In the 1950s, the first decade of mass television adoption, there was a common belief that watching TV in low light could damage one's eyesight. But early televisions, with their dull luminescence, were best viewed in the dark. So the TV lamp was invented to add a little light to the room and dispel people’s fears.
Originally a dime-store item which sold for as little as a $1.50, TV lamps were small figurine lamps styled to look like animals, people, plant life, or other objects. Lacking a shade like a normal lamp, the bulb created a silhouette of the lamp’s shape, casting its illumination on the wall behind the TV to create a kind of a mood lighting.
Made for about a decade, these lamps surpassed their utilitarian purposes and were likely purchased as a trendy means of home decor—the TV top was yet another surface for a housewife to adorn. Some TV lamps were also planters, which people would water in spite of the lamp and plant’s proximity to electric wires. Others featured clocks and even radios.
There were thousands of TV lamp designs, produced by at least 100 manufacturers. Often made of plaster, the most collectible TV lamps were ceramic. They came shaped as everything under the sun, many echoing the designs of ceramic figurines—leafy plants, pieces of fruit, dogs, birds, exotic and domestic cats, owls, deer, horses, mermaids, clowns, or Asian people in traditional dress. Inanimate objects were also popular, be it seashells, stagecoaches, wagon wheels, crystals, a moon and some stars, theatrical masks, accordions, or boats.
Some of these vintage TV lamps are quite peculiar, and appeal to those who are drawn to "kitsch" and other oddities from the era, like sci-fi B-movies. Purely nostalgic collectors are attracted to TV lamps as a symbol of more innocent times. In addition, TV lamps are probably a close cousin to plaster figurative lamps, which proliferated in the United States in the 1940s and ’50s, and featured stereotypical characters like matadors, hula dancers, and Nubian princesses.
The influence of ’20s Art Deco can be seen in sleek black ceramic TV lamps by Royal Haeger in the shapes of mustang heads, stags, and panthers. The panther is one of the most popular motifs, its sinuous streamlined body, crouching in a stalk, represented both the potential for speed and the allure of exotic jungles. Another top seller was a mother Siamese cat paired with her kitten, produced by designer Howard Kron at Texas Incorporated in Bangs, Texas, and Lane and Company in Van Nuys, California.
Leland Claes, who made designs for Ball Art Pottery and his own Morongo Valley studio, the William H. Hirsch Manufacturing Company, is known for his delightful animal lamps. Part...
Another style within this genre were motion lamps, which were based on technology developed in the ’30s. Using the heat generated by the lightbulb itself, these lamps featured a rotating cylinder inside a stationary one that gave the illusion of sailing boats or floating clouds. In the ’50s, such lamps were made by companies like Econolite Corporation and L.A. Goodman Manufacturing.
Even though the TV-lamp era lasted for only 10 years, newer copies have been made by taking molds from original lamps. Vintage ceramic lamps are usually crazed, meaning there's a fine cracking in the glaze, so that can be a clue to whether a lamp is a reproduction or the real thing. Unglazed chalkware or plaster lamps tend to be the most vulnerable to damage—chips in the plaster are common, as is flaking paint. Many of these lamps have had their electrical elements replaced or modernized, but an old Bakelite fixture indicates it was truly made in the ’50s.