The Banker’s lamp: Green desk lamps with an iconic design

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Milica Sterjova
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The Banker’s lamp, also known as Emeralite, is one of the most recognizable lamp designs in the world. The lamp was initially used in libraries, banks and business offices. It is featured in many American films on office desks. Today it is widely used in people’s homes, regarded as a perfect fit for a vintage study. The lamp comes in different colors, but the green lampshade is by far the most famous option.

The patent for the iconic desk lamp design as we know it today was issued in 1909 to Harrison Dawson McFaddin, an American engineer born in New York. The original name was “Emeralite lamp,” a combination of the words “emerald” and “light.” The green lamp shades were produced in the city of Rapotin, in the province of Moravia, today in the northern Czech Republic.

They were produced by a Czech glass factory called J. Schreiber & Neffen, which also produced glass items for other clients but the green lamp shades were strictly made for H.G. McFaddin & Co. The companies had an agreement that nobody else could buy the lampshades and, in return, McFaddin had to order a certain number of them every year. In peak years, about half of the total glass production of J. Schreiber & Neffen was for the American company. The famous lamps were manufactured for fifty years.

A banker’s lamp. Author: Sándor Iskender. CC BY 2.0

The lamp is characterized by its simple yet elegant design. The lamp base is made of brass, and the lampshade is cased in usually green from the outside and white from the inside, glass. Another unique aspect is that the Banker’s lamp doesn’t have any sharp corners. The lampshade has flat sides and is gently tilted towards the front. The pull-chain switch is the most common, although other types also exist.

All the lamps that came from McFaddin’s company were signed, usually on a small round or rectangular decal. Green was the first color of choice because when light shines through the green glass it has a pleasant effect on the eyes. Light from early-20th-century light bulbs was sometimes too glaring and could cause eye strain, so the green glass had a protective purpose. This is also why bankers or accountants at the time wore green eye shades.

Banker’s lamp made of brass with three-layer glass shed. Author: Axl0506. CC BY-SA 3.0

The evolution of the Emeralite lamps is divided into four periods in which the original design underwent several changes. During the first period, which lasted until 1916, the lamps had two holes on each side through which they were connected with the base.

The Banker’s lamps from this period are less decorative. The lamps produced in the second period, which lasted until the early 1930s, are the most recognizable. There were no holes on the lampshade; it was clamped to the brass base instead. This gave the opportunity to detach the glass part for cleaning.

Lord Mayor’s Parlour with partner’s desk, Sheffield Town Hall.

The third period, which began in the early 1930s and lasted about five years, didn’t bring new ideas regarding the design. The lamps produced during the two previous cycles remained virtually unchanged.

A banker’s lamp with a round base. Author: Rob Pongsajapan. CC BY 2.0

What changed was the lamp’s size. Apart from the usual 8 1/2″, 10″ and 12″ lamps were produced. Lamps from the second and third period usually had a concealed iron piece in the base to add weight. The last time period was about twenty years long. Metal shades and different colors were introduced, but these were by far less popular in comparison with their predecessors.

Model from 2013. Author: tlwmdbt. CC BY 2.0

In the late 1930s, McFaddin retired and his place was taken by a former employee called Charles Inness Brown. The company’s name was changed to Emeralite Company Inc. New designs were introduced but were less successful than the original. When Inness Brown died, the company was sold and it was permanently closed in 1962.

The design continues to be popular and the lamps are being made by other companies. The ones made by McFaddin are sought-after by collectors, particularly the ones made before World War II. The Banker’s lamp is a great addition to any home, especially for lovers of vintage designs.