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    Auction Finds

    Gone are the golden years of radio

    I couldn’t believe the prices the vintage radios were going for. These were too lovely to sell for so little, and it was disheartening to see them so devalued.

    Shelves and shelves of some of the most stylish old tabletop radios were being sold for as low as $2 and $3 each, in what were really give-away prices. So what if most of them were not working. With their good looks, they could blend into the décor in any home – just sitting there in their beautiful Bakelite cabinets of deep browns, creams and pastels.

    A mix of AM radios at auction: Clockwise, Crosley, Philco battery-powered, RCA Victor and Philco.

    I was taken with exquisite look of them, although I knew I wouldn’t buy a radio I did not need. They were among 75 or so electronic items sold at auction recently, along with transistor radios, manuals, speakers, vacuum tubes, receivers and microphones. The auctioneer told me later they were not one person’s collection but an assemblage they pulled together from several consignments. 

    They were purchased, though, by one bidder – a regular whose number kept coming up monotonously as each of the radios were offered. Since most needed work, I asked him if he fixed radios. He did not, he said (the auctioneer noted that the man was becoming a hoarder).

    “I’ll be the radio guy at the flea market,” he said. They were all lovely radios, I said, noting the fine workmanship. “They were made well when they were made in the US,” he said.

    Shelves of transistor and tabletop radios waiting to be sold.

    I found the statement to be a bit America-centric, but I wondered if they all were made here. I suspected, though, that anything made anywhere prior to the 1950s was better crafted. We live in a toss-away society today. Back then, electronics and other goods were made to last.

    The tabletops radios were manufactured by companies with very familiar names to me – GE, Westinghouse, RCA, Philco, Motorola, Sears Silvertone and Emerson – and some not so familiar – Crosley, FADA, Granco and Hallicrafters. Most, in fact, were American companies that got their start in places like Chicago, Boston, New York, Ohio and Massachusetts in both the early and middle years of radio.

    Radio itself had its origins among tinkerers who were testing radio waves and wireless transmissions.

    The first successful radio message went out across the Atlantic Ocean in late 1901 by Guglielmo Marconi from England to Newfoundland. It was merely a buzzing sound emitted through Morse Code with no voice or music. He was one of several inventors and entrepreneurs who worked on, enhanced and refined radio wave signals that led to radio as we know it today. 

    Two GE AM radios in soft colors.

    Marconi was said to have developed the first successful wireless transmission and was the most influential in the development of radio. But Nikola Tesla had done it before him, according to several sites.

    It would be five years later before you could hear the first voice transmitted – that of Reginald A. Fessenden from Massachusetts, his words reaching as far away as the West Indies. Radio evolved into devices that better transmitted and received voice and music, and was especially useful for ocean-crossing ships. The most infamous was the Titanic, which had received warnings of ice through its radio equipment and later transmitted urgent pleas for help after it hit an iceberg in 1912 and sinking.

    Radio grew up during World War I when the military used it to communicate with soldiers in the field and aboard ships. Refinements were made, including vacuum tubes (which comprised the innards of most of the tabletop radios at the auction). Ham or amateur radio operators also emerged during this period.

    In 1920, the first commercial radio station was on the air in Pittsburgh, PA, built by Westinghouse. It ushered in the Golden Age of Radio, and soon the industry giants took over: American Telephone & Telegraph Company, Westinghouse, General Electric and RCA (a partnership of the three, among others).

    Zenith AM clock-radio with a nice red/orange front.

    We all have seen the old filmstrips and photographs of families sitting around the radio – either a tabletop or floor model – listening with their eyes and ears to the news or a Joe Louis fight or feature programs. The radio’s period of prominence ended in the 1940s with the advent of television. Bell Laboratories in 1948 created the transistor radio.

    At the auction, the most expensive radio – the one that got away from the main bidder – was a nice FADA Model 1000 Catalin Bullet radio manufactured in 1945. It was maroon and butterscotch, in good cosmetic condition and it worked. It sold for $645.

    The auctioneer noted that the most popular radios for collectors were those in the pastel colors.

    Crosley Catalin Bullet radio, sold for $645.

    A great aqua and chrome was a Crosley 10-140 AM radio that powered up but produced no sound ($25). There was a pink GE AM clock-radio ($14), a salmon-colored Zenith AM ($11), a lime Crosley AM clock-radio ($3) and a light aqua Zenith AM-FM clock-radio ($32.50). A Zenith AM clock-radio had a red-orange face ($40) and a GE AM was cream with a gold face ($37.50).

    At least one radio had its own quirk: The dial on the Zenith AM/FM Model A825 was stuck on only one station – a Christian station. It was in good condition with light wear, and sold for $18.

    The face on an RCA Victor AM reminded the auctioneer of a car’s grill ($9). And he was right.

    Westinghouse (left) and RCA Victor clock radios.

     

    At top, Westinghouse AM radio; bottom, RCA Victor AM radio.

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    1 Comment

    1. I have a Philco radio. The handle is missing
      It looks looks close to the one you have tagged Philco battery operated but it has tubes inside of it.

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