My needs were simple enough. From time to time I make custom lamp shades. Recently two different people brought me two sets of lamps for new shades. Unfortunately, the old shades were missing. Most lamps come to me with their old shades, ragged and pitiful, but the frames are usable once I strip them down. I have a generous collection of my own vintage frames, but as I sorted through them I discovered that I had none that could be used for these jobs.
As my healing progressed, I realized that the first jobs I could physically do would be those lamp shades. Light work but good therapy for strengthening my arm. So I got cracking to find a supplier for my frames. Eureka! I found a company that offered a generous selection of both shapes and sizes. Carefully I measured, chose, rejected this in favor of that and decided to order extras — why not. With my lengthy list in hand, I tried to contact the company to negotiate a wholesale deal. I tried to place my order on their website. I tried to email. I tried their phone. Nothing was in service. The lights are off. The door is padlocked. The shades are pulled. The perfect company is defunct. I felt bummed out.
I had made a thorough search. There are not dozens of companies out there making wire frames for vintage lamps. Unless I wanted to shell out outrageous sums and order from Outer, Inner, Upper or Lowest Slobbovia, delivery by dog sled, why, there’s nothing to it but to do it. Myself.
What is a frame but a few yards of wire and a washer? I can measure. I can snip, shape and solder. I can do this. I know I can. I’ll do it, by gum or by golly.
But just in case there might be some hidden step, I went back to the Internet to see if I might find a “how to” book. Boy, howdy, right away I discovered the perfect book. “Wire Lamp Shade Frames and How To Make Them” by A. W. Dragoo. I could tell by the picture on the website that the book was old.
But I put it in my cart and agreed to pay a hefty chunk of money. What better way to make vintage frames than with instructions from a venerable master.
The book arrived. A pamphlet, actually. The author, Alva William Dragoo, taught Manual Training and Mechanical Drawing at Illinois State Normal University in Normal, Illinois. Imagine living in a town called Normal. My new-to-me manual was published in 1922. It smells like old brown paper with an overlay of moth balls and a mere hint of mildew. It was written to teach seventh- and eighth-grade boys to make wire lamp shade frames.
The opening sentence is instructive: “Few problems in the manual training shop possess greater interest to boys than the making of an electric lamp.” (Not any of the boys I know.) The third paragraph addresses the covering of the shade: “Most mothers, or sisters, in the home will be found capable of doing a satisfactory piece of work.”
When I was in school I would have given anything to have been in the shop welding with the boys rather than in Home Ec, bored with cooking and sewing, tasks I had been doing for years. I was not given the choice.
I finished reading the manual and indeed discovered that with a few simple tools and wire, even I, a mere female, can make frames. I could have bungled my way through most of the process without Mr. Dragoo’s instructions. But I learned one vital piece of information, how to curve the wire. I had imagined that would be the most difficult part of the job. But Mr. Dragoo showed me that the solution is simple. Over the years I have learned that simple does not always mean easy, but I’m in for a penny, in for a pound.
Meanwhile, if you know any seventh- or eighth-grade boys or girls chomping at the bit to make wire lamp shade frames, send them to me. I’ll teach them everything I know.
(Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High School in 1963 and left for good. She finds, upon her return, that things are a little different. Keep in touch with her at http://montanatumbleweed.blogspot.com.)