Backscatter: Art Deco Radio

Backscatter: Art Deco Radio

BY Donald Christiansen Posted: 21 Apr 2015
This Crosley CR81 Bluebird was manufactured in 1999. The AM/FM solid-state set is a recreation of the famed tube-based Sparton Bluebird introduced in 1935. Like the original, it features a cobalt blue mirror face with chrome accents. Photo by the author.

I was ensconced in my office chair, pondering what subject I might choose for my next Backscatter column, when my eye settled on my Crosley Bluebird radio (pictured here). My favorite art deco radio, it is a replica of the famed Sparton Bluebird, first manufactured in 1935 by the Sparks-Withington company and priced at $39.95. Named for its circular blue mirror, it was designed by Walter Dorwin Teague, noteworthy industrial designer who also created other well-received Sparton sets, including the Nocturne and the Sled.

The original Bluebird was introduced at the 1935 National Electrical and Radio Exposition at New York City’s Grand Central Palace. The circular mirror has a cutout for the forward-facing speaker and tuning dial. A later version sold in Canada had a larger circuit with a power transformer that made it necessary to mount the speaker facing upward in the housing behind the mirror.

I wondered what an original Bluebird might be worth today. The first one I encountered online was listed at $5000. (I’m guessing my Crosley replica may be valued at one twentieth of that.)

This inspired me to do a bit of research on art deco radios in general. The term art deco describes a design technique that reflects bold industrial-age imagery, including geometric shapes and machine parts. The term may have originated with architect Le Corbusier, when in 1925 he entitled a series of articles “1925 Expo Arts Deco,” in reference to the International Exposition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts.  Lore has it that art deco radios did not become widely popular until the catalin and other plastic processes were developed. This is not strictly true, as many fine art deco cabinets were made of wood. In fact, every major maker offered wood art deco designs. Several outstanding designs were offered by Emerson. Others include the Wurlitzer “Lyric,” the Automatic “Tom Thumb,” the Halson “Jefferson” (blonde wood with black lacquer accents), and the Silvertone “Mission Bell” (wood with black lacquer detail).  The 1936 Arvin “Rhythm King” is housed in a deco design 43-inch-tall contrasting walnut-veneer cabinet. The four-band set has 11 tubes, a woofer and a tweeter, and a magic-eye tube. A tabletop version, the “Rhythm Queen,” in 2014 was listed by The New York Times Store for $2625.

The 1938 Stewart-Warner 91-413 “Spade” radio cabinet is of walnut veneer. The set has six tubes and four pre-set tuning buttons. It was listed at $4195 by The New York Times Store. Photo: Paul Sanders.

Enter Plastics

The widespread adoption of the 5-tube AC/DC transformerless superheterodyne receiver (the All-American Five) meshed fortuitously with the arrival of molded plastic cabinets. The compact, lightweight chassis fit easily into the necessarily modest-sized cabinets. The first plastic radio housings were of bakelite, which was produced by mixing formaldehyde and phenol, heating the mixture, allowing it to cool, then crushing it into a powder. The powder was then placed in molds and heated under pressure (thermoset).  When Air King introduced its Model 52 “Skyscraper” in 1933, it featured a bakelite cabinet, which was thought to be one of the largest molded pieces of plastic yet attempted.

Fillers of carbon, cotton and cloth were added to strengthen the bakelite, and this could add some character (e.g., mottling and swirls) to an otherwise black or dark brown cabinet.

Lighten Up

When urea was added to formaldehyde and wood flour was added as a filler, a white mixture was the result, to which color could be added if desired. If, instead, cellulose was added as a filler, a more stable product resulted. This version was called “plaskon.”

German chemists devised still another way to avoid the dark brown outcome of the bakelite process, caused in part by the addition of fillers and the high temperatures and pressures needed.  Called  the “catalin” process, it required casting instead of molding, resulting in a product that needed extensive finishing (milling, buffing, etc.). Catalin is also subject to color change over time (white to yellow, blue to green), and shrinkage. Catalin radio cabinets have shrunk up to one-half inch, making it impossible in some cases to remove the chassis from the cabinet.

The Belmont 6D-111 is a bakelite set from 1938 that is highly valued. Its tube complement: 35Z5, 35L6, 12SQ7, 12SA7, and 12SD6. Photo: Steve Davis.

“Beetle” is a plastic based on the urea process. It was used to produce radios very similar in appearance to catalin, but more stable. It used a molding rather than a casting process. Even so, the beetle radios were subject to stress lines.

By 1950, the much less expensive injection molding process had arrived and made all previous techniques obsolete.

In my research, I was impressed by the great variety of art deco sets that had been produced. Radiomania’s Guide (1930-1959) lists over 100 sets each for the better-known brands (Emerson, GE, RCA Victor, Silvertone, Stromberg-Carlson, and Zenith). Altogether, the guide identifies more than 270 tabletop brand names.

I spent far more time online and scanning several excellent books on classic radios than I had intended. Be warned, if you begin with a casual interest, you may end up an aficionado and avid collector. Oh, wait, one more thing. Just before I released this column for publication, I checked online and found another Sparton Bluebird, this one at The New York Times Store website, for a mere $13,900.

Resources

  • Sheridan, P., DecoRadio: The Most Beautiful Radios Ever Made, Schiffer Publishing, 2014.
  • Hawes, R., Radio Art, The Green Wood Publishing Co., 1991.
  • Collins, P., Radios: The Golden Age, Blackley and Leventhal, 1997, Chronicle Books, 1987.
  • Jupp, K., Genuine Plastic Radios of the Mid-Century, Schiffer Publishing, 1998.
  • Hawes, R., Bakelite Radios, Chartwell Books, 1996.
  • Stein, M.V., Machine Age to Jet Age, Vol. 2, Radiomania’s Guide to Tabletop Radios, 1930-1959, Radiomania Publishing, 1997.
  • Davis, S.T., Prewar Plastics, http://decoradios.com/text.htm (retrieved Feb. 23, 2015)
  • Radio Age Radio Archive Gallery, http://www.radioage.com/archivegallery.htm (retrieved Nov. 10, 2014)

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Donald Christiansen is the former editor and publisher of IEEE Spectrum and an independent publishing consultant. He is a Fellow of the IEEE. You can write to him at donchristiansen@ieee.org

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Kenneth Goodwin
With no disregard for these fine art deco radios, I wanted my Hopalong Cassidy (metal case) radio, a 4-tube American classic which Santa Claus had to fork out $16.95 for back in the 50s. Only cost me $500 to recapture my childhood. AM, static - what fun!!
Posted on 4/22/15 11:29 PM.