Gone are the golden years of radio
  • A dashboard clock radio to hang on your wall
  • Vintage radios in the form of lovely furniture
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    Auction Finds

    Vintage radio from Montgomery Ward

    “Someone should be playing Christmas music,” I said to my auction buddy Janet during an indoor flea market visit last weekend. The place was cold concrete floors and walls, a few skylights and windows, and too few overhead lights.

    It didn’t feel festive enough for buyers and it didn’t evoke a warm feeling. Flea markets are like auctions, and sellers want buyers to feel like buying. This place was a former Fedex warehouse that was being used this Saturday as a flea market. Vendors and their cars were aligned length-wide with open aisles for lookers.

    The mood, though, seemed as dim as the lighting. Not like the auction houses I go to. They are bright.

    A short time after I mentioned the music, I heard the quick-step sound of salsa swinging from my left. Now, that was the sound. Janet mentioned that it was coming from an old radio that she had seen earlier on a vendor’s table. It was near two sets of turquoise and pink Art Deco lamps that would’ve looked great in her home.  

    The salsa music stopped and was replaced by the smoother voice of a woman. I couldn’t make out the song, but I was intrigued by Janet’s description of old as in “vintage.” So, I sauntered over to the vendor’s table to take a look.

    The radio was not only beautiful but it was big. A tabletop. All wood, handsomely polished by this antiques dealer, a man named Steve Gary. He’s been selling antiques for 30 years, and sets up mostly out of Adamstown, PA. He writes a blog called Tweak This, and his company is called Off the Wall Antiques and Collectibles. He’s a former news and sports reporter, and has written about auctions and antiques.

    I had first noticed Steve the way everyone else there had: He was wearing this cinnamon-colored cowhide jacket with tassels and white fur patches. Practically everyone who walked up to his table remarked about it.

    I, though, asked about the radio (Click on radio photo above for a fuller view). “It’s a Montgomery Ward Airline radio,” he said. “It’s under their name but made by somebody else.”

    This was a 1937 model that picked up both AM (which I later learned was called longwave) and shortwave signals, he said. It had preset stations and more than 70 other call letters for more stations you could dial up. In the display window, the AM band was at the top and the shortwave at the bottom.

    As I stood there talking to Steve, Peggy Lee’s soft voice soothingly belted out “Bye Bye Blackbird” (from the 1955 movie “Pete Kelly’s Blues”) from a station near 1310 that Steve had found on the dial. The radio would’ve sounded just as good with Ella Fitzgerald singing the movie’s title song.

    The sound on the radio was priceless (I was taken with the piano and saxophone, my favorites). No skipping, no fading in and out, even inside this enclosed building. No scratchiness. From what I heard – flawless.

    Steve said he’d had the dial on Mambo (the Latin music I heard from afar, I suppose) but it got to be too much for the vendor across from him. So Steve found another station. He usually has it on a Polish hour, but he’s also switched it to Greek talk and other talk programs (which are synonymous with AM radio these days. If you want music, you have to go FM).

    He got the Montgomery Ward radio about 10 years ago and is ready to sell it for $350 (which seemed like a good price to me. I found a 1937 model 62-245  selling on the web for $299. One sold on eBay for $250).

    Montgomery Ward didn’t make radios but, like Sears, sold ones made for it by several radio manufacturers. The Airline model was Ward’s brand. The Sears Silvertone radio was its most popular in the 1930s.

    A neat Montgomery Ward radio I came across on the web was called a “movie dial” radio. It didn’t have a printed dial like most. Instead, it had a film strip with a projected image on the front of the radio. The call letters of radio stations and their locations were projected on the screen.

    I also found out that there are a lot of radio enthusiasts out there who are collectors (some have virtual museums of their collections and have schooled themselves in radio history), restorers, sellers and hobbyists. There are also some actual museums. These folks are serious about their radios.

    And I can see why. After taking a look at some of these radios on the web – before and after restorations, with wood cabinets, Bakelite cabinets and Cathedral designs – they are just lovely. The workmanship is amazing.

    Steve didn’t sell his radio – this apparently wasn’t the right crowd. Maybe at his next flea market.

    Postscript: Steve told me that he finally sold the radio,  about seven months later). “The buyer appeared to a young Italian guy with an accent named, really, Fabio and I’m merely guessing or projecting that he wanted to use the short-wave band to bring in some sounds of his homeland.”

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