September 29, 2023

The Rise and Fall of TV Lamps

One of the questions that I’m often asked, and which probably runs a close second behind appraisal requests, has to do with the vintage of a given lamp… when was it made? While I’m curious about the vintage of individual lamps, I’m particularly interested in determining the birth and demise of “the TV lamp era”, the time-span in which they were popular. The easy answer is to say “the 1950s”, but that’s just too simplistic for my tastes. To get a better handle on just what time period saw TV lamps roam the earth, we can start by taking a broad look at when various lamps were made.
TV lamps are not so easy to date, even though their period of popularity was brief. I know of only two ways to discover when a given TV lamp was marketed, and that’s with a copyright date on the lamp itself, or through some sort of “ephemera”, catalogs, advertisements or photographs that can be connected to a certain year. Some TV lamps, but not many, have a year indicated, but it must be understood that it’s a copyright date, not the date of manufacture. A lamp dated 1956 might have been made as early as ’56, but it could easily have been made in the next few years that followed. So a year marked on a lamp tells us when the design was conceived, and it would likely have first hit the shelves that year or the year after. Just out of curiosity, I compiled some of the years found on various TV lamps:

1951 – Colonial Art Creations “Head of a Lady”
1952 – Cali-Co of California “mermaid and shell”
1953 – Modern Art Products horse (date appears on foil label)
1954 – Claes siamese cats
1956 – Lane & Co. poodles
1959 – Claes poodles
1960 – Clevel Statuary pagoda
1966 – Maddux of Calif. “Boy on a Dolphin”
1970 – Maddux of Calif. owl

It should be remembered that only a small percentage of TV lamps were marked with a year, and that some companies stopped adding the year at some point while others adopted the practice at a later date. Maddux of California, for example, certainly made TV lamps throughout the ’50s, but didn’t typically mark years on their lamps until the 1960s. The list is just a quick overview, and I’ll save the compilation of a comprehensive list of dated lamps for another time. It’s interesting to note that 1954 was a busy year for Leland Claes, as many of his designs come from that year, including the siamese cats, the “Mustang Head”, single boxer dog, the owl and others.
The first lamp on the list is from 1951… what about all those from I.A.S., CSM, R.N.S. Co. (what’s with the three letters?) and others that date from the 1930s? Predating television by 15+ years, they were clearly not marketed as “TV” lamps, and have but a superficial (inspirational?) connection to what we consider TV lamps. So unless some other compelling evidence comes along, let’s assume for now that the TV lamp “boom” began in 1951. Since the Maddux owl dates from 1970, can we say that it marks the end of the era? Nope! TV lamps burst onto the scene, but didn’t leave with the same finality. They sort of faded away. What started as lamps that supposedly alleviated television-induced eye strain, TV lamps gradually lost their ties to the family television. Fewer and fewer were produced, but some stayed on as decorative lighting, and still others evolved into “night lights”, soft lighting to be used in a child’s room. This is why they survived through the 60s. TV lamp designs were adapted or modified to new uses.
Some other examples of TV lamps that had tremendous longevity can be found amongst the products of Texans Incorporated. I would never have believed this had I not found photographic proof, but Texans made their enormous mallard duck lamp, as well as the little-known “dancers” lamp, through the mid-1970s. This came to light (pardon the pun) with the discovery of a photograph (above) taken inside the Texans Inc. factory, showing designers Howard Kron and Richard Gunter with their limited-edition bicentennial lamp. The photo was definitely taken in 1975 or 1976, and in the background can be seen carts of mallards and dancers waiting for their trip through the kiln. (see close-up at right) I honestly don’t know what this was all about, and when I pointed it out to Richard Gunter, he too was surprised. Texans had a long successful run of TV lamp production, and they may simply have not known how to stop.
So the actual end of the TV lamp era is less clear than the beginning, but if I had to state a year I’d say 1960. That’s right around the time that the introduction of new designs slowed way down, and also marks an increase in lamps with juvenile themes. So ten years and millions of lamps later, the party was over. In a way this foreshadowed the fate of the American ceramics industry itself, as it would soon all but disappear.