Collecting Mania: 50's TV Lamps
Though television was in development during the roaring twenties, it wasn't ready for prime time until 1946. Between 1948 and 1958 Americans spent more than $15 billion on television sets, relegating their old-fashioned radios to the dark recesses of their garage. As they reclined in their La-Z-Boys in their new suburban dens, Americans could now not only hear but actually see their favorite radio personalities - from Arthur Godfrey and Hopalong Cassidy to Red Skelton and Jack Benny.
While it was love at first sight for Americans and their TVs, there was also an element of fear. In the 1950s, it was commonly believed that staring too long at the black-and-white screen without an indirect source of light would eventually cause blindness.
Enter the TV lamp.
TV lamps are funny-looking table lamps manufactured in the 1950s in the shapes of exotic birds, slinky panthers, stylized foliage, Chinese couples, and other figures. They were typically made of high-glaze ceramic, plastic, or painted plaster (chalkware) and came in popular 50's colors - Fiesta green, Harlequin maroon, chartreuse, and pink. Tacky as they may seem today, TV lamps were actually very well made; ceramic ones were fired to near-porcelain temperatures. Most TV lamps were "backlit," meaning that the source of illumination came from a single bulb in back of the figure.
TV lamps are the popular direct descendants of Art Deco-design radio lamps - those from the twenties and thirties that rested on top of the veneer cabinets in which large radios were enclosed. TV lamps have similar designs but are more streamlined. Some early TV lamps actually may have been salesmen's leftover 30's and 40's stock of inexpensive, dime-store backlit lamps. In general, however, TV lamps were made specifically to decorate - and fit on - Americans' new Philcos, Motorolas, and Zeniths, encased in their bulky, flat-topped consoles. The lamp forms were plucked from the iconography of popular contemporary motifs. Among the figures that turned up most often as TV lamps were roosters, panthers, Siamese cats, mallards, hula girls, horses, fish, poodles, lighthouses, and gazelles.
Other popular TV lamps were the cone-shaped descendants of "up lights," 30's-style torchieres made of plastic, brass, or faux bamboo. Still other lamps served a dual purpose: some doubled as candy dishes and some were intended to be used as planters and even came with packages of free "planter mix."
During the 1950s, TV lamps became such de rigueur home accessories - or necessities, as many people thought - that around 2,000 different designs were produced. Best of all they were inexpensive, so folks who could afford a television could easily find a little spare change to adorn the top of their TV console - and save their eyesight.
Whether anyone ended up reading TV Guide in braille from watching too much "Texaco Star Theater" or "My Little Margie" is doubtful. However, early TV screens were small and their projected images not always clear. This forced viewers to sit extremely close to the box, playing into their fears of losing their 20/20 vision. To encourage sales and allay fears, many TV dealers offered a free TV lamp with the purchase of a new television.
By 1960 larger picture tubes, clear video images, and newly shaped televisions, such as Philco's Predicta, enabled TV viewers to sit farther back from the tube. The TV lamp became a space-age dinosaur, and - like old radios before them - the outdated console TVs and their decorative lamps were shoved into dark recesses of suburban garages.
TV lamps can be found almost everywhere - from flea markets to secondhand shops to antiques stores. Because they are readily available, prices are still reasonable; $30 to $40 is the average going rate. Lamps are generally more expensive on the West Coast than they are on the East Coast.
Common figural TV lamps, such as horses, mallards, or "up lights," can be found for as little as $15 to $20, while rarer examples like owls, Siamese cats, or poodles by Kron (a prominent 50's lamp designer from Texas) sell for $100 to $200. One of the most expensive TV lamps is a Lawrence Welk accordion in translucent ceramic, which can garner over $1,000.
Here are some things to watch for when buying TV lamps:
Before purchasing a lamp, ask the dealer to plug it in. Not only do you want one that works, you should get an idea of what the lamp will look like when illuminated.
If you buy a lamp and don't know if it works, check the wiring before turning it on. If in doubt and you don't trust your electronics skills, take it to a lamp store or small-appliance repair shop for a checkup.
Never use bulbs higher than 25 watts, or you run the risk of scorching or burning the lamp's shades.
Keep an eye out for lamps by the following manufacturers; they're among the best: Haeger Potteries of Dundee, Illinois; Kron of Texas; Lane of Van Nuys, California; Maddux of Los Angeles; and McCoy Pottery of Zanesville, Ohio.
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