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.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Jim's Antique Radio Museum

Jim's Antique Radio Museum

Jim Tripp's showcase of radios from the 1920s to late 1950s, organized by style and theme (wood, console, plastic, … [read review or visit site]

The Radio Attic's Archives

The Radio Attic's Archives

This photo gallery of over 7800 vintage radios, categorized by manufacturer and model number, is a group effort wit… [read review or visit site]

AntiqueRadios.com

AntiqueRadios.com

Alan Voorhees' reference resource for vintage radio collectors includes a photo gallery, article library, PDF archi… [read review or visit site]

Radiomuseum.org

Radiomuseum.org

This vast archive and community of radio collectors features over 120,000 radio model listings and 350,000 photos a… [read review or visit site]

Phil's Old Radios

Phil's Old Radios

This extensive collection of antique radios includes beautiful photos and detailed historical descriptions. The sit… [read review or visit site]

Radiophile.com

Radiophile.com

John Pelham's collection of wood and plastic radios from the 1930's and 40's. What sets this site apart is the deta… [read review or visit site]

Radio-Guy

Radio-Guy

Steve Erenberg's extremely wacky and well-done collection of vintage mad-scientist devices and contraptions. Writte… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Discussion Forums

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

Vintage Old Wood Antique Tube Radio Zenith Model 6s527 Very Pretty RadioOld Antique Wood Watterson Vintage Tube Radio - Restored & Working Table TopVintage 1942 Zenith 6d-628 Wood Tube Radio For RestorationBeautiful Antique Amplion Ar19 Radio Speaker Horn Oak Wood Petals Old UntestedOld Antique Wood Philco Vintage Tube Radio - Restored Working Art Deco Table TopVintage 1940 Silvertone 2441 Wood Table Tube Farm Radio W/ Original Box See Pic Vintage Wood Table 1920's Crosley Model V Tube Radio ReceiverAntique Wooden Crystal Radio Set - BoxedOld Antique Wood Fairbanks Morse Vintage Tube Radio - Table Top For RestorationVintage Art Deco Era Rca Victor Wood Case Tube Radio ~ Works ~Vintage 1920s Old Amplion Antique Wood Flower Petal Antique Radio SpeakerVintage Philco Cathedral Wood Cabinet Am Tube Radio Not WorkingVintage Late 1930s Old Emerson Ornate Depression Era Radio Antique Wood Cabinet1933 Ge General Electric Tube Radio Model K-43 Cathedral Tombstone WoodGorgeous Vintage Wood Regal Model L-46 Am Tube Radio Restored, Kokomo, Indiana1940’s Arvin Wood Tube Radio Model 264-t. ~ Vintage Estate FindAntique Rare 1932 Ge General Electric Low Profile K-53 M Wooden Tube Radio #1 Good Vintage Original Mid Century Zenith K731 Tube Wood Am Fm Afc Radio Works# 3 Vintage Original Mid Century Zenith K731 Tube Wood Am Fm Afc Radio WorksAtwater Kent Model 36 Tube Radio Receiver Wood 1927 Power Supply AkZenith 705 Tube Radio - Wooden Table Top Model - Working 705-11 From The 1930'sAntique Wood Atwater Kent Tube Radio Receiver Model 20c ? Parts RestoreEmerson Wood Tube Radio Model 425?Emerson Wood Tube Radio7 Vintage Zenith Wood Tube Radio KnobsMotorola 51x19 Wood Tube Table Radio 1942 Recapped Plays Super Nice! L@@k!Vtg Mca Minerva "short Wave" Tube Radio W Wood Ingraham Case For Parts Or RepairVintage Antique Zenith Radio Knobs Wood W/set Screw# 2 Vintage Original Mid Century Zenith K731 Tube Wood Am Fm Afc Radio WorksGeneral Electric Restored Wood RadioAtwater Kent Model 33 Tube Radio Receiver Wood 1927 AkAntique Philco Model 40-135 Wood Tube Radio N/r1930s Cameo Advertising Wooden Soldier Doll General Electric Radio Bandy Rare Sparton Cube Wood Tube Radio 1930s Model 517 A-c Receiver Parts RepairVintage Wood Tube Radio With Magic Eye And Finger Dial (vr)Vintage Antique Radio Knobs Small Wood Octagonal - All ThreeVintage Old Wood Antique Tube Radio Silvertone Model 6130 Impressive !Vintage Antique Radio Knobs (2) Wood W/fancy Metallic Faces, Skirted, 1930's1947 Jewel 502 Wood Table Radio W/beautiful Faux Finish. Restored, Sounds Great.Gorgeous Vintage Zenith Beautiful Walnut Color Model H615y Retro AntiqueCrosley Trirdyn Special Type No 1122 Early Farm Battery Tube Radio Wood 3-r-3 24Antique Old Original Crosley Model 516 Tube Radio Wood Cabinet Parts Diy ProjectVintage Antique Zenith Radio Knobs Wood W/set ScrewBeautiful, Wood Encased, Spirit Of St Louis Field Radio / Cd / Casette Player Vintage Emerson Mini Wooden Tabletop Tube Radio- Inlaid WoodAntique Original Rca Radiola 62 Receiver Ornate Wood Trim Tube Radio Dial PartsVintage Magnavox Ofm 026 Am Fm Tube Type Table Radio Phonograph Input Walnut!!!Vintage Silvertone Model 1954 Tabletop Tube Radio W/ Wood Trim - Parts/repairVintage Am-fm Zenith Radio--wood Cabinet 16 X 6-1/2" X 10"s Tall