The Iowan

A Bright & Beautiful Quest

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The history and acquisition of fairy lamps is Jim Sapp’s fiery passion.

On a clear, summer night, if you’re lucky enough to be in the country, standing in a bucolic meadow or sitting curled up on a wraparound farmhouse porch, the sky is aglow with a billion twinkling lights. The stars have long held a fascination for mankind, and being able to hold a radiant, shining testament to their beauty is the dream of many earthbound astronomers. For one fellow in particular, his immersion in the world of fairy lamps proves that a tough man can have a very gentle, fragile side.

Growing up in Engleside, Va., a small, close-knit community, Jim Sapp was a child of nature. Born in 1943, he predated “television, cell phones, the Internet, and other things that are distracting. It was a simple life with only bicycles and exploring the woods to entertain ourselves.”

Perhaps because Sapp was not obsessed with Googling or texting, he was much more receptive to the wonders of what was in the skies rather than what was beamed through Skype™. Able to appreciate what surrounded him in the here and now, Sapp found an unexpected delight during his courtship of his future wife, Patsy. 

“I would visit her home often, perhaps too often. In their house was an antique corner cupboard, which we have in our home today. It was filled with fairy lamps (as it is today, too). I was immediately drawn to them,” Sapp recalls. “Their collection, which numbered about 50, was gathered together by Patsy’s grandmother during the 1940s and 1950s and was passed on to her parents in the ‘60s. Each time I would visit, I would open the cupboard and inspect each one and absorb as much as I could about them. For some strange reason, I was attracted to them. Perhaps it was their unusual shape, or, more likely, it was the variety and styles of differently colored glass.”

Fairy lamps were originally designed to burn candles. In the 1880s and 1890s, candles were made of tallow and burned much cooler than their paraffin counterparts of today. The fairy lamps, which cost mere pennies pre-1900, were the receptacles for the burning candles.

“The name most associated with Victorian-era fairy lamps is Samuel Clarke, of England. His family produced candles from the mid 1800s to 1910. He did not actually produce any fairy lamps. Instead, he commissioned others to produce the lamps to burn his candles,” Sapp explains. “A fairy lamp is, in simple terms, a dome-shaped glass shade on a lamp cup containing a fairy light, or candle. Today, almost anything that burns a candle is commonly called a fairy lamp. However, for the purist, only Clarke’s patented designs are deserving of that name.”

Like any fad or breakthrough, no matter the decade or the industry, the success of Clarke’s fairy lamps instantly ushered in a flock of copycats and prolific competitors. “Everyone wanted a piece of the pie,” Sapp observes. “Many manufacturers copied Clarke’s patented designs from many other countries, including Germany, France, and Bohemia. The fairy lamps come in a broad range of glass types (Burmese, DQMOP, Nailsea, satin glass, etc.). They were produced by many fine glass manufacturers such as Thomas Webb, Stevens & Williams, John Walsh Walsh, Phoenix, and pottery manufacturers such as Royal Worcester, Doulton Burslem, and Taylor Tunnicliff.”

Jim and Patsy, married and united in their fondness for fairy lamps, purchased their first joint collectible in 1971. “It was $15 and we debated for a couple of weeks before spending that princely sum!” Sapp reminisces. “From then on, a collection was born. It was very slow to develop at first. Our funds were as scarce as the fairy lamps themselves. We managed to grow our collection slowly with a few ‘affordable’ finds at shops and antique shows. Of course, when we had two children in college, very few fairy lamps were added to our collection. Even today, our collection does not grow very quickly. They are extremely difficult to find and often very expensive. And our eye and taste are much more critical than in the early days of collecting. We no longer are willing to accept any damage (cracks and chips), and we are much more informed about their value, which some dealers are not. I am, of course, referring to Victorian-era fairy lamps. Contemporary fairy lamp collectors (and there are many) have an easier time developing their collections,” Sapp reveals.

As the manager of the Fairy Lamp Club (www.fairylampclub.com) and the Fairy Lamp Forum (www.fairylampforum.com), the collector has become a researcher and archivist, constantly digging into his passion’s origins and its popularity over the centuries: “Many fairy lamp collectors are content with simply enjoying the beauty of their collections. I certainly enjoy the sheer beauty of my collection, but I take the extra step to research their history.”

The retired CIA professional — an occupation that seems to be at odds with his collection’s genteel, gentle reputation — is certainly captivated by his lamps’ pedigree and provenances. Still, he can’t help but be mesmerized by their flickering functionality as well: “I would never consider risking burning a candle in an antique fairy lamp. However, I do light them (on rare occasions) with battery-operated LED lights. And, yes, they are spectacular when lit.”

In fact, the allure of the twinkling, wavering fairy lamps is so breathtaking that the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair featured an island entirely lit by fairy lamps—3,000 of which were donated by Samuel Clarke.

Not adverse to publicity, Clarke also fashioned a stunning chandelier in 1888 for the Royal Botanical Society of London. “It consisted of 500 fairy lamps, probably Burmese. If that chandelier still exists today, it would clearly qualify as the ‘holy grail.’ I suspect, if it still exists, that it is packed away in crates just waiting for someone to find it,” Sapp muses.

In his current collection, he estimates that he has several hundred. He can’t name a favorite (“That’s like asking which child I love the most”), but he does admit he has a partiality for “Webb Burmese and the line of fairy lamps produced by Stevens & Williams. There is one lamp that I am particularly proud of, and that is a single Alexandrite shade produced by Thomas Webb. The examples of this type of glass are few and far between.”

If learning about the appeal of fairy lamps has sparked a desire to acquire one, a neophyte collector may be able to discover an antique example for less than $100. “More typically, however, the more common art glass examples will bring $200 to $300,” shares Sapp. “Multi-lamp epergnes, sociables, and chandeliers may bring several hundred to several thousand dollars. In addition, some fairy lamps, known as Cricklites, on Royal Worcester stands, may bring $1,000 to $2,500 even though the shades are clear glass.”

Living in Colorado these days, and keeping busy with his collection, his volunteer work, and his civic commitments, Jim Sapp’s golden years are certainly rewarding. He takes a laid-back attitude about the legacy of his hobby: “Regarding our children’s passion for fairy lamps, only time will tell. I doubt, however, that it will ever be as strong as mine. While they seem to tolerate my collection now, someday they will have to figure out what to do with it. I suspect they will keep some of the collection as a remembrance and will liquidate the rest. But you never know.” On the bright side of handling his enormous bequeathal? “Well, one thing is for sure. They will have to deal with the hundreds of fairy lamps after I am gone, not me or Patsy.” 

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