Audio/Visual | Past Masters

Wireless sets

Manufactured with real panache, 1920s-1950s radio sets are now appealing to a younger, design-savvy market. Simon Brooke tunes in.

October 11 2010
Simon Brooke

They’re such heart-warming and nostalgic images – the family, cocoa mugs in hand, gathered around the radio listening to Mr Churchill, or Mom, Pop and the kids together, Norman Rockwell-style, tapping their feet to Glenn Miller. It’s hardly surprising, then, that vintage radios are finding a new audience in our high-tech world.

Bonhams has regular sales of mechanical music, encompassing early wireless sets and the odd prewar television. In April 2009, it held a sale that included the Jeffrey Salmon collection of wirelesses, with some rare multicoloured Catalin radios starting the auction. Three Continental radios – a rare Artes type AR3 with raised hood speaker and waveband lit-indicators, dating from 1955; a Spanish louvred grille-fronted radio, with a metal and wood case finished in two-tone cream and maroon, circa 1955; and a Sonora type 301 in brown Bakelite case, dating from the 1940s – went for £2,600 against a reserve of between £1,000 and £2,000.

The really sought-after pieces date from earlier in the century, according to Laurence Fisher, senior specialist head of mechanical music and technical apparatus at Bonhams, who is himself an enthusiast and owns 24 radios.

“It’s the 1930s models that demonstrate real sophistication of design with a beautiful art-deco look – they’re always popular,” Fisher says. “This is when valves began to replace the old ‘cat’s whisker’ technology and ‘superhet’ radios appeared, which have one tuning control and a selection of stations on several wavebands for home-and-abroad listening.”

Some of the most valuable radios are pre-1922, the date that saw the establishment of the BBC. Many have a “Y” and a dot printed on them. These have, over the past few years, become popular with a younger generation of collector. “Vintage radio collectors used to be mainly retired engineers but now you find people, mainly men, in their 30s and 40s who are initially attracted by the design and later become interested in the technical elements,” says Fisher.

“I bought a beautiful art-deco Marconi radio with polished wood in a vintage homeware shop for £75 just because it looked so good. I didn’t actually expect it to work but the sound is amazing. I love jazz and it sounds so rich and soft on this,” says Gareth Peterson, 29, an accountant working in the property field in London. He believes the price has increased by a third in five years. “I’ve now bought another one for £90, it’s an Ekco model made in the late 1930s which looks great in my modern, neo-industrial-style kitchen.”

Indeed, it’s still primarily the look of these mini temples of entertainment that appeals to most collectors and enthusiasts, especially the most recent recruits, says Charlotte Fiell, co-author of Plastic Dreams: Synthetic Visions in Design in which she discusses striking-looking antique radios such as the Emerson BT-245 “Tombstone” radio from 1938: “Radios such as the Fada 1000 are made from a material called Catalin, which came after Bakelite, and has a reflective, gem-like quality. From the United States we’ve also included the FC-400 Patriot, which was made in 1940 and designed by Norman Bel Geddes, who was a stage designer and industrial design consultant. It came in a variety of colourways, including a stars-and-stripes version. The fact that there are so many two-tone coloured variations of this radio is part of its appeal to collectors.” Unlike with TVs, Fiell believes that when designing a machine that delivers only sound designers could let their imaginations run riot.

Enthusiast Roy Jones, who works in the shipping industry, has a website, www.radiochest.co.uk, that shows his best pieces dating from 1904. He started collecting in 1976. “Then it was usually a case of someone saying you could have the radio if you went into their loft to get it. I spent many a happy hour rummaging for hidden gems,” he says.

An Ekco AD65 round radio dating from the early 1930s could be picked up for around £4 when Jones started collecting, but it is now worth between £360 and £800. A Philco Peoples 444 set, said to be based on the shape of the Volkswagen Beetle, fetched around £5 in the 1980s and is now worth £500. An Ultra Tiger Three, another elegant art deco model from 1931, can cost up to £750 today.

“The great thing is that many still work, although you should have them professionally checked first,” Jones says. “They use 240 volts, and the valve technology means they have a rich, mellow tone that more people are beginning to appreciate.”

EK Cole, which was based in Southend-on-Sea, was among the main producers. The original factory was demolished, but Southend’s Central Museum now has a collection of the radios once made in the town and is a measure of how these beautiful machines are being valued once more. And London’s Geffrye Museum displays domestic English interiors and has a variety of antique radios, including a wood-and-plastic console radio set by furniture designer Gordon Russell that was manufactured by Murphy Radio in 1936. Alex Goddard, assistant keeper at the Geffrye, says: “They were often designed to look like furniture because they would be large and quite prominent in a sitting room, and this was at a time when the middle classes were becoming interested in design.”

Patrick Rylands, a retired designer for a Dutch toy manufacturer, is a collector based in London. For him, the appeal of vintage radios is in the history associated with them. Among his favourites are his FADA Bullet Catalin radio with its distinctive rounded end accommodating the dial, and a 1939 Emerson Ingraham, an American make, which has an elegant wooden cabinet. “They’re the real thing and have been used by people to find out about the bombing of Pearl Harbor or VE Day, for instance,” he says. “They’re a wonderful part of our past.”

See also

Radios