A Radio Rainbow In Fantastic Plastic

February 13, 2013

"Come tune in on the air,
And hear sweet strains from everywhere!
Jazz bands are playing snappy airs,
singers broadcasting sweet melodies—
they’re floating thru the trees,
a-bringing in sweet memories
of long ago.
This is what you will hear each night
on the radio!"
"On The Air"
Harry M. Snodgrass & Howard M. Casteel, 1925

When Harry Snodgrass, (billed as "The Most Popular Radio Entertainer in America"), first sat down at his piano and popularized this catchy fox trot, radio was in its infancy. Just five years before, in 1920, the very first radio station in the United States – Pittsburgh’s KDKA – took to the airwaves. Before then, those in search of "snappy airs" and "sweet melodies" had to rely on the live vaudeville acts that crisscrossed the country, visiting towns large and small. In 1925, even the movies had yet to find their voice.
The "Golden Age of Radio" changed all that. From the late 1920s well into the 1950s, (reaching a listening high during the World War II years), all sorts of entertainment (and information, too), could be summoned at the simple twist of a dial. The radio held pride-of-place in every American home. No more traipsing to the theatre to take in the latest comedy or musical. No more relying on the local paper for "all the news fit to print." Radio offered everything (and then some). Even better – it was free! (as long as you had a radio set, or hospitable neighbors). Before television, before the Internet, before each and every one of their many subsequent permutations, radio was the medium that changed the way the world communicated. Its life span, though brief, was memorable.
First Airing
Westinghouse took the lead in commercial radio broadcasting, thanks to the efforts of engineer Dr. Frank Conrad. That first station, KDKA, was financed by Westinghouse, and headquartered in Dr. Conrad’s Pittsburgh garage. Music and local news constituted the programming, as did another "first": the commercial. A local department store provided the records Dr. Conrad "spun", (making him perhaps the very earliest disc jockey). Dr. Conrad thanked the supplier during his program – and record sales spiked, as listeners jammed the store in search of their favorite tunes.
Rival firms knew a good thing when they heard it. Westinghouse was soon joined in the broadcasting market by such competitors as RCA, AT&T, and GE. By 1923, over 200 radio operating licenses had been approved, and in 1927, local stations joined together in a nationwide radio hookup. In the words of Mr. Snodgrass, all of America was now "on the air"!
Fantastic Plastics
Consumers were faced with the dilemma of comfortably incorporating a new entity, the radio set, into their home décor. The first radios were not particularly attractive: utilitarian arrangements of glass tubes, masked, if at all, by wood or metal casings. Homemakers quickly tired of the laboratory look, and demanded more. By the end of the 1920s, radio cabinets designed to mimic the look of furniture were introduced. These bulky wooden floor models held sway for nearly a decade; flourishes such as applied decorative moldings worked overtime to disguise their functionality. Shaped radios, including the aptly named "Cathedral" and "Tombstone", were an aesthetic improvement over the basic box cabinet, but overall, radio design stayed stagnant until the end of the 1930s.
Then, along came Bakelite, the first of the twentieth century’s hugely successful industrial plastics, so omnipresent that its name eventually became a catch-all identifier. Its grand advantage? Unlike wood, Bakelite could be easily molded into a variety of forms.
Developed by Dr. Leo Bakeland, and patented in 1907, Bakelite was essentially a thermoset resin that, once molded and hardened, would not melt. Dr. Bakeland called it "a material of a thousand uses", and he wasn’t far off the mark. In addition to varied industrial applications, (it was an ideal medium for electrical insulators), Bakelite proved adaptable to a multitude of homier functions: there were Bakelite telephones, ashtrays, handles for cutlery and cooking implements, jewelry – and radio cabinets.
The new material lent itself to a variety of stylistic interpretations. Bakelite’s malleability meant that radio design could now feature previously-impossible swooping lines and curved detailing. And, as radio tubing became smaller and more efficient, the radios themselves became smaller, with compact table models replacing looming floor cabinets. Motorola was a major manufacturer of early Bakelite radios; other Bakelite sets came courtesy of such recognizable names as Zenith, RCA, and Philco.
Bakelite radios enhanced, rather than overpowered, home decorating schemes. That major advantage almost made up for a major disadvantage: Bakelite’s severely limited color palette. Unless painted, Bakelite radios were generally a chocolaty brown. That coloration was due to phenol and formaldehyde, the carbon-based components of the Bakelite resin. The addition of elements such as sawdust or rags to the resin formula could result in textural variations, (for instance, marbling), but in general, a Bakelite radio was anything but flashy.
Plaskon, introduced in 1933 as a substitute material for porcelain scales, brought new colors to the industrial plastic forefront: white and beige. Although Plaskon also experimented with other colors, the real radio rainbow came courtesy of Catalin. First popularized for use in costume jewelry, Catalin was, by the late 1930s, the industrial plastic of choice for such radio manufacturers as Emerson, in search of brighter hues than Bakelite could provide.
Now, radios could be any color—and they were. Whether red, turquoise, mint green, salmon, ivory, burgundy, or sky blue, the plastic radio could effectively blend with any color scheme, taking up residence in any room of the house. A contemporary flair was added with gold or contrasting trim.
Fine Tuning
However, with the onset of World War II, the parade of plastic radios was stalled, as materials, research, and personnel were directed to defense needs. Postwar, production resumed. By the 1950s the plastic radio was dominant, its wood-cased predecessor the relic of a bygone age. Dials, knobs, and displays took their design cues from the futuristic themes popularized in 1950s pop culture. Decorative detailing often called to mind the glistening headlight and grille stylings of 1950s autos (or even spaceships, as imagined in the latest ‘50s craze, sci-fi movies).
As radio electronics became even more compact, plastic proved ideally suited to the lightweight, portable radios buyers favored. Transistors, developed in 1947 by Bell Labs, led to the abandonment of tube-based radios. Soon, miniaturized "transistor radios" were all the rage. Their portability meant that avid listeners were no longer tied to the home; favorite songs and programs could be enjoyed in any environment, from the beach to the burger shack.
Tiniest of all transistor radios, (or so folks were led to believe), was the Sony TR-63, which made its debut at a 1957 trade show. Attendees were stunned to see a radio so small that it could be carried in a front shirt pocket – a feat eagerly demonstrated by Sony sales personnel. Only after the show did it emerge that those shirts had been specifically designed for the event, with larger-than-normal front pockets. The hyperbole proved effective, however, as TR-63 sales skyrocketed.
In the late 1950s, a vogue emerged for transistor radios with reverse-painting. Detailing was painted on the interior, rather than the exterior of the clear plastic dial. Today, the visual appeal of a transistor with reverse painting is largely dependent on whether the clear plastic remains pristine, or has become clouded with age, obscuring the interior art.
Dialing Up Collectibility
Although plastic radios were once standard in every home, finding them today in good condition can be a challenge. These were items meant to be used, and they were: many vintage pieces now lack knobs, or are chipped and cracked. While missing knobs and dials can usually be replaced, chipped plastic remains chipped plastic. Early Bakelite was especially brittle, and susceptible to breakage. Catalin’s drawback was that it was cast as a solid resin, rather than molded. With hand-finished seams, and no reinforcement, Catalin radios were crack-prone, and undamaged examples are highly sought-after. Additionally, the vivid Catalin colors, created when UV light protection was not yet standard, had an unfortunate tendency to fade with ongoing exposure to sunlight. However, if a specific plastic radio is too unusual to pass up, many collectors will resign themselves, and accept minor damage.
An additional collectability factor: whether the radio actually "works." For those collecting only for color, style, or maker, actual operability may not be a primary concern. Those who do wish to recreate the Golden Age listening experience in full, via a plastic radio in acceptable operating condition, can expect to pay more for the privilege, just as those purchasing radios with significant surface defects should expect to pay less. (Since vintage radios were manufactured in a time of less stringent oversight, even those still working can pose a potential fire hazard. They should be inspected, and any defective components restored or replaced, before being operated on a regular basis.)
Accompanying paraphernalia will add to the value of a plastic radio. Items to look for include original manuals, sales slips, warranties, and, in the case of smaller models such as transistors, the original box, carrying case, and earphones. Some collectors add to the historical interest of their latest radio "finds" by searching out period sales ads in which the radios were featured. Radio advertisements were a staple in general interest and homemaking magazines, as well as publications specifically geared to the listening audience, such as Radio Mirror and Tune In.
Determining the value of a specific radio is dependent on determining is provenance. Fortunately, identifying a radio is much easier than identifying many other collectibles. For starters, the manufacturer’s name is often emblazoned across the radio dial or housing. A model number can often be found on the cabinet reverse or base, or may be stamped on an interior tube. And, since nowadays radio research has become a cottage industry, chances are good that, once identified, a radio’s photo and accompanying info can easily be accessed in print or online.
Stay Tuned!
With the advent of television in the late 1940s, the Golden Age of Radio began to lose its luster. By the mid-1950s, listeners who’d once been glued to their radio sets, tuning in to the latest shenanigans of Fibber McGee & Molly, had been transformed into viewers glued to their TV sets, transfixed by the weekly antics on I Love Lucy. Those tiny transistors, dear to every teen’s ear, were, more likely than not, tuned to "Rock Around The Clock", rather than Portia Faces Life. Radio programming became the aural equivalent of wallpaper. It enhanced, rather than actively influenced, its surrounding environment.
Fortunately, radio’s artifacts continue to shine just as brightly as they did during the Golden Age. In our digital world, the function of plastic radios has long been supplanted — but their buoyantly cheery form continues to keep them at the top of every radio collector’s personal "Hit Parade"!
Donald-Brian Johnson (text) and Leslie Piña (photos) are the co-authors of numerous Schiffer books on mid-twentieth century design. Dr. Piña is also co-author of "Genuine Plastic Radios Of The Mid-Century". Please address inquiries to: donaldbrian@msn.com. All photos by Leslie Piña.
Donald-Brian Johnson

Donald-Brian Johnson

Donald-Brian Johnson is a nationwide columnist, and the co-author of numerous Schiffer books on design and collectibles. His most recent, "Postwar Pop," is a collection of his columns.


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