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Vintage Radio
WSHU Chief Engineer Paul Litwinovich explores aspects of vintage radio, from the radio sets themselves to the people and technology that made it all possible.

Sounds good, looks great: Radio Cabinetry


As the popularity of radio increased, the household radio evolved into more than just a technological wonder. It became a part of day to day life. It was company for the housewife as she did her day to day chores, a gathering place for the family at the end of the day, and an opportunity to listen to sports events as the happened. Radio brought music and culture into the average home.  It also brought something new to society, the potential for near immediate dissemination of global news events as they happened. The radio sets themselves were evolving into something that was part of the home décor. By the end of the 1920s, the radio was considered to be not only a technological device, but a necessary piece of furniture. Manufacturers now competed not only to have the latest technology, but also the most visually pleasing way to present it.

Credit P. Litwinovich collection
1927 RCA Radiola 18 "longbox"

Styles of radio cabinetry varied as widely as the life styles and tastes of the people who bought them. Presented here are generic examples of different styles to help those interested in vintage radio or perhaps new to the hobby of collecting them, become familiar with the various designs and their names.

The breadboard style radio with its open components dates back to the oldest radio designs . Atwater   Kent (*1) held the reputation for producing the most elegant bread boards such as the 1923 model  10 shown here.  The breadboard design gave way  to the “ long box” style, which was the first attempt to hide the workings. The long box was popular during the 1920s. The example here is a 1927 RCA Radiola 18.

Credit P. Litwinovich collection
1929 Atwater Kent model 46 "breadbox"

All of these radios are pre-World War II, as this column focuses on "vintage radio". The vast majority of cabinets from this time period were made of wood, with the exception of few made from Bakelite,  Catalin, or Plaskon, which were early plastics. A number of "bread box" style radios like the  1929 Atwater Kent Model  46 shown here, came with metal cabinets.  The Crosley Radio Corporation called their version a “Gem Box” and General Electric promoted theirs as a "Jewel Box".  Within each generic style were almost limitless variations ranging from the very plain, to some outrageous  art deco or gothic creations. 

Credit P. Litwinovich
1931 Philco model 70 "cathedral"; 1930s-era Silvertone "tombstone"

Some, like the  1931 Philco Model 70 cathedral  cabinet, imitated architectural styles, still others like the "tombstone" acquired the name over time from similarity to familiar objects.

A few manufacturers constructed their own cabinets, but most  were outsourced to traditional furniture or cabinet makers. It was not uncommon for several different brands to use cabinets from the same supplier, often with only minor differences between one brand and the next. Pooley (*2) and Kiel were two cabinet companies to profit greatly from new found business generated by the radio industry, making cabinets for a variety of radio brands. Pooley is said to have produced as many as 600,000 radio cabinets in a single year. Often a popular radio would be offered in several different cabinet styles. The Atwater Kent model 55 shown here in a Kiel "parlor table"  was also offered in a metal "bread box" with an external speaker,  as a Pooley "lowboy" console, and as an open chassis for those who either wanted the "high tech" look, or wanted to build their own cabinet.  Radios often found their way into other pieces of furniture. In the future I’ll feature a Philco grandfather clock with a model  70 chassis in it.

Credit P. Litwinovich collection
Late 1920s Atwater Kent model 55 "parlor table"

The early consoles, which became popular in the mid to late 1920s, were usually of the "lowboy" or "highboy" variety. The distinguishing feature being the length of the legs more than the overall height of the cabinet. They mimicked traditional  clothing and linen  cabinets and often included elaborate scroll work and carvings. They were almost all made of wood with the exception of  the Atwater Kent "Little Stove" which has the distinction of being one of the few floor consoles ever to be made from metal.  It is not shown here, but is pictured with the introduction to this series.

Credit P. Litwinovich collection
Early 1920s American Bosch "lowboy"; 1929 RCA Radiola model 46 "highboy"

The floor console, often referred to as a "modern console",  became the grand dame of radio cabinets in the decade leading up to World War II. Bigger was better, so it seemed.  Zenith in particular, took the design to the extreme in elaborate wood working on some of their units. The large cabinets also allowed for large loudspeakers  and  more powerful amplifiers  resulting in a full rich sound. The cabinet style was shared by Juke boxes from the same period.  An electric phonograph and reception of international short wave broadcasts were often offered as options in the larger consoles.

Credit P. Litwinovich collection
1937 Zenith model 12S265 "floor console"

As technology improved and components became smaller,  compact  table radios became popular.  The two shown here are offerings from the 1930s. World War II marked a turning point in cabinet design. Almost all consumer radio production halted for the war effort. After the war few console radios were produced.  They had simply gone out of style, post war consumers wanted a more modern look.   By  the mid 1950s, the console re-emerged in the form of the "HiFi" set  which combined  the AM and FM radio with a phonograph and sometimes a television, but gone were the days of the giant  "radio only" console. Except for manufacturers occasionally producing a "nostalgia" radio, the wooden table top radio also disappeared.  Advancements in lightweight plastics allowed manufacturers to mass produce low cost plastic radio enclosures.

P. Litwinovich collection
1938 Zenith table radio; early 1930s Philco table radio

Next month we’ll take a look at the RCA Radiola 46, the highboy cabinet pictured above. Its beautiful woodwork concealed the next step up the ladder in technology, and it introduced a new vacuum tube design that would soon revolutionize the radio industry.


(*1) Read  more about Atwater Kent radio and the man who created them. A great web site with lots of pictures of early sets.      http://www.atwaterkentradio.com/

(*2) Pooley  Radio Cabinets

http://www.antiqueradio.com/Nov07_Arnold_Pooley.html  & http://www.radiomuseum.org/dsp_hersteller_detail.cfm?company_id=9837

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