Mark Stevens discusses the history and varieties of collectible 1950s TV (television) lamps. Based in Fort Worth, Mark can be reached via his website, Texans Incorporated, which is a member of our Hall of Fame.
I’ve always had an interest in the tackier artifacts of the 1950s and ’60s. The cheesy stuff, the kitsch. Old B movies, monster and sci-fi movies, the stuff you can poke fun at a little bit. When I was growing up, we didn’t have TV lamps around our house. But there was a book called “Turned On: Decorative Lamps of the 50s” written by Leland and Crystal Payton in 1989, about different kinds of lamps from the 1950s. There were so many in that book that were really tacky. I just remember looking at the lamps in the book and thinking how interesting and crazy they were.
I was intrigued by the whole phenomenon of TV lamps, these odd and cool looking lamps. They run the gamut from really ugly to really attractive. There are figurines styled to look like roosters, panthers, horses, deer, people, plant life, usually ceramic or made of plaster, but most were pottery. I was just fascinated by them and started doing research.
The general consensus was that the concept behind TV lamps was to keep a person from damaging their eyes from watching too much TV. That the lamp would diffuse the light a little bit and keep people from going blind or whatever they thought would happen. A TV lamp doesn’t have a shade like a normal lamp, there’s a bulb behind it so it creates a silhouette of whatever the lamp itself is and it’s casting light on the wall behind the TV, so it’s kind of a mood lighting sort of feeling.
There were so many TV lamps made. I got looking for them in different places and soon realized there were thousands of different TV lamp designs. They were made by at least 100 manufacturers, probably many more. They were amazingly popular. I started acquiring the lamps as I found them and it just kept growing, now I have somewhere around 300 to 350 lamps. They were originally a dime store item, costing about 5 or 6 to 10 dollars. Today the more common TV lamp is worth around 50 to 75 dollars but there are some that are worth hundreds to thousands of dollars.
Collectors Weekly: What was the most popular TV lamp design?
Stevens: The panther, by far. And of those, the most popular was a long sleek design of a stalking panther, that looks like it’s crouching low and sneaking up on its prey. I have a theory as to why those were the most popular. In the 1950s there was a good deal of interest in anything that had a touch of the exotic. Part of this had to do with an influence from soldiers coming back from World War II. So in the 1950s you have people all of a sudden interested in Oriental, Africa, Polynesian, and French motifs, basically anything that represented a foreign culture became very popular. A panther kind of fit in with all that, an exotic animal from a foreign land.
Collectors Weekly: How many people collect TV lamps?
Stevens: There’s a lot of collectors. I know, because of my three websites, I get a lot of emails. Over time TV lamps have grown in popularity. I think people probably started collecting TV lamps in the 1980s. In fact, that book I mentioned, I’ve always credited it with inspiring a lot of people to pay attention to those lamps. I don’t think I was the only person it inspired. I’d say there was pretty much no interest in TV lamps at all in the 1970s.
TV lamps were exclusively a North American phenomenon, U.S. and Canada, as far as the sale of them, and there are collectors only in the U.S. There were a small number made in Japan but nothing like what was happening over here.
Collectors Weekly: How did you get interested in this one specific TV lamp manufacturer, Texans Incorporated?
Stevens: As I collected TV lamps I discovered an interest in historical research that I didn’t really know was in me. I got really curious about the different companies that made the lamps. Many of them are marked by the manufacturer and in most cases it’s a company you’ve never heard of. A number of the lamps had a marking on them that said Kron and no one knew what that meant. Occasionally one of those lamps would also have a stamp on the bottom that said Texans Inc. Bangs, Texas. That struck me as odd, I was so far from believing that a large pottery would have existed that made TV lamps in Texas that it blinded me to the obvious.
In the 1950s, there was a good deal of interest in anything that had a touch of the exotic.
A pottery is a big production, if there is a pottery in your town, you know it. I was born in Fort Worth and lived here my whole life and never heard of Bangs, Texas. So one day my wife and I decided to drive to Bangs, Texas and see what’s there. Right before we got into Bangs, which is a very tiny community, we went through Brownwood and saw an antique shop. So we pulled in to check it out and before we left, I asked the woman who worked there about the TV lamps that say Bangs, Texas. She said they were made right down the highway and that she used to work there.
She told us that Howard Kron was the designer, but that the other designer who worked with him, Richard Gunter, was still around and lived near Dallas, and she gave me his phone number. She told me to go talk to David Cole first who lives in Bangs, so we went to David’s house and he has an amazing collection of lamps made at the plant.
It’s hard to explain what a shock this was, this was all stuff that the pottery collecting world had no knowledge of, and there’s a lot of people who collect pottery of all types and vintage lamps, and none of them had a clue. Then David takes me down to the front yard and points to a big brown building down the street and tells me that’s the Texans Incorporated factory. He gave me a wealth of information and we have become great friends and then he and I started organizing these annual reunions. Before the first reunion I wrote a book about the company called Pedlar of Dreams. It was actually more about Howard Kron than the company itself.
The Bangs community is so small, which is amazing, because the company was a huge facility. The community pulled together and created this lamp factory because they needed a place for the farmers to work during the drought in the early 1950s. So the whole town worked there or knew someone who worked there. I think they were pleased that someone was taking an interest in their company, they have a lot of pride about it.
Collectors Weekly: Is the factory still standing?
Stevens: Yes it is. That was another thing, I was jumping onto the company’s story in the nick of time. In 1982 Texans Incorporated sold out to an individual pottery called Challenger Lighting and after that it became American Quality Ceramics, which did some work for those companies that do the limited edition plates. They ended up shutting down production in the 1990s, and the place was shut down for good. It just sat dormant for several years. One gentleman was the care taker and kept it clean and standing. The day of the first reunion we had out there, he told me they were fixing to sell the plant and clear it all out. So David Cole, Richard Gunter, and I went to see the factory and got to go through it and look at everything. It was a huge learning experience. The building ended up being sold to the Bangs school district and now it’s used as a maintenance facility and a school bus warehouse. That was my first and only opportunity to go in, because that guy at the first reunion was the only one who had access to it.
Collectors Weekly: Did you interview some of the employees?
Stevens: Yes, I’ve interviewed lots of them. The place opened in 1952 and closed in 1982 so a lot of them aren’t with us anymore. But I’ve probably interviewed 30 or more, some at greater lengths than others. Like Pete Heeds and his wife Evangeline, who was the bookkeeper for the company. Her husband Pete started a few years after her and became the production manager. Lanny Sikes was one of the original founders, and he was one of the people who came up with the idea for the factory and had a lot to do with its construction and financing. He was the last of the founders and I got to talk to him on several occasions.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the most interesting things you learned?
Stevens: The most shocking thing about the company in general was that it was even there to begin with. That a town of 2600 people could possibly support such an enormous company that sold lamps all over the world. That to me was staggering.
TV lamps were actually only a small part of their production. They didn’t even restrict themselves just to lamps, they also made ashtrays, dishes, trays, but they called themselves a lamp company. The majority of their production was traditional table lamps. But with the TV Lamps, though a small percentage of what they made, they came out with new designs every year, they weren’t just putting out the same designs over and over. That’s why there’s so many different designs from them.
The design they sold the most outrageous numbers of is the TV lamp with a Siamese cat with her Siamese kitten. One year they sold over 30,000 of those designs. Siamese cats were very popular in the 50s, that exotic theme again. Another pottery that produced them was Van Nuys based Lane and Company, but there is no data about them at all. They made an insane amount of lamps and nobody knows when they were founded, who owned the company, no one’s every talked to anyone who’s ever worked there, it’s been in the twilight zone. If I had two months to spend in Van Nuys I would dig and get the truth.
Collectors Weekly: How did you do most of your research on Texans Incorporated?
Stevens: There was no information anywhere except in Bangs itself. Once I started poking my nose around, I started finding out stuff by talking to people and that would result in getting a hold of old newspaper articles about the plant. From a historical perspective, archiving these clippings is probably one of the bigger contributions of the Texans Incorporated website. I scan the articles and post them, and recently, David even came across a bunch of newspaper clippings that no one had ever seen before, basically a step by step history of the company. There’s an article done in July of 1951, a year before the plant opened, announcing that they’re going to built it. There’s one when its nearing completion, and one with the open house, and the fire… they all add pieces to the puzzle. There’s still a lot of details we’re not clear on and maybe won’t ever be. But new things always come to life, so as time goes by I’ve been able to paint a fuller picture of the history of the company.
Collectors Weekly: What resources would you recommend for other lamp collectors and researchers?
Stevens: The book I mentioned earlier, Turned On: Decorative Lamps of the 50s by Leland and Crystal Payton, has been out of print for years but can be found on eBay. Other TV Lamp books are, 50s TV Lamps by Calvin Shepherd, and one called TV Lamps: Identification and Value Guide by Tom Santiso. Both those books were written in 1998 or 99 and there is one other book that is newer called TV Lamps to Light the World by John A. Shuman.
Collectors Weekly: Where do you find new TV lamps to add to your collection?
Stevens: With the number of lamps I have now, I’m not seeking them as aggressively, but I do watch eBay on a regular basis and my wife and I love to go antiquing so sometimes I find them in antique shops and flea markets. As far as volume, eBay is the place to go. eBay has made the whole world a lot smaller because someone somewhere is posting the lamp you’re looking for on eBay. It’s also had an effect on the pricing because all of a sudden a treasured lamp is seen by a lot more people so that tends to make the price rise. But a TV lamp that is very common, when you see how many of them are on eBay, the price drops to nothing. Right now, if you want to make a profit selling a TV lamp on eBay, it better be something pretty out of the ordinary.
Collectors Weekly: Anything else you’d like to mention?
Stevens: Just that David Cole has been an inspiration to a lot of what I do. He’s 150 miles away but he’s a good friend and an enthusiastic historian, so he helps me out a lot. And, Richard Gunter is one of the people who started at Texans Incorporated when he was quite young, so he’s still with us and sharp as a tack and he has helped enormously. They’ve both helped me learn a lot and it keeps going… I’ve created a little fraternity of friends and enthusiasts throughout the country. It’s my little contribution to preserving American property.
(All images courtesy Mark Stevens of Texans Incorporated)