Around the turn of the 20th century, as electric lighting was being adopted, there arose a concurrent taste for Greco-Roman classicism. This probably began with “The White City” of the 1904 St Louis exposition, where the gleaming new white buildings were based on elements of Old World classicism, but housed the latest in dazzling technological advances. At the time, the electric bulbs were not much brighter than the gaslight flame, but they could be housed in multiples within a single glass dome.
These domes were usually etched or textured clear glass bowls of varying sizes. As the old world classic style caught favor with the public, more affluent households could indulge in architect-designed palatial homes embellished with more “true” classic elements: marble floors, marble columns and stairways, hanging domes of carved imported alabaster. Carved alabaster was an expensive option at the time, therefore the American glassware and lighting manufacturers found a way to replicate this look in less expensive domestic materials. So it was that Sears Roebuck could, in their 1915 catalog, offer an etched milk glass dome fixture that “closely resembles Pompeian marble in appearance”. Priced at an appealing $11.89 (in 1915 dollars) this fixture found favor across the US and still seems to turn up frequently.
However, there were other suspended dome fixtures, called “Semi-Indirect Electric Fixtures” in the catalog, that used similar glassware in varying patterns, as well as some that had additional side lights that hung from the chains with matching glass shades affixed. The more expensive dome fixture options used an etched, embossed heavy glassware, sometimes called “clam-broth” glass or “Alabaster glass” that, by virtue of their thickness and light diffusing capabilities, more successfully imitated the true alabaster stone domes. Sporting elaborate mountings of cast brass or bronze, the most expensive Sears offering was a grand three-light fixture priced at $60 (again, in 1915 dollars). Should the customer desire something far less heavy in appearance, Sears even supplied wicker dome fixtures, suspended from wicker ceiling canopies with reed link chains, lined with floral print “cretonne” (cotton fabric).
Dome fixtures seem to have been popular for domestic and commercial use well into the 1920s. As improvements were made in light bulb technology, these fixtures continued to perform their task quite handsomely for decades. Sears—and others—even supplied a gas light dome fixture option for those areas not yet served by electricity. A variety of methods were used to hang the glass of the dome fixture. Simple, less expensive fixtures used “gravity hooks” that attach to the curved top lip of the glass dome. From these hooks hung the chains that fasten onto the ceiling canopy, as well as the sockets for holding the light bulbs. Note that not every 3-chain dome had 3 sockets—-many of them left the factory with a single socket inside. Some gravity hooks were fitted with an extra outward-extending hook for mounting side sockets and shades which must have put a lot of torque on the fragile lip of glass.
The thicker domes, and this includes most of those made of true alabaster, had holes drilled through the upper rim for screwing together mounts of cast brass or bronze that had a tasteful cast flower, or perhaps a tassel, on the exterior. The interior side was fitted for loops for the hanging chains and sockets. Many of the more elaborate fixtures used decorative rods, or rod-and-chain, suspension methods. Dome fixtures that were flush mounted to the ceiling usually had a single hole in the center, to which a decorative cast tassel or floral cluster finial was affixed to a threaded down-rod to hold the dome in position.
By the 1930s, the favor for classicism in domestic interiors waned somewhat, save for grand residential or institutional installations. America moved toward more homey “Colonial”, picturesque “Tudor” or even daring “Moderne” interiors. The classical dome fixture fell out of favor, although it wasn’t despised like the ornate gasoliers of an earlier time. Beginning in the early 1980s, with a renewed interest in traditional interior decoration, the dome fixture made a reappearance and the alabaster and glass dome fixtures found renewed favor. They were washed up and rewired, and continue to light the way for a new generation. The old fixtures have comfortably accommodated the recent changes in light bulb technology, from incandescent to compact fluorescent to LED. Originally built to blend in with classic decor, they have in themselves become classics in lighting technology.