In the 1950s America experienced an explosion of creativity that influenced the design of many utilitarian products. This was seen in even the most mundane items, and daily life became surrounded with new splashes of shape and color. Automobiles, household appliances, architecture and fashion all reflected this new sensibility, a flourishing of what today is often called mid-century design.
Another development was the ever-increasing presence of television in middle-class households. While still in its infancy, the television was already showing itself to be the centerpiece of the modern home. "TV" was life-altering in the same manner as the personal computer three decades later and, as with most technological whirlwinds, there were concerns. Much was made of the possibility that watching television in a darkened room could result in eye damage. Keeping in mind that consumers had been accustomed to watching movies in darkened movie theaters, it was only natural that the tradition would transfer to home viewing. The earliest televisions were also rather low luminosity, making low-light viewing a genuine benefit.
It wasn't long before many of these televisions were topped with a new adornment, a ceramic, back-lit statuette...the TV lamp. It was felt that the ambient light generated by these lamps reduced eye strain, permitting guilt-free viewing. Soon TV lamps became a must-have addition to the family television, positioned front and center, rather like a hood ornament on a 50s-era automobile. While their reign as a favorite piece of home decor only lasted about 10 years, they possess a significance in design that is an influence even today.
TV lamps came in thousands of designs from hundreds of manufacturers, and while they were made out of other materials, the vast majority were ceramic, coated with a shiny glaze in one of the popular colors of the day. Most of these charming household sculptures represented members of the animal kingdom (horse, deer, dogs, birds, domestic cats and the ever-popular panther) but some were of people (often oriental, but mermaids were also represented) and still others were purely an exercise in abstract design.
Much has been made of the TV lamps function, which was to protect the TV viewer's eyes. While I'm certain that this belief sold more than a few TV lamps, I'm not convinced that this is the primary reason for their existence. If nothing else, I believe this point is overstated. Perhaps it's hard to imagine that they were primarily whimsical in nature, lacking the "function" we look for in products today. I think their main purpose was a decorative one, an elegant tribute to the household centerpiece that the television had become.