Plugging in to vintage lamp electrical safety

lamp still life
Vintage lamps add function and design to your decor.

When it comes to vintage that involves electricity, it’s never a bad plan to temper your love of your find with a detailed  assessment of the wiring before you plug it in. I learned this the hard way.

An acquaintance was staging her home for sale. We changed her functional bedside lamp for a much more photogenic antique Asian vase lamp that had been rewired by her father. She’d never used it, we found it hiding in the back of a closet. The socket looked newish. The cord was nice and flexible. The plug was polarized. Check, check and check mate.

After a long sweaty day, she crawled in bed to read and turned on the light…and she got a fireworks show. Shooting sparks burning her beautiful, pristine mid century bedside table, her arms and the bedding. As if the smell of burning skin and bedding wasn’t bad enough, a quarter of the house wiring got shorted out. 

She took the lamp to a lamp specialist for a post-mortem. How did things go so wrong when the obvious ways to check the wiring were fine? The problem wasn’t with what could be seen, it was with what couldn’t. Her father had married the new wiring to some existing old wiring inside the lamp. 

While definitely unforgettable as a cautionary tale, that experience hasn’t diminished my love of lamps with a history.

My home is full of vintage lamps, all of which have been to our local lamp guy for new wiring. That’s always been my policy. Wiring a lamp is not all that hard, but messing with electricity is one of the things on my don’t try this at home list (along with eating potato salad that’s been sitting in the sun for more than 2 hours and poking badgers with sticks). I could do it, but really, I’d rather not.

With that in mind, here are some things to think about when you are talking vintage lamps–whether they’re something you unplugged in your gramma’s basement or stumbled on at the flea market.

Having a UL label does not mean a lamp is safe, necessarily. Underwriter’s Laboratory has been around 100+ years. They certified the lamp was safe at the time it was made. It doesn’t mean it’s safe now.

Look at the socket. has a fabulous page of  vintage wiring horrors photographs, including the socket. Look for the insulation. Look to make sure it’s seated properly. Look to make sure it resembles something that was made in this century.

Look at the plug. Is it polarized, meaning the prongs are two different sizes? has a technical explanation of how polarizing works, but for most of us, all we need to know if the prongs are the same size or not the same size.

Look at the cord. Is it cloth covered? Are there breaks in the wire covering? Is it pliable and flexible? 

lamp cord
Authentically hair-raising vintage lamp cord.

The cost of having a lamp professionally rewired depends on where you live and how complicated it is. Expect to pay between $10 and $40 for an average lamp. To put it in perspective, my $10 garage sale brutalist mid century lamp cost $25 to rewire. Total investment, $35. Retail value $300. Or, a more common scenario, $0 beloved boudoir lamps from my parent’s house cost $50 to rewire. Total investment, $50. Value of seeing them on my vanity, priceless.

If you decide to wire lamps your self, there are plenty of online supply resources.

You can find vintage-looking replacement parts at Antique Lamp Supply

You can find colorful cloth covered replacement cords at Cloth Cord Company.

You can find lamp rewiring parts with a little steampunk style at Vintage Wire and Supply.

Lamp rewiring instructions are also available in abundance; among the many are instructions from Martha Stewart, This Old House, and How Stuff Works.





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