Collector's Corner: Incandescent Light Bulbs
By Michele Alice
Under assault by rising energy prices and government legislation, the long reign of the incandescent bulb may be nearing an end. Consumers are squirreling away GE Soft Whites and Sylvania Double Lifes in anticipation of the cessation of their manufacture, but they are doing so for purely practical reasons. Collectors they are not.
Since 1879, when Thomas Edison received a patent for the first commercially viable bulb, incandescents have been sold in every possible size and form - from miniature Christmas lights, to tube lights resembling fluorescents, to figurals with such shapes as candles, flowers, and clusters of grapes - and true collectors have long appreciated the bulbs for both their function as well as their beauty of form.
Like most collectibles, values depend upon condition, age, and rarity. Bulbs dating from the 19th century are considered "early technology," and though the more common examples often sell for $20 to $50, collectors are willing to spend up to several hundred dollars for many of the rarer specimens, even if they do not work. Twentieth century bulbs are generally more common, so condition is more important. Most bulbs traded online - even many of those from the early decades of the century - are worth no more than a few dollars, and worth virtually nothing if they do not work.
There exists such a variety of extant bulbs that collectors are often forced to specialize. One of the more popular categories encompasses original Christmas lights, especially the bubble lights introduced to the U.S. in 1946 by the NOMA manufacturing company. Another concerns the aforementioned figurals, which should not be confused with the neon lamps manufactured by such companies as Aerolux (1930's through the 1970's), and which are collectible in their own right. And, of course, collectors are always on the look out for related items like antique sockets, packaging, and advertising.
So, how can you tell if your yard-sale find is worth $5 or $500? One common tip is to check the base of the bulb: the earliest often had plaster or porcelain insulation. Another tip is to never test a bulb if you're not certain that it is compatible with your equipment. Many older bulbs cannot withstand the voltages used today, and you could render a valuable specimen worthless if you damage the filament. Finally, learn more about this popular collectible by checking out the resources listed below, because knowing your subject is the best investment of all.
Edisonian - link to website - About the discovery of evidence used in the "Edison Trials" patent cases of over a century ago.
kilokat's ANTIQUE LIGHT BULB site - link - Great resource offers articles, pics, FAQs, forums, links, and more.
Light bulb collection proves a bright idea - link to website - Interesting British take on the subject in an article by John Windsor, who writes about prices as they were in 2007.
2yr.net: Antique & Vintage Lightbulb Collection Museum - link to website You'll want to check out the sections on collectability value, testing, and the auction picture database (helpful even though dates are not provided).
The Yule Lights Collection - link to website - This site concentrates on post-WWII (1950's to 1980's) Christmas lights. Check out the tips on testing, repairing, and dating. Lots of pics.
Recent Articles on Legislation Affecting Incandescent Light Bulbs
"GOP sees the light, demands bulb law repeal: Republicans are resisting energy-saving fluorescents that industry largely supports" (Houston Chronicle, 3/31/11) - Link to article
"Dispelling confusion on lighting requirement - New bulb law goes into effect in 2012" (Ohio.com, 4/2/11) - Link to article
About the author:
Michele Alice is EcommerceBytes Update Contributing Editor. Michele is a freelance writer in the Berkshire mountains of Massachusetts. She collects books, science fiction memorabilia and more! Email her at makalice @ adelphia.net eBay ID: Malice9
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