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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Symphony Split Grille Radio; Onyx case with emerald green knobs; 1939; 9 inches long sold for $51,000. Photo courtesy of Bonham's, New York.
Nowadays we pretty much take radios for granted. That wasn’t the case on Nov. 2, 1920. News of Pres. Warren Harding’s election came blaring through the airwaves for the very first time when KDKA radio in Pittsburgh went on the air.

The beginning of commercial radio had arrived.

“I don’t hold with furniture that talks,” one comedian quipped. Skepticism was high because “tuning in” wasn’t easy.

Receiving equipment was still primitive. Listeners had to use headphones and play around with the cat’s whisker of a crystal set of early radios in order to get decent reception.

Basically, the whisker was a movable copper, brass or silver wire which the listener could poke at a piece of lead sulfide to tune in the signal which was picked up by a long antenna strung outside the house. It was like trying to thread a needle in the dark.

If it worked you could expect to pick up one of maybe two nearby channels. If you didn’t mind static and failed attempts at finding just the right “sensitive” spot on the crystal, listening was not a problem.

Many of these early-1920 crystal sets were plentiful back then, often made at home from inexpensive kits. Nowadays, they’re hard to find.

After 1921 radio technology changed. Loudspeakers made it much easier for the whole family to listen. But “tuning in” was still a chore.

It could easily require playing with 27 dials and knobs to make it happen. It was like juggling with too may balls in the air. By the early 1920s; engineers figured out how to make one knob do it all.

By the time the 1930s came around the whole family gathered around the radio weekly to listen and laugh at the jokes of Will Rogers, Jack Benny and Fred Allen.

After World War II, two things changed radio.

The first was television which stole much of the audience. The second was the invention of the transistor in 1947. Interestingly enough, the general cutoff date for collecting old radios came with the invention of the transistor.

Nowadays, radios from the 1920s and early-1930s are what collectors want. This includes some models from the late-1930s.

The most desirable radios still have all their original parts in working order. The internal condition is a major consideration of value.

Radios like this can be hard to find so many collectors settle for a static display. All the tubes, condensers, resistors, etc. are still in place, but the radio doesn’t play.

The bold colors of the Art Deco and Art Moderne period are especially desirable today.

Collectors expect a few scratches on the cabinets of these old beauties but if damage to the case is extensive it also decreases the value. If the dials and knobs are missing, the receiver isn’t worth much either.

On Dec. 19, 2007, Bonhams, New York, featured The Mark Woolley Collection of Vintage Radios at auction. The collection consisted of over 200 models.

Woolley purchased his first radio, an Emerson Patriot, in 1982 for $1,200. The radio sold in the sale for $5,400.

Here are some current values for vintage radios.


Fada 189 All American; blue and white marbleized case with red knobs and handle; 1942; 10 3/8 inches long; $5,400.

Motorola 50XC; Circle Grille; cherry red case with yellow knobs; 1940; 9 5/8 inches long; $8,400.

Tom Thumb; cherry red case with matching knobs; 1939; 7 3/8 inches long;; $48,000.

Air King 52; red case with red on black knobs; 1933; 11 ¾ inches high; $48,000.

Symphony Split Grille; Onyx case with emerald green knobs; 1939; 9 inches long; $51,000.

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