The names of architectural styles are often invoked, but seldom used precisely. Even people who should know better conflate styles, whether intentionally or not. In real estate listings, for instance, nondescript old piles are routinely elevated to Victorians, Bungalows or whatever else happens to be selling. Architects aren’t immune from such stylistic confusion, either: Many of us bandy about terms such as Tudor, Elizabethan and Half-Timbered, or Mission, Mediterranean and Moorish without really knowing how they differ.

Still, you’ll never find more stylistic muddlement in one place than you will browsing vintage items listed on eBay. Casual descriptions from lay sellers are understandable, but the many others who represent themselves as antique or collectibles dealers really ought to know what they’re offering. Granted, the idea is to cram as many keywords into these listings as possible so that they’ll show up under various search categories — but many examples go well beyond the pale. Here, for instance, are some actual listings for vintage lighting fixtures being auctioned on eBay:

  • “1920s Victorian Fixture.” By definition, the term Victorian refers to things dating from the reign of Queen Victoria (1837 to 1901), making this object pretty much of an impossibility. What the seller meant, I suppose, was that the lamp was ornate, and perhaps he or she should have just said so.

  • “Vintage Victorian Art Deco Lighting Fixture.” Here’s another time-warped description. The Paris exhibition from which Art Deco took its name didn’t even take place until 1925, nor did the style get much traction in the U.S. until the early 1930s. This, you’ll recall, was long after poor old Victoria had joined the choir invisible. Perhaps the seller could have classified his lamp based on this simple test: Victorian objects typically have lots of floral and/or classical motifs more or less jumbled together. Art Deco objects, on the other hand, have stark geometric decoration in shallow relief.

  • “Circa 1920 Art Deco Ceiling Lamp.” Once again, time runs miraculously backward.

  • “Art Deco Nouveau Ceiling Lamp.” If this description were accurate, it would be a lamp worth seeing, since these two styles are just about diametrically opposed. The earlier style, Art Nouveau, spanned roughly the years 1890 to 1905. It made lavish use of sinuous plant motifs such as meandering vines and leaves, with hardly a straight line to be found. Art Deco, as we’ve just noted, caught on a generation later, and was uncompromisingly geometric.

  • If you think the foregoing descriptions run the gamut, how about this one: “Art Deco Medieval Tudor Porch Lamp.” Let’s see — the Middle Ages, the early English renaissance, and the eye-popping modernism of Art Deco all in one lighting fixture. It turns out that the actual imagery on the lamp — a ring of three fretwork panels depicting speeding chariots, each separated by a flaming-torch motif — was Roman. I can say this with confidence, because the lamp is now hanging in my office.

  • Lastly, amid all this stylistic hooey, here’s an accidentally accurate listing: “Rare 1910s Victorian Deco Pendant Fixture.” Yup — that’s a rare one, all right.

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