Why We Like Vintage Radios

By Paula Kirwan, Booths B-2022 and B-2022W


There are so many reasons why antique lovers become avid collectors.  Some collect toys because of wonderful childhood memories.  Some people collect china because of acquiring an old plate from someone special in their lives.  Then there are those like my husband and I . . . two people in the same household who collect vintage radios, but for two very different reasons.  (Photo, right: GE 202.)


My husband’s attraction to these old radios is about the challenge of making them play.  Because his entire career was in the electronics industry, he knows all about resistors, capacitors and the other intricate parts that make up a radio circuit and he actually worked with vacuum tubes in the early years of his career.  He is intrigued by figuring out what it takes to make these wonderful old radios work once again, and it is definitely worth all his effort when we listen to the rich, full sound coming from them each time he brings a radio back to life. (Photo, left: Loewes Opto Bella-Luxus.)


I, on the other hand, know nothing about electronics, so my reason for loving these old radios is entirely different: I just like how they look!  Since my favorite eras are Art Deco and Art Moderne covering the 1930s and 1940s in particular, the designs of these vintage radios are what attract me. So many from this period are beautiful to look at, with sleek lines and cases made of fine wood or plastics such as Catalin and Bakelite. (Photo, right: Howard 906.)


Vintage radios are scattered throughout our home.  We have a Motorola chairside radio from the 1940s in our family room.  The controls are on the top, designed to be within reach of the “easy chair” that would have been beside it.  Since this radio hasn’t been restored yet, we had a piece of glass made to protect the top, and use it strictly as a unique side table.  There is a 1941 RCA Victor console radio in our guest room, with a small flat screen TV sitting on top of it so that our guests can either listen to the radio or watch TV as they prepare for sleep.  (Photo, below left: RCA 211K.)


We have another interesting chairside radio from 1942 with a cabinet that was designed to accommodate a car radio!  In 1942, as our country became immersed in WWII, auto makers turned their attention to military vehicles rather than private cars.  Radio manufacturers were left with inventories of car radios that had been made for 1942 model autos such as Chrysler, Dodge, Plymouth and DeSoto.  Motorola and Philco responded by converting their car radios to operate from 115 VAC, and they soon showed up in chairside cabinets like ours that have a narrow slit in them to accommodate these small radios.


Finally, displayed on shelves are a number of other interesting vintage radios including a  Silvertone (from Sears Roebuck), a Howard, a German Loewe OPTA Bella-Luxus, and an Airline (from Montgomery Ward), that are either in the queue waiting to be fixed or have already been restored. (Photo, right: 1939 Airline 93BD-508A.)


Millions of radios were produced in the United States by hundreds of companies during the “golden age of radio” (the 1920s to 1950s).  Manufacturers such as RCA, Philco, Zenith, GE and Stromberg-Carlson were among the largest firms in the country.  They built radios using quality materials and construction techniques, and along with quality of sound, design was vital as well.  Radios had a prominent position in the home in the early years, so manufacturers were intent on making them aesthetically pleasing to buyers.  Because so many of these radios were discarded over the years, particularly with the introduction of TV as the main source of entertainment in the home, collectors like us who appreciate their place in history are delighted when we can acquire an interesting radio to repair, listen to or just admire on a shelf.


Whether it’s thimbles, teddy bears, fishing lures, marbles or vintage radios, collecting is ultimately about surrounding ourselves with things that bring us joy for whatever reasons we choose.


Editor’s note:  Several of the radios referenced above are now in the Booth B-2022W at GasLamp.

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