The Philadelphia Storage Battery Company was organized from the Helios Manufacturing Company in July 1906, with Frank S. Marr as its first president. While Helios had produced carbon-arc lamps, the Philadelphia Storage Battery Company produced storage batteries for cars, trucks, and mine locomotives.
In 1911, the company hired James M. Skinner as a chemist. Skinner quickly rose up through the ranks, eventually becoming general manager and vice president. It was Skinner who introduced the name Philco as an abbreviation for the company’s name in a 1919 advertising campaign.
Philco started making batteries for consumer radios in 1923. These early radios, which were becoming increasingly popular, required two types of batteries, A and B. When a battery ran out of power, the consumer had to take the radio to a service station for it to be recharged. Philco, however, began producing and selling battery chargers so radio owners would not have to take their batteries outside the home to be recharged.
Under Skinner’s leadership, Philco ran aggressive ad campaigns in a wide array of magazines. It also shipped instructional booklets to Philco dealers to ensure that salesmen were well-versed in the company’s products. In 1927, Philco began a weekly Friday night radio broadcast on four stations in the eastern U.S. By September, the “Philco Hour” had become a regular program on NBC.
In 1925, Philco got its first taste of large-scale success with its Socket-Power units, which allowed a radio to be plugged in to an electrical outlet. Even though the radio still required an A battery to function, the Socket-Power units utilized trickle charging to ensure that the battery wouldn’t die.
Two years later, however, the Radio Corporation of America developed technology which allowed radios to be plugged directly in to a wall, making Philco’s Socket-Power units obsolete. In an attempt to adapt to the changing market, Philco began to explore the possibility of making radios, not just batteries. To this end, Philco bought the Wm. J. Murdock Company in February 1928 to acquire all the proper patents and licenses.
Philco released its first radios later that year. This line of radios later became known as the 511 series and included a metal table model designed by Hollingsworth Pierce, as w...
In an effort to appeal to female buyers, Philco hired artist Matild Massaros to create floral designs for the furniture cabinet models; these designs were hand-painted. Philco also devoted substantial resources to advertising. In 1929, for example, the company sponsored broadcasts of the Philadelphia Orchestra. In the early 1930s, Philco also signed a number of advertising deals with Paramount, which included promotional giveaways featuring actors’ autographs.
At the same time, Philco sank massive capital into retooling the Murdock company factory to make it fit for mass production. Despite taking on some short-term debt, this transition allowed Philco to become the third-biggest company in the radio industry in 1929, selling more than 400,000 radios.
As Philco dropped its prices and introduced new features, it quickly became an unpopular competitor among radio manufacturers. In 1930, it introduced Tone Control, which allowed a listener to change his or her radio’s sound to brilliant, bright, mellow, or deep, depending on the desired balance of low and high frequencies.
As the Depression grew even more serious, Philco produced one of the first cathedral radios—small table model radios with arched tops, which made them look like cathedrals. Featuring an Art Deco design, these models were cheap, marketed to those hit by the Depression. In particular, Philco’s Baby Grand model quickly became a success. By the end of 1930, Philco was the top radio manufacturer in the United States.
That same year, Philco bought the Automobile Radio Corporation and renamed it the Transitone Automobile Radio Corporation. Transitone released the Model 3 automobile radio, which was smaller and cheaper than its competitors.
The company’s fortunes did suffer as a result of the Depression, but innovation allowed Philco to stay in business. In 1934, its Model 200-X became the first true high fidelity radio receiver on the market, beating out its competitors by a full year. In 1936, Philco introduced its Automatic Tuning system, which allowed listeners to assign their favorite stations to presets. Three years later, Philco introduced the Mystery Control, the first wireless remote control made for radios.
By 1938, Philco had produced its 10 millionth radio; to mark the milestone, it manufactured a small number of 38-116 radios with a commemorative brass plaque. Even so, the company began diversifying its product lines, producing an air conditioner called the Cool-Wave in 1939 and initiating a line of refrigerators in 1940, the same year Philco sold its 15 millionth radio and reorganized as the Philco Corporation. Philco also started selling its first TVs in 1939, and the company began broadcasting from its own television station, W3XE.
To keep sales high, Philco employed a number of winning strategies. Its ads usually promoted the company’s cheapest models, hoping that low prices would lure customers into the store, where a dealer could talk them up to a more expensive model. Philco dealers also had to meet monthly quotas in order to continue to be allowed to sell the company’s radios. In the early 1930s, Philco introduced an annual cruise for all of its dealers, during which the company would tout its new line.
With the coming of World War II, Philco secured contracts to manufacture radar and other technology for the U.S. government. After the war, Philco slowly made the transition back to consumer electronics. The delay in getting its television line back in step allowed the Radio Corporation of America to gain a huge head start in the market, a lead it never relinquished.
In the 1950s, Philco expanded its product line and began research into computers and transistors, diversions that hurt the company as a whole. In 1961, Philco was bought by Ford, which sold the company in 1974 to GTE-Sylvania. Philco later became part of the Philips Consumer Electronics Corporation.
For collectors, dating Philco radios is easy. Most models have a five-digit model number. The first two digits indicate the year of manufacture, so a 41-255, for example, was made in 1941. In its long history, Philco produced many types of radios, from the small cathedral radios to larger Lazyboy chairside models.
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