The Bankers lamp: Green desk lamps with an iconic design

Milica Sterjova
The Banker's lamp. By Sándor Iskender – CC BY 2.0

The bankers lamp is one of the most recognizable table lamp designs in the world. It is a style featured in many American films on office desks.

The lamp was initially used in libraries, banks and business offices. Today they are widely used in people’s homes, regarded as a perfect fit for a vintage study.

Bankers lamps come in different colors but the classic green glass shade is by far the most famous option. It was the color that inspired the lamp’s original name, Emeralite, which is a combination of emerald and light.

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 glass shades were produced in the city of Rapotin, in the province of Moravia, today in the northern Czech Republic.

They were manufactured by J. Schreiber & Neffen, which also produced glass items for other clients, but the green lamp shades were made strictly for H.G. McFaddin & Co.

A bankers lamp. Author: Sándor Iskender. CC BY 2.0

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 50 years.

The lamp is characterized by its simple yet elegant design. The base is made of brass and the shade comprises layered glass, usually green on the outside and white on the inside.

Bankers lamp made of brass with three-layer glass shade. Author: Axl0506. CC BY-SA 3.0

Green was the color of choice because when light shines through the green glass it has a pleasant effect on the eyes. The color was thought to encourage positive emotions, energy and focus.

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.

Another unique aspect is that the bankers lamp doesn’t have any sharp corners. The lampshade has sleek, flat sides and is gently tilted towards the front.

Authentic McFaddin lamps are operated by a pull-chain switch, although other types also exist in modern versions of the design. All the lamps that came from McFaddin’s company were signed, usually on a small round or rectangular decal.

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

The evolution of 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 bankers 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.

A bankers lamp with a round base. Author: Rob Pongsajapan. CC BY 2.0

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.

What did change was the lamp’s size. As well as the usual 8 1/2 inch height version, 10 inch and 12 inch lamps were produced. Lamps from the second and third period usually had a concealed piece of iron in the base to add weight.

When McFaddin retired in the late 1930s, his place was taken by a former employee called Charles Inness Brown. The company’s name was changed to Emeralite Company Inc. and, during this final period, new designs were developed.

Model from 2013. Author: tlwmdbt. CC BY 2.0

Metal shades and different colors were introduced, but these were by far less successful in comparison with their predecessors. After Inness Brown died, the company was sold and it was permanently closed in 1962.

McFaddin’s design continues to be popular to this day, with many companies producing their take on his style.

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Original bankers lamps are sought-after by collectors, particularly the ones made before World War II. The bankers lamp is a great addition to any home, especially for lovers of vintage designs.