TV Lamps: Curious Mid-Century Lighting
Those of a certain age may remember TV lamps, those decorative lamps that would reside proudly atop the family television set. If not, then one of these oddities may have been handed down to you from a parent or grandparent. Whether you fall into one of these camps or are completely in the dark on the subject (pun intended), I'm going to tell you about TV lamps, a curious fad from the 1950s.
So What Are These Things?
TV lamps are electric lamps, usually ceramic but sometimes plaster or metal, specifically designed to cast light on the wall behind it rather than providing general room illumination. Given the number of styles produced, and the number of companies that made them, TV lamps were obviously extremely popular. But in spite of this, the heyday of the TV lamp was only about twelve years.
The Origin of TV Lamps
The earliest examples of TV lamps date from around 1950, just as television was beginning to become a presence in the American home. The traditional explanation for the purpose of TV lamps suggests that they were the product of some sort of pseudo-scientific quackery, intended to protect the eyes while watching that new-fangled television. Presumably the thinking was that the strong contrast between the light emanating from the TV and the surrounding darkness was bad for the eyes. So TV lamps come to the rescue, diffusing the harsh light by casting a lovely glow on the wall behind the set.
I said that this was the “traditional explanation” because after collecting and researching TV lamps for close to fifteen years I've found little or no evidence to substantiate it. We didn't have a TV lamp in my childhood home, and in later years my parents both confessed to having no recollection of them at all. In short, I have no first-hand knowledge of TV lamps from "back in the day". My skepticism regarding the eye-damage premise is based on ephemera from the time, pottery catalogs, advertisements and such, none of which suggest their being anything other than decorative.
Décor, 1950s Style
Interior design, and art in general, headed in some bold new directions in post-war America, often influenced by the exotic locales discovered by our soldiers while overseas. Oriental motifs and jungle animals made their way into the sculpted form of TV lamps, some finished in beautiful semi-transparent single-color glazes, with others were given a more naturalistic look with carefully airbrushed colors. as did. Animals were hugely popular, including horses, deer, fish, swan, and mallard ducks, but panthers were clearly the king of this ceramic jungle. The most popular TV lamp design of all was the long, low, stalking panther that was designed at Haeger Potteries (Dundee, Illinois) in the late 1940s. Ironically, Haeger sold this panther as a decorative figurine but never as a TV lamp, while other, we'll call them “less creative”, potteries blatantly copied the design, electrified it, and ultimately turned it into an iconic example of mid-century style.
TV Lamp Manufacturers
Most every pottery in the U.S., as well as some in Canada and even Japan, produced TV lamps in the 1950s and early 1960s. But as with most utilitarian and art pottery, the greatest volume came from California. Large outfits like Lane & Co., Maddux of California, and California Originals cranked out thousands of them, making the most of the demand while they could. Lane & Co. was especially prolific, and seemed to “get into the spirit” of TV lamp design in a big way, with creative designs in the form of flamingos, pink poodles, sailfish, roosters, and even an afghan hound. The company, based in Van Nuys, was one of the largest producers of ceramic goods in the U.S., yet today next to nothing is known about the history of the company. It could be said that the broader community of pottery collectors hasn't shown much love for Lane & Co., but where TV lamp aficionados are concerned they're right near the top.
At the other end of the California pottery spectrum resides the TV lamps and other items marked “Claes”. These attractive pieces are scarce and valuable, but their origin has until recently been unknown. My research into these interesting lamps eventually led me to find that they were designed by a reclusive artist from Turlock, California named Leland Claes. Leland Claes (1916-2000) first designed pottery with Arthur Ball at his Ball Art Ware in the late '40s and early '50s, having replaced Howard Ball after he left to design for Brad Keeler. Following this Leland began designing for himself, working from a desert workshop in California's Morongo Valley. It appears that he had his designs produced by William H. Hirsch Mfg. Co., as suggested by the stylistic “WH” that often accompanies the Claes marking on the lamps.
Of course there were manufacturers of ceramic goods all over the U.S., including potteries in North Dakota, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Arkansas and Texas. North Dakota's Rosemeade Pottery is best known for a dazzling array of salt and pepper shakers that depict wildlife from the area, but their TV lamps are among the most valuable of all. Just how valuable? A nice example of their rooster lamp sold a few years ago for the staggering sum of $3550.00. They also released TV lamps in the form of a panther, horse, pheasant, deer, and a wolf, and all are likely to bring $1000 or more at auction.
As a life-long Texan I've taken a personal interest in the products of Texans Incorporated, a large manufacturer that was based in the small West Texas town of Bangs. TV lamps were a significant part of their output, and their beautiful siamese cats are a must-have for collectors. Sometimes marked on the felt base with “Texans Incorporated, Bangs, Texas”, they can more readily be identified by the embossed “Kron” found on most examples. This denotes their prolific designer, Howard Kron (1914-1991), who was responsible for the majority of their products over the years.
Collecting TV Lamps
TV lamp collecting can be a real obsession, and I can't tell you how many people I know whose homes are packed full of them. You've been warned! There are three things you must consider when determining the value of a TV lamp: visual appeal, condition, and rarity. When I say visual appeal, I'm talking about an interesting subject, be it a beautiful mallard duck in flight, a kitschy pair of pink poodles, or an artfully rendered panther. Go with the lamps that make you smile.
Never underestimate the role that condition pays in value. Maximum value is only applied to examples that have no chips, cracks, or repairs, not even those tiny chips that are sometimes referred to as “flea bites”. A pattern of superficial cracks in the glazed finish, called “crazing”, may appear on part or all of a piece of vintage pottery, and in the case of TV lamps this doesn't hurt value. Be aware that even a small chip can reduce the worth of a lamp to 20% of what it would be otherwise. If you're interested in learning more about TV lamps, I invite you to visit my website on the subject, tvlamps.net.