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  • Writer's pictureCarole Conn

Primitive Lighting: The Tin Sconce

Tin: light weight, strong, non-corrosive, reflective, easy to decorate, and easily shaped into many useful items. Our early settlers relied on tin items for many things, but the craftsmanship of lighting devices made between 1780 and 1860 delight me the most!

Edmond Pattison settled in Berlin, CT from Ireland and began making tin items in about 1740. He is said to be the prototype of the Yankee Pedlar.

Early in our history homesteads had an iron pot to cook in, wood dishes, pottery or pewter mugs, for dinner, iron betty lamps and rush lamps for lighting, all of which were generally unsatisfactory in terms of weight, durability, appearance or convenience.

When tin items became available they were in great demand. These items were made of thin sheets of iron or steel dipped in molten tin. Tin by itself was too soft and malleable for structured items. Early pieces were made by hand and then peddled to neighbors and neighboring communities by the tinsmith.

The heyday of the late 18th and early 19th century lighting pieces we all crave today began in the 1760s and continued until the industrial revolution, around. 1860, when pieces were made of all kinds of materials in factories.


Tin was particularly useful for crafting lighting. It was light weight and reflective. Sconces were always needed to lighten areas of wall and to keep the flames away from children and the dangers presented by unattended candles.

Before tin was in use sconces were made of copper or pewter, both expensive, heavy, and almost always imported from Europe. Tin was much cheaper and more available, especially in rural areas.

I have a particular love of pie plate shaped sconces. They were made in many sizes and with varying degrees of decoration. They provided a large area for reflection.

Most were round with an extended arm holding a candle socket with a crimped drip tray.

I found this unusual one some years ago in the collection of a well known folk art dealer. The socket and drip tray swivel so that the light can be pushed closer to the reflector if desired:

Some were not round, but other shapes.

The one at right is curved inward to increase the reflection.

Sometimes you can find ones with mirrors glued on in little pieces to further reflect the light. There are many reproductions of these, so you need to be careful. The glass should look old and there may be bits missing in real ones.

Some are highly decorated and sometimes had a tray drip pan.

Double candle sconces are much harder to find and very sought after.

Pairs are always hard to find because it was so easy for them to get separated over the years. For a long time I had a pair of very nice, but reproduction tin sconces in my kitchen until a dealer friend sold me a beautiful pair of large oval sconces to replace them. I love them.

Tin was easily painted and many tin items were decorated in this way starting in about the 1830s. Sconces were not usually painted because the paint would be vulnerable to the flame. But sometimes you can find them:

The tall single sconce is most easily found today. They were utilitarian, but not boring. Most had a rounded, crimped top which was sometimes slanted inward to increase reflection. Some were very plain, and some highly decorated.

And there were many shapes, often differing by region.

If you can find unusual sizes, that makes your collection interesting. I have spent many years assembling various size single candle sconces (not for sale!)

How do you tell if they are authentic? You should examine them carefully. They should not have sharp edges, or at least not as sharp as edges cut recently. Many times the edges and seams are rolled, giving a smooth finish - not always found in reproductions.

It there is crimping it will be slightly uneven if it's hand done. Hand made sconces often have slight unevenness and are not exact on each side. Look for that.

Hand made sconces are sometimes cleated through the bottom where the socket is attached. This is usually a sign of an early sconce.

Most of all, patina is important. It can't be faked. It should be warm and mellow, with scratches and dings, not shiny or completely even. Old paint should be warn and uneven, and if chipped, the tin below it will not be shiny, but dull gray.

Most of the examples in this blog are from New England, because that's what I love and what I collect. Sconces from Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia may be similar but are often more highly decorated or more ornate in their style. But whatever you prefer, tin sconces are an essential part of any period home. Buy them and enjoy them!



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