I receive many inquiries about historic porch lighting mostly for Victorian and Foursquare homes.
While there is some good information on historic interior lighting, exterior porch lighting is very limited.
Porch lighting is very important because, while the windows are the eyes of the house, the front entrance is the heart of the house. When looking at a house your eyes should be directed towards the front entrance for a welcoming feeling.
Today there is a huge selection of porch lighting but it is important to have lighting that matches the style of your house or it will stand out in a bad way.
The light fixture should complement the house. If the light fixture looks like it belongs on a mansion then that is where it belongs.
An over-sized or overly decorated light fixture will surely clash with a modest home no matter how beautiful the fixture.
The Beginning of Exterior Lighting
We must first look at the history of lighting and the use or need for lighting. Before the Civil War there were a number of options for lighting one’s home. However both candlesticks and other fueled lamps of the time were extremely limited except for the very wealthy. Death inventories show that an average household may only possess two candlesticks. Many times a candle was hand held without the use of a candlestick. TV and movies have made us think otherwise.
While there has always been a need for interior lighting, the need for exterior lighting was that of a lantern to provide some help on the way to the outhouse.
If there were a rare need for a light at the front door entrance to a house, then a style adapted from a hand-held lantern that would normally be used outdoors would be used. Early street lights were also adapted from the style of a lantern.
That said, “lantern style” lighting would evolve to gas and later electric.
This lantern style lighting that was used on pre-Civil War styled architecture would continue to be used for Colonial Revival architecture of the late 1800’s continuing to the present time. It is also possible that the style could have been used for early Victorian homes.
What is even more confusing is that Colonial Revival light fixtures could be embellished with Victorian decoration. This is similar to a Colonial Revival house having Victorian decoration. Some light fixtures are difficult to define for use on a Colonial Revival or a Victorian house.
Exterior Porch Lighting Styles
At this point I would like to break the architectural and lighting styles into three groups: Colonial, Victorian, and Craftsman. With a Colonial home, exterior porch lighting would be lantern style – hanging or wall mounted. Craftsman porch lighting has its own individual style that is easy to recognize. This style is very popular now and there are many reproductions available. Unfortunately people are using Craftsman style lighting on Ranch houses etc. where this style is not appropriate. The remaining style is Victorian. Here we will focus on Victorian and Foursquare style homes that do not fall into the “lantern style” groups.
Victorian Porch Light Fixtures
During the Victorian period, kerosene, gas and electric lighting were all used. Mass production allowed for new affordable styles as the need and desire for more and better lighting increased. Unfortunately it seems that exterior lighting played a much lesser role. There are many archived historic lighting catalogs that are full of electric and/or gas lighting but may only include one porch light. It is possible that some interior lights were also used for the exterior.
Types of exterior porch lights would be sconce lights next to the front door, hanging ceiling lights or ceiling dome lights. When looking through historic catalogs there were some interior light fixtures that seem to also be able to also be used on the exterior. Dome lights seem the most confusing.
This fixture is from an 1874-78 Mitchell Vance & Company catalog. It however is a catalog of gas church lighting fixtures for interior use. (I see no difference between church fixtures or home fixtures.) I was not able to find a catalog representing the fixture to the right. It however is an adaptation and one that does look very good. The question is if it is appropriate to be next to your front door.
There is a lot of overlap of styles making styles somewhat confusing and if an interior light fixture was or could be used for the exterior. I am not a lighting expert but this is what I was able to research to help guide you. I welcome any additional information .
- Never use a lamp-post unless your house is mid-century or later.
- A welcoming house MUST have an entrance light. This must be a priority before any other lighting. If and only if you have an entrance light you can then consider landscape lighting. Landscape lighting although not historic can be secondary but never ever tacky walkway lighting .
- Light bulb must produce warm light and not too bright. A gas light produces 10 watts. Although too dim for a porch do not go too bright. Soft white (2,700 to 3,000 Kelvin) is warm and yellow, the typical color range you get from incandescent bulbs. This light gives a warm and cozy feeling and is often best for living rooms, dens and bedrooms.
- To take this a step further: Candle light is 1650 K (favoring the warmest red spectrum); Gaslight is 1980 K (slightly less warm); Original Edison bulbs were 2200 K to 2400 K. The Color Rendering Index (CRI) is a measurement of how color appears under a light source. The range is from 1-100. 80 is good for a home.
- 3000 kelvin or higher can make you feel uncomfortable and disrupt sleep patterns.
- An incandescent bulb will get warmer and redder when dimmed with a dimmer. LED bulbs work differently and just get darker which has a cold effect when dimmed. Phillips just introduced a smart bulb – Warm Glow A19 which dims like an incandescent bulb. The new Edison repro bulbs do not do this.
- 850 lumens is the maximum which is equivalent to 60 watts.
Good examples of porch lighting for Victorian and Foursquare homes is limited. Here is a link to a 1915 Sears Electric & Gas Lighting Fixture catalog and a 1920 Electric Light catalog . You need to weed through them seeing if they are the correct style for your house and if they can be used for the exterior.
Rejuvenation Lighting has some reproduction light fixtures.
Options for historic porch lighting from The Old House Journal.
The Lore of Traditional Lantern Design by Gordon Bock
Location of Porch Light on Wall
The location of a wall light fixture on a porch seems to be a huge problem from what I have seen. Light fixtures are usually mounted way too high. The general rule is that the light should be at eye level but 6 feet high is better depending on the person’s height. The light should be positioned by the height of the door. About 3 quarters up from the floor or 75 inches is a good guide to center the fixture on. Use your judgement. It also depends on the length of the fixture. Tape a piece of cardboard to the wall and stand back to see how it looks. Definitely do not let the fixture extend above the door casing.
Additionally do not place the fixture too close to the door casing nor too far away. I have many examples of bad locations but it would take a long time to search for them at this time.
I know this post is about Victorian lighting but this Colonial Revival was a good example to use. The above fixture location is just perfect but I would make one adjustment. I would center the fixtures between the shutter and the door casing. I would just move it about 2 inches closer to the door.