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  • J.A. Willoughby

"You'll Ruin Your Eyes!"

“You'll Ruin Your Eyes!”

In their youth, Baby Boomers heard those words loud and clear. That parental exclamation was about a bright television display contrasting with the ambience of a darkened room. It was a real concern in the days of early television viewing.

“You're sitting too close, turn on the TV light!” was another one as kids laid on the floor in front of the set, their heads propped up on their elbows. If you failed to heed that last and final directive, the set was turned off and your viewing time was curtailed. Your bedtime came early.

This scene is difficult to grasp, with video input now bombarding our mobile and living spaces almost 24/7. Visual content now provides a daily background of gaming, music, movies and other forms of entertainment. When it first arrived on the scene decades ago, television quickly became a center for family activity. Parents soon took notice – as did the advertisers of the day and tailored their products to occupy that family space.

In lieu of any recording devices or prerecorded media like VCR's and DVD's in the home, programming was dictated by the broadcast networks. And certain movies and programs ran only at certain times of the week - or year. The Wizard of Oz was one such movie that was broadcast only at Thanksgiving. Television viewing quickly became a disciplining tool for parents, much the way video in the home and family auto has become a sedative or pacifying controller for children now, the electronic babysitter. Advertisers knew that it was the heart and soul of family time.

Most commercial advertising then centered around the television, radio and print ads, as it does now, but with the inclusion of web ads. Since TV was “new” its advertising budgets and consumer-grabbing ads were tantamount to buying success. Manufacturers extended their reach past the curved glass screen and into the living room, creating specific products, furniture, and accessories, that were used during viewing time. Easy chairs, TV dinners, folding and lap trays, remote controls, and lamps, to name a few. In later decades, entertainment centers, special audio setups and home theatres became the go-to trends, all centered around the viewing and home entertainment experience. Most of those will continue in some form now and in the future. But there is one viewing accessory that will arguably, by virtue of the cubic design of the old TV's, never see the “light” of day or night again – the TV lamp.

The TV lamp was a light fixture that typically sat on the large flat top of the television set. Advertisers put the idea out there and consumers bought into it, making it happen in a big way. No fewer than 138 companies produced them then, and in many different configurations. I own two such TV lamps, a “motion lamp” by Econolite, circa 1956, which features two different trains, The John Bull and The General. It still works and I don't mean only the light. Once the incandescent bulb inside warms up, it spins the outside cylinder through a louvered disc at the top which sits on a spindle, causing the trains to appear to be moving in a magical animated-like way. This is the same lamp that my sister and I stared at when it sat on top of our grandparents' Zenith TV when we were kids. The lamp was in color. The television was not.

There was another motion lamp in our household, a Niagra Falls scene, that my mother threw away when the those types of lights went out of fashion. The other TV lamp I possess is a Lane & Company flea market purchase that features a Siamese cat duo, a very common lamp of the day. It sits on small shelf and illuminates the entire corner of my office. It's looks different than anything else in the room and that makes it cool.

But were these things only TV viewing accessories of the day or did they exceed their advertising directives and reach decades past their intended usefulness? Yes, they invoke nostalgia in those who remember them. But they were more than a TV accessory. They became works of art that still stimulate youthful (and once-youthful) imaginations.

Why? They still hold a fascination for younger viewers without (now) being the savior from “ruining their eyes”. They still hold the uniqueness of their own design, without the accompaniment of a big box holding a glass tube that will never exist again. Or simply, as my two-year-old grandson put it recently, seeing the motion lamp turned on for the first time, “Dad, look! Choo-choo train!” My sister, now 58 eight-years-young, expresses a similar, but more mature sentiment when she visits. “Hey, turn the lamp on, will ya?”

Is there a future "TV lamp," a product, an accessory that will be just as fascinating a half century from now, already in today's tech market? Who knows? You'll just to wait and see, I guess. In the meantime, don't throw anything away.


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