Several years ago I found a vintage lamp carved into the shape of an anchor. In theory, I bought the lamp to sell in my shop in Rockport, but I could never quite bear to part with it. Even though it’s functional — and, depending on where I have it in our living room, I sometimes use it as a lamp — usually I just leave it out as a sort of sculpture.
Recently while out and about I found a second anchor lamp, and while I would love to keep this one as well (there’s never too much of a good thing), I’ve done the responsible thing and put it in the shop (click here to check it out in the store). Esther Mathieu’s photo, above, manages to capture the great patina and texture of the hand-carved anchor and chain. The lamp, by the way, is not small. From base to finial it measures 27″. That’s a lot of carving.
But who carved it? It turns out that for nearly one hundred years the State of Maine has had a workshop for its prisoners, a place where inmates could learn and practice a variety of industries, particularly woodworking. While the original site of the workshop has closed in Thomaston (the state prison moved to Warren in 2002), the showroom for the prison is still there, right along Route 1. Both of my lamps were made during the woodworking shop’s heyday, which seems to be from the 1940s through the 1970s. I’ve seen a few different anchor lamps — my friend Skinner has a few terrific examples — and they are all slightly different in style and execution, which just strengthens the impression that each lamp is one-of-a-kind.
The workshop still produces pieces made by present-day prisoners and the showroom is open 7 days a week. While the shop is prohibited from shipping to out-of-state addresses, if you happen to be in Maine this summer (or winter), you can stop in and pick up some reasonably priced pieces that range from cutting boards to model ships. And yes, they do make anchor lamps, but they are no longer hand-carved. What’s available these days seems to be assembled from kits.
Whatever methods are used in making the present-day lamps, the end result lacks the handmade, one-off sensibility present in the vintage pieces. Every time I look at my vintage anchor lamp I see it as not just a thing of beauty in its own right, but something representative of another time altogether, the work of a life far removed from the mass-market aesthetic of today. I’ll never know the story of the prisoner who made my lamp, but I know there’s a story there. And that’s about as much as you can ask of the stuff you possess.