Antique Christmas lights to get rare public showing in Auburn

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Looking into one ornament, Roseville Victorian Christmas lights collector Janice Lake sees Queen Victoria and Prince Albert strolling regally down a castle corridor bathed in a flickering glow of dozens of tiny, ruby-red fires. Another one of the vibrantly shaded lights takes Lake onto the high seas, where a shipment sinks in a storm – only to be discovered years later by modern-day treasure hunters. Lake, who collects the small, colorful and ornate Christmas lights, will be sharing many of her favorite finds – and the stories behind them – at a special display during Saturday’s 49er Bottle and Antique Show in Auburn. Steve Abbott, one of the organizers of the 32nd annual show and sale, said event-goers are in for a treat because the Lakes have one of the largest collections of its type in the United States. And they’re very rarely displayed in public. Mike Lake, an Elliott Homes employee who has been collecting bottles and glassware for 43 years, said the last display he knows of was perhaps a dozen years ago in Ohio. “A lot of people collect Christmas things and these are early examples,” Lake said. “People will get a chance to see something rarely shown.” Before electric lights came into vogue in the 1920s, a home decorated at Christmas time would often feature the small colored-glass lights. Tea candles or oil with a floating wick on water would provide the light to make the colors glow. The first American examples date back to the mid-1700s and the Lakes will display early lamps from 1765 that were discovered more recently in a shipwreck. One of the prizes of the collection is a small red light used to line the entryway of a visit by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to Warwickshire’s Stone Leigh Abbey in 1858. Others commemorate special anniversaries for royalty in England or show off the artistry that evolved around making of the colored candle-holders. Even Tiffany & Co. joined in for awhile, making the lights for a burgeoning 19th century market in America. The Lakes display their collection in their dining-room window, with the morning sun filtering through dozens of different hues. On Saturday, the couple will be displaying about 150 of them, including several perched on an iron Christmas tree. With serious collectors dotting the globe, the common examples of the lights can go for $30 or $40 while some of the finest figural examples command $500 to $600. Janice Lake said the lights, which are mistaken for jam jars and are generally 2 inches to 4 inches tall, can pop up in unexpected places. It’s not uncommon to find them at swap meets and the odd yard sale, with their owners having little knowledge of what they really are. For the Lakes, the lights have become a treasured collection year-round. “They’re up in the window and it’s really relaxing to look at all the colors and think about where they came from,” Janice said. ------------------------ 49er Antique & Bottle Show Where: Gold Country Fairgrounds, 1273 High St., Auburn When: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday Admission: Free