain mind-set, which to us today is rather hard to imagine.
The genre is early modern, mid-century kitsch or put more nicely, mid-century atomic. I am not making this up; these are the categories used at auction.
The lamps are controversial today because they were not controversial when they were manufactured from the 1945-1960s. Typically, these chalkware lamps (more about the material later) were figures of “exotic” cultural men and women, usually sold as a his and her pair. The exotic in art is a relic from the Deco era, in which exoticism in the decorative arts was artistic and cross-fertilizing. French Deco with the fine Egyptian flair is a notable example.
But when we hit the mid 1940s, the syncretic flavor of early Deco devolves into, dare I say, ethnic stereotypes.
S.S.’s lamp is a milder version, as it is a sweet young Italian boy. But some of these chalkware lamps are seen as insulting today: His and Her Asian figures, African figures, Congo figures, Hawaiian figures, and because of the stereotyping, they fall outside of what collectors who collect mid- century modern want.
What characterizes these chalkware lamps is the frightening thematic over-the-top quality. Not to mention the stereotyping, but these lamps were extremely popular. My grandmother had a pair; I bet yours did too.
Therefore, the category of these chalkware lamps falls outside of our present craze for geometric mid-century modern, and they are termed early modern, mid-century kitsch or atomic.
The atomic moniker has to do with something not related to the figures themselves, but to the shade.
Yes, the shade on atomic lamps are fiberglass, and sometimes those shades are threaded through with amoeba-shaped lines. You get the picture.
S.S.’s lamp, because it had a Venetian figure, might have had a Venetian Blind-style shade, (I am not kidding). Those were popular because you could pull a tiny cord and raise the lamp shade, and they were usually in that thin metal of 1950s Venetian blinds. Thematic literalism.
The best of these lamps are not chalkware, which is a fancy way of saying plaster poured into a mold, but gypsum. And the early 19th century figural lamps are not chalkware and can be valuable.
Chalkware had a special mass-produced quality.
One of the factories that made these his and hers (mated) thematic lamps (usually for the top of the TV set!) were Reglor, whose Harem man and captured woman in turquoise harem pants with a threaded fiberglass shade can sell for $800 the pair.
“Keen” colors (there’s an old word) were favored, such as reds, blacks, golds, greens, pinks by, for example, the Continental Art Co., whose light-touch yellow/green Fairy pair(one young fairy boy, one girl) can sell for $500 the pair, with fiberglass shades with a cloud-lace design.
Continental also made a Native American mother and child in papoose with a wicker inverted basket shade.
Perhaps the best name ever for these lamps was “Plasto,” a factory that made themselves famous by their fake plaster driftwood pairs of lamps, or their Revolutionary Era Militia soldier lamp, who carried a drum and a musket; the shade was olde worlde patriotic symbols superimposed on a map of Olde Virginny.
Perhaps the most alarming chalkware lamps I have seen are the pair of gyrating Conga dancers in radiation green.
He: exposed chest, drum between the legs, a vest with ruffled sleeves, bare feet, turban. She: a split skirt, a ruffled bra, ruffled sleeves, one arm raised, surmounted(each) by a double tiered fiberglass shade, the top shade rising above the whole lamp, the smaller of the two shades, alternating white and green.
The value of S.S.’s lamp is $750.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.