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    

Old Antique Wood Zenith Vintage Tube Radio - Restored & Working Black Dial CubeOld Antique Wood Philco Vintage Tube Radio - Restored Working Art Deco Table TopVintage Old 1938 General Art Deco Depression Era Midget Wood Antique Tube RadioAntique Zenith Vintage Tube Radio In Tombstone Wood Cabinet Restored And WorkingEmerson Radio In Wood Ingraham Cabinet ~ Portable Suitcase Style ~ Rare OnePhilco Wood Clock Radio Model Pt-69 Authentic 1930's Marquette Cathedral Radio Model 5 Tubetrf Wooden Vintage Vtg Working Sylvania Model 29 Tube Tester W/ Art Deco Wood SidesOld Antique Wood General Electric Vintage Tube Radio -restored Working Table Top Broadcast Silvertone Spotsman Short Wave Megacycles Red Wood Tube RadioRestored Antique Vintage Philco 42-335 Wood Deco Tube Radio Works Perfect !Detrola Model 310 Wood Tube Radio - Push Buttons - 1940Vintage/antique Rare Philco Radio Mod. 38-62 Table,wood Case "art Deco" Ca. 1937Vintage Westinghouse Wr-184 Wood Tabletop Tube Radio **no Reserve**Vintage Old Wood Antique Tube Radio Philco Model Pt-41Antique American Bosch 36a Wood Tube Table Radio - Parts / Restore - Ca193123 Assorted Wood Radio Knobs Many Pairs And Metal Inset StylesVintage Philco Model 37-84 Wood Cathedral Tube Radio 1936Excellent Working Antique 1940's Philco Model 40-120 Wood Case Tube RadioPhilco Antique Vintage Retro Short Wave Am Tube Wood Big Old Radio Retro 40'sVery Rare Antique Wood Silver Marshall Vintage Tube Radio Admiral Tombstone NiceVintage Antique Crosley 52ta Table Top Wood Radio - Powers OnAntique Philco Vintage Tube Radio In Wood Cabinet Restored And Working. 1949 Philco Model 49-909 Radio With Wood Cabinet-completely ServicedOld General Electric 2 Band Wood Tube Radio ~ Nice!Old Grundig 2 Band Wood Tube RadioOld Box Of Tube Radio Ceramic & Plastic & Wooden Parts KnobsAntique Philco Radio Cathedral 19 Body Frame Wood Old VintageGeneral Electric Wooden Tombstone Radio, Model E-61 - 19361939 Stromberg Carlson Model 430 H Tube Radio With Wooden CabinetVtg Zenith Am/fm Wood Chassis Tube Radio - Model X334m ~ See VideoFreed-eisemann 1924 Wood Tube Table Radio F15Two Wood Zenith Lightning Bolt Embossed Radio Tv Knobs Arvin 2 Band Wood Tube RadioSilvertone Antique Tube Radio - Wood Case - With Plug - Works!!!Antique Wood Case Tube Radio? Utah Speaker - Unknown