Top 25 "It" products of all time: #19 -- The Lava Lite
The first Lava-Brand Motion Lamps lamps came out in 1965, just in time to help a generation of psychedelic dropouts take a hit, tune in, and drop out as they stared into the gloopy miasma within. That was a high concept for the period (literally), but the added counter-culture value of owning a lamp that you couldn't even read by was just rebellious enough to spark a fad. But by the time the hippie culture crashed in the '70s, just 200 Lites a week were being sold.
When the Lava's popularity was at low ebb, Haggerty Enterprises was savvy enough to snap up the rights, and by the time the '90s rolled around, the lamps had lost their druggie stigma and, well, erupted into a benign decorating staple. Ironically, while Lava Lites are thought of as an echo from the Swinging '60s, they actually sold the most units annually some 30 years after its birth: more than a million a year.
Past kitsch, past corn, way past fad--the quintessential counterculture appliance is now virtually cliché. It may be the only piece of drug paraphernalia that Mom and Dad would happily allow their middle schooler to own. Yet whenever a TV character is supposed to be considered quirky, the set dresser gives their home a Lava Lite. Needless to say, their manufacturer, Lava World of Elmhurst, Illinois, has cleaned up.
My own Lava Lamp has lasted twenty years now. Not only was it an item I just had to have when I went to college, but it's also one I have never wanted to part with when I became a supposed grown-up. Now that I think of it, it's the longest-lasting electrical item I've ever purchased. Mostly because it's not complex. A light bulb heats the stuff in the glass bottle, and the stuff (it's wax, but the recipe for the liquid's a trade secret) responds by silently expanding and floating to the top, cooling, and settling at the bottom. Repeatedly, but uniquely, until it gets so hot the wax separates into tiny beads. Consider it a hip alternative to feeding a bowl of smelly fish.
Part of the secret to its long life is that people don't always remember to turn it on. It takes at least an hour of illumination for my 16-incher to warm up the stuff to the point where it moves past the waxy-stalk stage and into full-on jelly-juggling. (I can't imagine how long it takes the four-foot tall version, called the Colossus, to warm up its 10 gallons of juice, even with its 200-watt bulb.) In fact, as long as you don't make the mistake of uncapping the bottle (or heating it on a stove, which the Mythbusters proved makes them explode), the magic can presumably endure much longer than the passing color trends that led you to pick your version to begin with.
I chose a chubby one in truly classic colors: blood-red goop rising and falling within a yellow liquid on a brass-like, perforated base. When I'm not feeling well, the body-humor color scheme can be a tad nauseating, which is probably why the lamps now come in a broad array of equally offensive colors, from oily black in a silvery tube to day-glow Play-Doh hues. The ones with glitter are, in my opinion, absolute heresy.
If you thought the original Lave Lite was an outright accessory for drug use, or a little phallic, or even scatological, you're going to hate the news that Lava World just came out with an inaugural edition. Its brazen profile out-panders anything that came before it: The old lamp has been painted in red, white, and blue, and draped in bunting and a color photograph of Obama. You could almost say this new $40 version is in bad taste. But the long history of the Lava Lite has inured us to tackiness. It's so ugly it's beautiful.