Wood radios came into their own in the United States after World War I, when companies such as the American Telephone & Telegraph Company, General Electric, the Radio Corporation of America, and Westinghouse developed the nation’s first radio networks. As is often the case with technology, the software that was transmitted by these networks created a demand for hardware, i.e., radios.
Some of the first wood radios made by pioneering companies such as Atwater Kent didn’t have cabinets at all. These were the “breadboard” radios of the early 1920s, so named for the arrangement of tubes and other components that were mounted on a rectangular wooden board, whose edges were routed or rounded in a seemingly grudging concession to decoration. But manufacturers knew that radios were entertainment devices, so metal and wooden cabinets were soon designed to hide the machine’s guts.
Like the breadboards, the first tabletop radios were plain in design and somewhat intimidating, thanks to their array of five or six knobs and usually a trio of dials. Powel Crosley’s radios were particularly successful in the 1920s—the legendary inventor and automobile entrepreneur likened his competitively priced radios to Model Ts...
After the introduction of these first boxy tabletop radios, manufacturers got a bit more creative, and two main designs were embraced. One of these was the tombstone radio, a large, vertically rectangular block, usually featuring a speaker on the top half of its front face and a dial and tuning knobs below. Manufacturers of wooden tombstone radios included Arvin, Westinghouse, and Zenith, whose 4-B-131 from 1936 was made of walnut, with decorative fluting on the sides and a cloth grille behind cut-out woodwork. Zenith’s 800 series tombstones were even more ornate, with chrome details that were in keeping with the Art Deco aesthetic of the times.
The other main design for larger vintage tabletop radios was the cathedral shape, so named for the radio's church-like profile. All the major manufacturers made cathedral radios, but Philco, which began as a maker of batteries, was especially prolific. Other makers of cathedrals included Emerson, Ecophone, Silvertone, and, of course, Zenith.
In general, the smaller tabletop radios are the ones we associate today with Art Deco radios. These little gems made by General Electric and others often had rounded tops or sides, as well as cut-outs in their wooden cabinets to give these stationary devices the illusion of movement. Later, in the 1940s, Zenith made radios with so-called boomerang dials, which drooped at either end like clown-face frowns.
The Cadillacs of wood radios, though, were the consoles, which elevated the radio to a piece of furniture. Cabinets for these floor-model monsters featured tasteful combinations of different-colored woods, fine inlays and imported marquetry, and lots of fluting used to dramatic effect. Again, Zenith led the way, in this case with its 1934 Stratosphere, of which only 350 were made, each with a retail price of $750 (during the Depression, you could buy a Buick for that).
Beginning in the 1930s, during the heyday of the wood radio, thermoplastic resins such as Bakelite and, later, Catalin were introduced. Eventually these new, inexpensive materials displaced wood as the material of choice for radios and other mass-produced household items.
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