While you might not have ever participated in lighting a menorah during Hanukkah, this simple but poignant ceremony is deeply rooted in familial and religious tradition. Even families today cherish their vintage menorahs for their ancestral connection and still pass them through the generations. While the menorah might be considered the most well-known Judaic symbol, even gentiles can honor these reverential items in their own way as well.
What Is a Menorah?
A menorah is a ceremonial candelabrum which holds different numbers of candles depending on its type. According to Judaic texts, God instructed the Israelites to construct a menorah as they departed from Egypt, and a seven-pillar menorah remained lit in the first temple that was built after their exit. Now, the menorah is lit over the eight days of Hannukah in dedication to the miracle that kept the limited supply of oil burning in the Temple for eight days straight.
Temple Menorah vs Hannukah Menorah
Whether you're Jewish and your family has a menorah in its collection or you happen to have come across one in your antiquing adventures, you'll probably have noticed that not all menorahs have the same number of spots for candles on them. This is because there are generally two types of menorahs: the Temple menorah and the Hanukkah menorah.
The Temple menorah had seven spots for candles, and though it was once outlawed to create goods in the image of Temple items (and thus seven-pillared menorahs were once forbidden) you can find a lot of vintage menorahs with this style. Ones that were created in the Temple reference, but before the decree was softened, can be found with six spots.
Meanwhile, the Hannukah menorah has eight individual spots with a ninth spot reserved for the Shamash candle - a candle which is used to light all of the other candles across the holiday's eight days.
Menorah Styles in the 20th Century
Prior to the 20th century, most menorahs were hand crafted by specialized artisans, and families passed down their ancestral menorahs from generation to generation. With the onset of industrialization and mass commercialism, menorahs began to be manufactured by machine. However, this didn't mean that artists didn't still put their own special touches onto these religious tokens. In fact, throughout the early and mid-20th century, menorahs could be identified as belonging to two distinct categories: traditional and aesthetic.
Traditional menorahs describe the most basic design of menorah, the one that most people envision when they think of the Judaic item. Made out of brass or a similar metal, these menorahs are straight-forward in their design and don't deviate from the typical candelabra style. In fact, this style doesn't change much across the decades, and would still fit right in with modern celebrations.
Also during the 20th century, there were manufacturers who were inspired by the design and aesthetic movements of roughly each decade and created menorahs in their likeness. These menorahs come in an impossibly wide array of materials, colors, sizes, and shapes. Yet, since they mostly follow each of the design principles of these movements, you'll be able to recognize them for their general styles.
Here are some of the movements which some vintage menorahs were created under:
- Art Deco
- Mid-Century Modern
Within this aesthetic category is another unique type of menorah that grew increasingly popular in the mid-20th century - the electric menorah. This replaced the open flame menorahs that had been used for centuries before, and they came with brightly colored lights perfect for the colorful 1960s and 1970s.
Common Materials Menorahs Were Made out Of
Vintage menorahs can be found in a multitude of different materials, not one of which is particularly specific to a certain decade in the 20th century. Thus, you can find examples of menorahs made out of all of these materials across the years:
- Cast iron
What to Expect When Collecting Vintage Menorahs
In the post-war period, with the rise of commercialism and an increasingly connected global Jewish community, a ton of menorahs were manufactured. While you can find menorahs from before the war, it's far less common to do so than it is to discover those from after the war. Thanks to the numerous menorahs made during the mid-century, less decorative ones can be sold for around $15-$20, on average. Specialty menorahs, whether due to their unique design, type of materials that they're made out of, or their rarity, can sell for anywhere between $50-$100 on average.
Here are a few vintage menorahs that recently sold at auction for you to get an idea of how they fair on the antiques market.
- Set of Vintage Brass Menorahs - Sold for $10
- 1970s Brass Menorah - Sold for $18.00
- Vintage Lucite Electric Menorah- Sold for $58.00
- 1950s Electric Menorah - Sold for $60.00
Ultimately, vintage menorahs' values aren't gathered by conventional means, such as through a manufacturer or a specific style. Rather, these menorahs mainly sell based on their visual aesthetics, whether that comes from a twenty-year-old or a hundred-year-old piece.
Take in These Online Menorah Collections
Thanks to some dedicated Judaica archivists, you don't have to be an avid menorah collector to be able to get a gander at these vintage items in all of their glory. In fact, there are two incredible, free digital resources for you to see many vintage menorahs documented for future generations like you to enjoy:
- Breaking Matzo- This collection of antique and vintage menorahs comes from Myra Yellin Outwater's book on Jewish art, Judaica. With each image's provenance carefully detailed, the website highlights menorahs from all sorts of public and private collections around the world.
- Hanukkah: The Festival of Lights - This fascinating website divides its digital collection of menorahs and photographs of people featuring menorahs into three categories: before the war, during the war, and after the war. This vast collection spanning decades can give you not only an idea of the many types of menorahs out there, but also a peek into how historic Jews celebrated their traditional holidays.
Always Bring Light to the Table
While menorahs are traditionally used in Jewish practices, they can also serve as a beautiful piece of artwork in your home. Of course, given their religious connections, it's important to exhibit these items with grace and respect, as they're meant to light the way for you and all those around you through the darkness.