Antique Radios: Antiques from a golden age
While "radio days" are bygone days for most of us, many avid
collectors are captivated by this multi-faceted category. From early
wireless radios to elaborate mirrored models that would make Liberace
proud, the diversity of antique radios invites a broad range of
Most tend toward niches, perhaps focusing on early crystal or battery
sets, '30s cathedrals, Bakelite/Catalin or HiFi models. There's no
rhyme or reason as to why one radio becomes collectible and another
doesn't, and design.
Many people were involved in the invention of the radio, but just after
the turn of the century, Italian physicist Guglielmo Marconi was the first
to put it all together and make a successful transatlantic communication.
Most early radios were ship-to-ship and ship-to-shore wireless models,
communicating from one point to another point using crystal detectors.
These experimental-looking open-board sets with exposed works often
required headphones. The first actual radio broadcast wasn't until
November 1920 on KDKA Pittsburgh; within a year 30 stations had sprung up
across the nation.
Radio production boomed from 1924 until the Depression. Sets powered by
large electric batteries, using a separate horn-type speaker, were
followed in 1928 by the first electric sets. Some radios were housed in
elaborate cabinets, and later consoles. After the Depression, affordable
tabletop "midget sets" shaped like "cathedrals" and
"tombstones" became popular.
A 1934 RCA "cathedral" radio.
During World War II, radio production for the general market ceased. Military radios produced during this time are gaining in
popularity, especially spy radios built into a
variety of things like suitcases.
Up until the early 1980s, most collectors pursued only the earlier radios
by such makers as the American Marconi Company (bought by RCA in 1919) and
Atwater Kent. The market spiked in the '80s with a surge in popularity of
colorful Bakelite/Catalin, mirrored, novelty, and art deco radios, and
again in the '90s with transistor radios (first produced in 1955). FM radios are still too new to be considered
Collectible manufacturers include GE, Federal, Sparton, Philco, and Zenith
(originally Chicago Radio Labs). Zenith's well-made radios are collectible
early to late, from 1921 to the 1950s. Two highly desirable radios are the
Zenith Stratosphere and the Sparton Nocturne. The Stratosphere was
Zenith's top of the line in the mid-'30s, with a large black dial and a
beautiful, inlaid wood cabinet. The highly sought-after Sparton Nocturne
is a mirrored art deco floor model in peach or blue.
This 1946 Fada Bullet is
a classic Catalin radio.
The value of an antique radio is in the eye of the beholder. Very desirable things
keep going up; the lower and middle fluctuate. Common models of early
battery sets, started at $50, went up to $75-$100, and are back
down to $50 now. After peaking in the early '90s, only very good
transistor radios are currently desirable; the remainder have decreased in
Bakelite/Catalin radios, originally selling for under $30 in the 1940s,
were snubbed by early collectors as plastic junk. Now they sell for
up to $500, a lot more than some of the early stuff.
(Caveat emptor: technically inferior, Catalin radios are valued only for
their cabinets; if chipped or cracked they have almost no value.)
Radios are a financially accessible collecting category. You can still buy
a transistor radio for $5; a battery radio for $50 and up; a console radio
for $75-$100 and up; a cathedral radio for $100 and up. While only a few
radios get up into the thousands of dollars, an early Marconi wireless
recently sold for $49,500.
CONDITION OF ANTIQUE RADIOS
Surprisingly, working condition and sound quality are minor factors in
collectibility. Most radio collectors are more interested in the
physical thing. It does change the value a little
bit, but someone who wants a particular radio will take one whether it
works or not, because usually someone can get it working.
You can find people in the radio clubs who do repairs, many of them
experienced radio and TV repairmen. Most tubes are easy to find; there are
companies that sell either replacement tubes or new old stock.
Purists and historians avoid rebuilt radios, or seek all original parts,
buying two or three of the same radio to make one complete set. Other
collectors, especially of later sets, just want to get a radio working,
and aren't concerned with the authenticity of the parts.
OILING OLD PHONOGRAPHS
Gears, bearings, shafts, and other moving parts of antique phonographs
need to be greased at least once a year. Proper lubrication is essential
to keep the motor running, gears working, and music playing — especially on often-used machines.
Some old Victor machines came with a small paper label that provided lubrication instructions.
What do you do if your phonograph doesn't come with directions:
- Use a small stiff-bristled brush to spread petroleum jelly on the gear teeth.
- Apply small amounts of light oil to shafts, bearings, and motor
housing — any place where metal rubs against metal.
- If needed, wipe areas where oil has dripped onto the casing.
In addition to various books specific to particular manufacturers,
valuable references include: