Some Things You Should Know About Vintage Radios

Written by William Wezrner

Vintage radios bring out feelings of nostalgia, perhaps it that longing for a simpler time before the age of television when families sat around the darkened living room listening to the radio. In 1921, Westinghouse Electric began commercial broadcasting with station KDKA in Pittsburgh, PA. To some, a vintage radio brings back memories of FDR's fireside chats, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Edward R. Murrow's live reports from wartime London, or the first time you heard that favorite song you still love today.

Radios from the early 1920's were battery powered, and rather crude when compared to radios that were to come along a decade later. These early sets required long wire antennas, battery packs, and headphones or an external speaker for listening. The larger radios were expensive to operate in that they required batteries that had to be frequently replaced. Some of the radios were designed for rural areas and used rechargeable batteries connected to windmill generators. Around 1927, radios were being manufactured that could operate on AC power. Still, radios were large and many were produced as fine pieces of furniture that are collectable today. Sorry, but we can't call them antiques until 2027 when they turn 100!

During the depression years from 1930 until 1937, the popular wooden round top "cathedral" and the rectangular wooden set called the "tombstone" became popular. Both types are sought after today, and many plastic replicas of these radios are now being manufactured. Around 1932, the first automobile radios were developed that could operate from a six volt storage battery. As technology improved, radios became smaller, more affordable, and small portable battery powered sets became available. With the approach of World War II, the bakelite and early plastic radios came into being. After the war, FM radios became the rage along with the advent of public television. Some of the larger sets contained AM, FM, and short wave bands along with a phonograph. Other more expensive types included a television set along with an AM FM radio and perhaps a phonograph as well.

As the 1950's drew to a close, transistor radios or "solid state" began to displace tube type radios and later tube type television sets as well. Some early transistor radios, manufactured during the late 1950's and early 60's, are also sought after by collectors. This is especially true of certain sets that were produced by manufacturers in the United States.

Before you buy or decide to have a vintage radio that you already own restored, here are some helpful hints: First, determine what you have. Sometimes people will buy what they thought was a radio that turns out to be a piece of vintage electronic testing gear. If the radio has a conventional AC line cord or plug attached, it is most likely an AC radio designed to operate on house current. If other types of wires with odd plugs or spring-loaded clamps are attached, it is most likely a battery or farm set. Those type radios will require the construction of a power supply or battery eliminator in order to operate. Some foreign radios are designed to operate solely on 220 volts and conversion of these type sets to 117 volts may require extensive power supply conversions. NEVER PLUG IN A VINTAGE RADIO THAT YOU KNOW NOTHING ABOUT! Old components and deteriorated wiring can cause a serious electrical shock, fire, or an expensive power transformer to burn out. Have the set thoroughly checked out before turning it on for a test.

Secondly, determine if the set is complete, then ask yourself these questions: Does it have a speaker or provisions for a headset? Is the cabinet complete and can it be repaired or restored? Are the tubes all there? Does it appear that someone has tinkered with the radio? Is the dial complete along with the pointer and does it when the knob is turned? Are the controls there for volume, band switch, tone, etc.? Has the radio been exposed to excessive moisture or water by the presence of severe corrosion, rust, or mud deposits? Is there evidence of insect or rodent damage inside?

Finally, if you decide to have a vintage radio restored, determine if it is something you want to keep, perhaps as a family heirloom, use for a gift; or something you want to sell. Whatever you decide, determine ahead of time how much money you are willing to spend in order to restore the radio to its original condition. Restored vintage radios vary widely in value according to manufacturer and rarity. For example, some radios may sell for less than $50.00, while others such as catalin plastics or the 1937 Zenith "Walton's Radio" may sell for more than $2,000.00! With twenty business years behind us, Vintage Sounds offers quality service and restorations that carry a one-year parts and labor warranty. Trust us to restore your vintage radio, amplifier, telephone, or record player into something that will last a lifetime.