Steve McVoy is Tuned Into Vintage Television Sets

August 19th, 2008

In this interview, Steve McVoy talks about collecting vintage television sets, both pre-war and postwar, black and white and color. Based in Colorado, Steve is curator of the Early Television Museum, a member of our Hall of Fame.

Murphy V136. Britain, 1949.

In the 1950s when I was a teenager I used to work for a television repair shop and we’d get sets from the 40s every once in a while and I was fascinated by them. So in 1999 when I sold my business and went looking for something to do that would be challenging and different, I decided to collect television sets. I didn’t know much about television history except for television during the war.

With the first 3 or 4 sets that I bought, I met a number of collectors. It’s a pretty small community, and through the Internet I met all the major collectors in the country. They were all very nice and willing to show me their stuff, but it was all in their basements and attics and garages. At the same time, my collection was getting too big to fit in my house, so I decided to buy a warehouse and start a museum so people could see the televisions.

In 2000 we opened the Early Television Museum in Hilliard, Ohio, with about 3,000 square feet, it’s about 15,000 square feet now. We have various collections that are on loan to us, but about 95% of the televisions are mine and owned by the museum.

Collectors Weekly: Can you give us the brief history of the television from a collector’s perspective?

McVoy: Television started in the 1920s and we have about fifteen sets from 1928 – 1932. These sets were mechanical, they didn’t use the picture tube and television camera like we use today. Instead they had a rotating metal disk that creates the picture. The first television image was produced in 1927 in England. by John Logier Baird, and in 1928 the first television broadcast happened in Britain.

We also have about 25 sets from Britain that were made between 1930 and 1939. That’s where the first electronic television broadcasting took place, in 1936, at a station in London three years before televisions were available in the United States. We have an equal amount of TV sets from America before the war, all made in 1939 and 1940. Probably half the sets work, we restored a number of them for demonstration purposes.

Western Television Visionette from 1929.

There are only about 450 surviving pre-war TV sets in the world, they’re very rare. A few turn up each year that we didn’t know about. We also have 75 sets from right after the war, 1946 through 1955, that’s the period when television really grew. In 1947 there were only 100,000 TV sets in the country and by 1953 there were 13 million. There were hundreds of different models back then. We also have about 20 European sets from that same period. Most are from England but we also have some from France and Germany.

There were some minor differences between the British and American technologies. The British system had 405 lines while the American system had 441 before the war and 500 after the war. So the picture on the British televisions wasn’t as sharp. Our aspect ratio was 4:3 (width being 4 and height being 3), and the British ratio was 5:4. Also interesting is that a fair number of British sets had purple or pink filter material over the picture screen so it would be more interesting to watch instead of just a black and white screen.

At the museum we also have a collection of the very earliest color sets. Color TV was produced in 1950, and CBS started broadcasting in color in 1951. There were two different kinds of color sets, those with a rotating mechanical wheel and then the all electronic sets, first introduced in 1954.

Finally, we have a collection of early broadcast equipment. The highlight is a 1948 mobile production truck from RCA. This particular truck was originally owned by a station in Salt Lake City and then bought by an educational station in Ohio. They used it for a few years and then in the 1970s donated it to the Ohio Historical Society and it’s been in their warehouse since. We asked them to loan it to us so we could put it on display in the museum. It’s complete with all of its original cameras and equipment. We also have one of the first television transmitters and some early cameras.

Collectors Weekly: What are the differences between pre- and postwar television sets?

McVoy: The sophistication of the sets. During the war great progress was made on picture tube technology, so the pictures were a lot brighter and they could make bigger screens. Because of radar in World War Two they learned how to make the sets more sensitive so you could pick up more stations from farther away, so after the war there were many more channels. The British sets only had one channel, the BBC (they didn’t even have selector knobs). The American sets had three to five channels.

There were more TV sets in bars and clubs in 1947 than in homes. A bar could afford that.

Another big difference was the cost. Pre-war sets typically cost 500 or 600 dollars at the time, and you could buy a car for that in 1939. In the late 40s you could buy a good TV set for 400 dollars, and at that time that was ¼ the cost of a car. So they became more affordable after the war and got cheaper and cheaper as time went on.

Before the war only a few in London, New York City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Chicago owned sets. There were also experimental television sets, radio people who built their own sets. We have a homemade set in the museum that was built from a magazine article, which printed instructions on how to built it. We also have a number of kit sets. You could buy some of the smaller sets in kit form and put them together yourself. People were experimenting with how to build the receiver. They were essentially copying the commercial sets, but with the added fun of putting it together and saving money.

Collectors Weekly: Who were some of the big television manufacturers in the U.S.?

Westinghouse WRT-700 from 1939.

McVoy: By far the largest was RCA. There were about 7,000 sets made in the U.S. before the war, and RCA made 3,000 of those. The second largest was General Electric and there was also Dumont, they had a television network after the war. The fourth biggest company was Andrea, which is no longer making television sets. RCA also made sets for Westinghouse and for Sears.

Most of the manufacturers were located in the Northeast, New York or Philadelphia, with the exception of one small company in Los Angeles which only made a very small quantity of televisions. In England, there were two main companies. One was HMV, which was affiliated with RCA. I think they shared a patent; and they had the same logo as RCA, the Dog sitting in front of the speaker. The other was EMI Marconi.

All the television companies were radio manufacturers who branched out into making televisions. In Britain there were 15 manufacturers before the war but HMV and Marconi made more than half the sets. The technology for televisions was developed by RCA in the U.S. David Sarnoff, who ran RCA, realized that television had a big future in the 1930s, but the depression was on at the time and he didn’t think it was the right time to introduce the system they had developed. Since they were so expensive, it wasn’t the right time to sell them, so RCA held off.

In Britain, broadcasting was government funded, so in 1936 the BBC decided to start broadcasting. When they did that, the manufacturers started building sets using the RCA design, especially the television cameras. That was the unique piece RCA developed and that the British copied. RCA waited until the 1939 World’s Fair to put out the televisions, the prices had come down and the sets could be built cheaper and more reliably. But then all production ended due to the war and the development of television stalled until 1945.

Collectors Weekly: Who are some of your favorite manufacturers and sets?

Globe Television & Phone Corp. mechanical television from 1932.

McVoy: We have a very elaborate set from Britain made by a company called RGD, which stands for Radio Gramophone Development. It has an elaborate, beautiful cabinet with a wonderful finish on it, and includes a record player and shortwave radio. For the American sets, I think General Electric has the nicest style; they’re the most unique looking. Zenith also made a spectacular looking set. Most of the televisions made in that time period were a dark mahogany, although Zenith made a blonde set that was more modern looking, I don’t think they made more than ten of them and there’s only one that survived.

There’s one designer who worked for RCA, John Vassos, who designed a lot of RCA’s radio cabinets. He was famous at the time for his design and he designed the 1930 RCA television sets. The other manufacturers used their radio cabinets and copied them.

Collectors Weekly: Where do you find old television sets to add to the museum’s collection?

McVoy: I’ve bought a fair number on eBay, but not recently. The vast majority comes from other collectors. Everybody knows the museum and we have a convention every year and there are about 110 serious collectors that show up. Many collectors if they have more than one of something they will sell their second piece. With museums, people are willing to donate stuff they don’t have room for. As time goes one more and more people want to donate and it’s harder for us to acquire new stuff because we have all of the more common sets and the ones we’re looking for now are very rare.

An example of a rare and obscure television we have at the museum is a 1930 Italian mechanical set and it’s the only one we know of. It’s unique because it looks like more of a 1950s style; it’s very unique looking. We also have a prototype projection set from 1954 and it’s the only one that exists. It’s pretty much like the ones today, a small picture tube with a lens arrangement that projects the image up on the screen. Ours is a real projection set meaning everything is inside a cabinet and the picture tube is in the bottom of the cabinet. That was very common right after the war because they didn’t know how to make picture tubes more than 12 inches and the only way to get a bigger screen was to use a small light tube and a projection system.

Emerson 610 from 1948.

Especially right after the war, the first places TV sets went were bars and clubs, so to get a picture big enough they’d use the projection systems. In 1948 the World Series was on television and millions of people saw it and there were only a few hundred sets in the country. So people were watching it in bars and clubs. I think there were more sets in bars and clubs in 1947 than in homes. TVs were $400 to $500 at the time and a projection set was $1,000 and a bar could afford that.

We also have a 1946 television jukebox that is elaborately made out of glass. You could put a quarter in it and watch 30 minutes of television or listen to five songs. Another unique item is our CBS color sets with the wheel in front of them. They are probably the only ones that survived.

Collectors Weekly: What types of television sets do most collectors tend to collect?

There are guys on very limited budgets who collect the more common models from the late 40s and early 50s. They find them in garage sales, thrift shops, and antique stores that still exist in the Northeast. At any radio swap meet you can find television sets, but mostly common sets. Another source is auctions. We actually had our first auction this year and it was so successful that we’re going to make it an annual event and ask other collectors to join and sell some items.

For black and white sets made after 1949, the values drop off dramatically, with some exceptions, because few collectors are interested in those sets. There are people who collect early transistor sets from the 1960s and 70s, and they have some value. And some specialty collectors collect the micro TV sets. But the vast majority collect black and white sets from 1939 to 1949 and color sets through 1960. After the mid 1950s manufacturers started putting their television sets in metal cabinets which had very little style, they’re not very attractive after that period. And there were a lot more TVs produced after the mid 1950s so there are just so many around.

Collectors Weekly: What are some good information resources on collecting early television sets?

McVoy: There’s a price guide that I was a contributing editor for, but prices vary widely because there aren’t a lot of buyers. There’s also our website and tvhistory.tv, which are probably the best sites on collecting and restoring sets. There are some books on television history, but they have nothing about collecting. In the U.S. there’s no television collecting club specifically, but there are collectors who belong to many radio clubs.

In Britain there are two organizations. The British Vintage Wireless Association has a subset called the 405 Alive and they have a little publication that is television related. There’s also The Narrow Bandwidth Television Association. These are people who are interested in mechanical televisions, but their specialty is more in building the TV sets to the old standards.

(All images in this article courtesy Steve McVoy of The Early Television Museum)

83 comments so far

  1. Lynda Steinhauer Says:

    I have a 1965 RCA 27″ Color tv cabinet. I have since converted to cd storage. I also have 1965 RCA Stereo which works but needs help. These are both Ebony cabinets. I knew that only 5 of the TV’s were purchased in Ohio. I would like to find their worth and have the stereo restored. Can you help?

  2. Steve McVoy Says:

    Lynda, a 1965 color set has almost no value if intact, even less if it has been gutted. I don’t know where you can get your stereo repaired, but you can do an internet search for the local Antique Radio Club. Someone there will be able to recommend a repair place.

  3. DJ Hufstetler Says:

    I have Antique Packard Bell Cart Television-Color, # 23DC20 COL, 4273 254324, Made in Los Angeles, Cal… can u tell me where to get info on it besides what is printed on the back of it? Also, what is it’s value? My grandmother purchased it in Orange County , Cal and it has been handed down two other generations of our family. It is beautiful, the handle is still in place and the small wheels and the large wooden wheels are still in great condition, you can still roll it all over the house if you wanted too.

  4. Steve McVoy Says:

    Your set is from about 1964. I suspect from the model number that it has a rectangular picture tube rather than the round ones that were used in earlier color sets. Collectors are interested in 1960 and earlier color sets, so your has very little value, maybe $50 or so.

  5. Mr. Luke Says:

    Is a Sparton mirror-in-lid tv worth picking up? I saw one for sale and had only seen photos of them before, I have no idea if they are worth anything. Are they desirable? Thanks!

  6. Steve McVoy Says:

    Yes, a Sparton mirror-in-lid set is relatively rare. They were made in 1949 and are unusual because most mirror-in-lid sets were made before the war. If the cabinet is in good shape it is probably worth $200-300.

  7. brian boruff Says:

    i have a 1955 flash-matic television, is this something i should hold onto ? iknow its old but is it something someone would want in their collection is it a rare tv . what is the value

  8. Steve McVoy Says:

    Flashmatics are very collectible, especially if you have the remote control to go with it. Yes, hold on to it.

  9. D. Kitchen Says:

    I have a 1950 Dumont Sherbrooke Model RA-109 A3 mahogny cabinet with doors, am/fm radio and phonograph. I am trying to find out the value for an estate sale.

  10. Steve McVoy Says:

    RA-109s are a little too new to be very appealing to collectors. If the cabinet is in good shape you might get $100 for it.

  11. mark parvin Says:

    i have a hoffman tv set, built into a cabiniet with a 10″ speaker below the set. it has double doors an standsw about 30″ tall. can you tell me where to find a model #. the tv is about 15″. right below the set is a “hoffman easy vision” logo.

  12. Jack Bergin Says:

    I have a 1949 RCA Model 8-T-243 that has been sitting in an attic for 30 or more years. It must weigh 80 pounds. Does it have any value?

    Thank You.

  13. Steve McVoy Says:

    Mark, the model number is usually on the pressboard back. From your description I think your set is from the early to mid 50s.

    Jack, the 8-T-243 is a relatively common RCA model. If the cabinet is in good shape is is probably worth $100 to $150.

  14. Peter LaGuardia Says:

    We had a 1950 vintage Capehart tv/ radio/record changer console, Chippendale style. About 4’+ tall, with two doors at top/ two at bottom, hinged in the center, not at the sides. Record changer had two tone arms, the LP arm had its own mahogany case. Radio was upper right, with changer below; tv was upper left, with record storage below. I would love to just see a photo of it, again. Do you know what I’m talking about? I would greatly appreciate hearing from you.

  15. Steve McVoy Says:

    You might find something similar in this brochure from TVHistory.TV:

    http://www.tvhistory.tv/1955-Capehart-Brochure2.jpg

  16. Maureen Says:

    I have begun cleaning out moms house. She has a beautiful RCA Victor cabinet TV in a red wood. It has rounded edges and the doors are full length of the TV, sorry I did not look at model number yet. I know it still works. The cabinet is beautiful. How do I determine value? How best to sell or donate it? I was thinking of using the case for a wine cabinet but do not want to take apart a rare tv. Any ideas to help me determina age and value?

  17. Steve McVoy Says:

    I would need a model number or picture to determine value. Send it to info@earlytelevision.org

  18. Melissa Says:

    Greetings,

    I purchased a Marconi Portable tv at a thrift shop the other day and I cannot locate a single thing on it. Just wondering if you are able to provide me with any information / value on it. It powers but doesn’t turn on, I think it makes a great shelf piece. It is a model # 1232 and looks like this http://antiqueradio.org/art/EmersonTV01A.jpg but says Marconi instead of Emerson.

  19. Steve McVoy Says:

    Melissa, are you in Canada? The Marconi name was used there for some U.S. made sets.

    In any case, your set has very little value. There were hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of this type of set made.

  20. Melissa Says:

    I am Canadian, so I gather it is an Emmerson set that was given a Marconi name brand. I only paid $5 for it so the value wasn’t a big deal, I was more curious as to why I couldn’t find anything on it and being a fan of antiques and vintage items I like how it looks on my shelf regardless. Thank you!

  21. Kevin J Says:

    Hi Steve,

    I have a 1958 Andrea vr121. Its missing one know but other than that its beautiful and mahogany if I have done my research. But, what is the value I cannot find any info or really any for sale only service manuals!

  22. Steve McVoy Says:

    Kevin, 50s black and white TV sets have very little value, no more than $1oo and probably less, especially if your set is a floor model.

  23. warren wiles Says:

    hi Steve
    I’m restoring a late 50’s g.e. TV & there is no model #. I would like to get
    a schematic for it & need the model #. It is a red/beige metal cabinet with
    series filaments. The CRT is 17AVP4A & uses a 1X2B H.V. rectifier.
    It is very similar in appearance to an Admiral model # 17TO26 except
    the vol/contrast/tuning is on the top instead of the side. Any ideas ?
    thx, warren

  24. Steve McVoy Says:

    That isn’t enough information to find the schematic. See if there are any numbers stamped on the chassis that might be a model number.

    Join the VideoKarma forum. Post pictures of the set and ask for help identifying it.

    http://www.videokarma.org/forumdisplay.php?f=19

    Once you find the model number, contact us at the museum and we can probably post the Sams Photofact for the set.

  25. Elizabeth Whaley Says:

    I have my parents’ 1950’s Hoffman television set. We watched everything on it from The Kennedy Inaugeration to The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show to the moon landing in 1969. Sometime in the early 1970’s, it stopped working and has been in my garage ever since. A few months ago I moved. One of the tubes broke. There has to be a place where this beautiful television set can be restored. I know electronically this is far fetched, but it has such a lovely cabinet. More importantly, it has seen history. Any ideas?

  26. Steve McVoy Says:

    There is a list of people who do restoration of old TV sets on our website:

    http://www.earlytelevision.org/classifieds_repair.html

  27. Ron mabry Says:

    I have 1954 Philco TV needs to be repaired.worked till few months ago any ideas .thank you

  28. Steve McVoy Says:

    A set that old needs a restoration not juzt repair. That is the only way to make it reliable.
    There is a list of people who do that in the classified pages on our website

    http://Www.earlytelevision.org

  29. Rick Berget Says:

    I have a 1959 Motorola TV that has been in my family since it was new. I rebuilt the high voltage and had the tuner rebuilt about 20 years ago. I do not want anything for it. But would like to find it a good home (museum, collector, or whatever). Any suggestions on how to give it away.

  30. Steve McVoy Says:

    A museum wouldn’t be interested because it isn’t old enough. You could place an ad on our classified page and probably find a collector who would take it:

    http://www.earlytelevision.org/classified_page.html

  31. David Cleghorn Says:

    Have a Capehart model 321 TV and I’m trying to determine what to do with it. Any thoughts? Any value to it? Thanks!

  32. Steve McVoy Says:

    That set was made in 1951. Sets from that era have little value – maybe $50 or so. You could post an ad on our classified pages and maybe find a buyer:

    http://www.earlytelevision.org/classifieds.html

  33. tracy Says:

    hi, just need some information regarding a tv that was left to my dad.
    its a colour tv, in a wooden cabinet. on one side it has the “his masters voice” logo(the words & a picture ) on the other side it has a knob with numbers, and an” ambassador 26 ” logo


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