Radios are the stuff of songs. Not only have they consistently entertained our earholes for more than a century, but page after page of lyrics have been written about the little magical box that spreads music and news throughout the world.
I was going to list every one I could think of...“Left of the Dial,” “That’s Why God Made Radio,” “Mexican Radio.” But then it started getting out of hand...“Video Killed the Radio Star,” “Radio Gaga”...eventually devolving into songs with call letter titles, “WWOZ,” “WOLD,” other groupings of letters. But you get the idea. Radio is is huge part of American culture.
Many methods of getting music into your ears have come and gone, but radio remains a strong medium. Despite this, traditional stand-alone radios have fallen by the wayside. That’s not to say that modern versions don’t exist. My kitchen has a speaker system with a radio, as well as a smartphone jack. There are companies that create digital and analog consoles with a “retro feel,” but that’s just not the same. It’s just not the same at all.
The transition toward digital media has left mid-century and turn-of-the-century radios by the wayside. But the wayside is a perfect place for collectors to go, and find the fabulous things from their childhood that brought them joy. Another perfect place to go for those sorts of things? Estate sales.
From large console models that make a handsome conversation piece for any well-dressed living room, to smaller Bakelite units, a wide variety of radios can be found at estate sales. But before you start looking to start your own collection of these magical music boxes, let’s look at the various styles, so you can better focus your collection.
For decades after the invention of the radio, the home system was essentially a piece of furniture, treated with the same reverence as one now does with their flat-screen televisions. Families would gather around the big, brown, bulky boxes in a Rockwellian fashion, to hear the latest news and programs.
Despite radio technology physically shrinking over the decades that followed the introduction of the console, large-model stereos remained popular for the better part of the 20th century.
Also known as “tombstone” radios, the cathedral model, popular during the Depression, is a smaller, table-top version of the console. As technology progressed, tube-size got smaller, which meant less wood was needed to house the radio. Around this time, RCA introduced a "heterodyne circuit" which was incorporated into many new models. Working together, these two technological advances meant radios were smaller, and had better sound and were more affordable.
That's not to say they were affordable to all, though. This is the Great Depression we're talking about.
Catalin / Bakelite
We've expounded on the wonders of Bakelite in the past. This colorful plastic material is diverse in its uses, as well as its hues and the methods by which one can identify it. But when Bakelite was used in the 30s and 40s as a cost-effective way of housing tube radios, the colors were generally limited to black and brown. It wasn't until Catalin—a specific brand of phenol formaldehyde, not unlike Bakelite—came along that things really started popping.
Catalin was stronger than Bakelite. And it was clear, which meant dyes could be easily applied to the resin. It was less expensive than wood, making it an affordable alternative to wooden consoles.
But though Catalin is technically stronger than Bakelite, there are some downsides. It oxidizes, and can easily experience discolor from heat, which means radios stored in a hot attic might come out of storage looking a little different than how it went in. Because of the way the resin was cast, Catalin was also considerable susceptible to cracking and shrinking, which means good specimens of this type of radio difficult to find.
Now this is where things get fun. While tube stereos brought aural entertainment into the home, transistor radios put it directly into the hands of the consumers, making them portable in a way they weren't before. Radio tube technology had advanced enough over the decades to make radios easy to carry from one place to another, or install in a car, but the transistor made them pocket-sized. More than 7 billion transistor radios have been made, making it one of the most popular media delivery system in history.
Unlike the console systems that came before it, transistor radios use...wait for it...transistors rather than vacuum tubes, which made them much more portable. Technically, transistor radio falls more into a specific type of radio (like tube, which up until this point is all we've talked about, or HAM), but it’s hard to deny that transistor radios have a certain style that must be acknowledged.
Vintage transistor radios were frequently colorful little numbers, with its artwork painted inside the dial cover. It’s easy to see why they’re so coveted by collectors. And their ubiquity on the mid-century market means they’re frequently found at estate sales now. Whether you’re looking for 50s kitsch or more of an 80s vibe, transistor radios have you covered.
When it comes to collectability, the most popular are those made between 1955 and 1960, before most radio production was moved exclusively to Japan.
- Most antique radios are well marked for identification purposes. An unmarked radio likely means the identifier has come off over the years, or perhaps you just have a model that wasn't marked—thousands of radio models have been made over the decades, so it's bound to happen. In that case, you can use component features and cabinet design to steer you in the right direction.
- Catalin radios are frequently imitated, so before you spend the amount of money a genuine Catalin radio would command, make sure yours is authentic. Our Bakelite identification tips apply to Catalin as well, since it's all phenol formaldehyde.
- Consider your priorities. Transistor radios with all the accouterments—original box, instructions, headphones, etc.—will command a far higher price than just the unit itself. If you don't plan to be the kind of collector that focuses on the details, unless it's a particularly rare unit, you can probably leave the complete set behind, and wait for another one to come along.
- There's no shame in owning an antique radio that doesn't work. An early 19th century floor model can make a lovely conversation piece in a home without playing a single note. If you're lucky enough to have a shelf of Catalins, how many really need to play? But if function is as important to you as form, there are resources out there to help you get your radio up and running.