The AM Innovator: Philco Radios

Tim Morrison| January 8, 2021

header image of philco radio

This week, we will take a look at something that changed the way we consumed media forever: the household radio. I could spend weeks writing about all of the radio manufacturers that came about in the early 1900s. Instead, I will focus on the true underdog story of the Philadelphia Storage Battery Company, more popularly known as Philco.

A Philco Radio

At the turn of the 20th century, the options for entertainment were pretty limited. The few things hardworking folks had to do in their spare time were Vaudeville productions, early motion pictures, sporting events, and the occasional county fair. This was also around the period when people had more time on their hands due to reduced working hours and the introduction of the Saturday half day holidays. In a few years, families across the country would be gathering around the radio to tune into their favorite programs.

A trend I have noticed in writing these articles is that companies who found success saw a void in the market and jumped at the opportunity to fill it. Philco was no exception to that trend.

Based out of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Philco started out as a humble battery manufacturer but quickly saw their current technology becoming obsolete. To stay in business, investing in the production of transistor radios was the obvious choice. After acquiring the necessary radio and speaker patents, Philco began the design process. Soon, the Model 511 was ready for purchase.

The first Philco radios were released to consumers in 1928. With nearly 100,000 units produced, it only ranked them 26th in production volume—that gives you a little insight into how many companies were jumping on the airwave bandwagon at that time. Philco began using assembly line manufacturing to keep up with the demand of the market and quickly skyrocketed to third in the nation, only putting them behind Atwater-Kent and Majestic in consumer radio sales. After almost going out of business a few years earlier, in 1930, Philco found itself at the top of its field. Their sales exceeded $30 million, and they controlled a third of the entire radio market

The list of ventures that Philco pursued is pretty extensive. I could spend all day telling you about everything they had their hand in after taking over the radio world. From the production of other household items like freezers, washer and dryer sets, and television to partnering with Chrysler and NASA, Philco definitely was not afraid of putting themselves out there.

It’s time to dig a little deeper into what really put Philco on the map. You all remember the giant collection of depression glass that used to adorn my grandparent’s house, right? Well, in the corner of their living room sat a Philco Model H1714. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what model it was until I spent a few hours looking through the Philco Gallery. It was this exact beauty here:

Philco Model H1714 Console Radio

Like most of the radio manufacturers around during that time, Philco offered a wide array of radio models. Their quality radios were available for any budget, from entry-level five-tube sets to high fidelity console models to battery-powered farm radios. The most iconic and recognizable radio was their Baby Grand or Cathedral model. According to collectors, these radios are still some of the best at performing AM bands when they’re restored properly.

Superior build quality matched with state-of-the-art components and a stylish design is why these radios are so highly sought after by collectors. As I mentioned earlier, Philco made a TON of radios in its hay day, which means that they are relatively easy to find. By searching Philco on EstateSales.NET Marketplace, I found several sales that feature some of these iconic radios.

Once you decide to buy a Philco radio, you will want to know what it’s worth, right? That’s where things get a little tricky. Philco built so many radios that it is difficult to value on the many different models. One great resource I found online was Phil's Old Radios. There is a lot of great information on how to determine the value of vintage radios.

I also reached out to the Philco Radio Enthusiasts group on Facebook to gain a little more insight on which models you should keep an eye out for. Here’s what Bob Gatarz, a Philco collector from West Virginia, had to say about the collectibility of a few different Philco radio models:

“The market values have plummeted over the past several years. The more rare radios are not always the most valued by collectors. I would think that the pinnacle of Philco's line up would have to be the 37-690 and the 38-690 which would have been their flagship models for 1937 and 1938. Although not plentiful, they seem to turn up fairly often. There are some others that are relatively rare that command a good price, although not quite in the same league as the aforementioned models. One such model is the 212 produced in 1931. The cabinet and grill cloth were designed by the well known Industrial designer Norman Bel Geddes. In tabletop radios, probably one of the most desirable and most valued would be the Model 16B which is quite large and incorporates a very sizable 10" speaker. The sound quality rivaled many console models. It was available in 1933, 34, 35. It seems like over the course of time values go up and down. Right now we seem to be in a down cycle. In the late 1930s and early 1940s Philco got into some very interesting gadgets. First came the Mystery Control, the first consumer model wireless remote control. And then a few years later came the Beam of Light phonograph pick up which was quite interesting. These items aren't particularly valuable in terms of present-day resale, but were amazingly novel ideas for the time they were available.”

A quick search on the EstateSales.NET Marketplace is a great way to find which sales on our site may hold some of these priceless pieces of AM/FM history! Happy Hunting!

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