A home for a classic radio

Philco model 20

I didn’t watch Chicago get those two quick goals last night to win the Stanley Cup.  I heard it on the radio.  I’d like to say it was on this radio at left, but it was on a nodescript clock radio sitting on the microwave in our kitchen. Reality is always less romantic than it should be.

I like sports on the radio.  I always have.  There’s something about the ebb and flow of a game when it’s brought by a top-grade announcer that just works for me. Baseball, soccer, hockey, football – it doesn’t matter.  If the guy can call it, it’s magic.

I have more vivid memories of sporting events I heard on the radio than I do from TV.  These would be from games I listened to long after I was supposed to be asleep in bed, games I tried to follow on skip from out-of region broadcasts (the Leafs were blacked out in Ottawa once the Senators arrived, but there was a Sarnia station you could pick up on skip if the weather was right.  I also heard Steve Carleton’s 4000th strikeout on a signal broadcast out of Cincinnati.  I was in Bancroft, ON.  That was cool.)  What I didn’t hear that way, I probably heard in the car.

About 30 years ago, I picked up a couple grungy tube radios for a couple bucks at a yard sale.  Since that moment, I’ve always had one (and sometimes upwards of 40) around.  My favourites tend to be the ones produced between 1930 and 1940 as I find them both well-made and nicely designed.  They were meant to be a focal point in the room and were produced accordingly.  After TV came on the scene, the radio was designed more to be off to the side, blending into the surroundings.  While some are technically neat (and perform better than one might expect), I find them to be less fun.

The radio in the picture is a Philco model 20.  It’s an early example of what are now called ‘cathedral’ radios.  Twenty years ago, they were often called ‘beehives,’ which sounds less impressive and probably generated less revenue for antique dealers.  When they were first released, though, they were called ‘midgets,’ distinguishing them from full-cabinet models.  The cabinet here is basically the least amount of wood that could enclose both the chassis and the speaker and it’s almost completely unornamented.  Philco released it in August 1930 and re-released a slightly prettier version in January 1931.

This isn’t the first of the ‘cathedral’-shaped radios, nor is it the most famous (that would be the model 90), but it’s the first massive seller of its type and turned Philco into the number one radio manufacturer (in sales) in the US.  Costing less than $50 to buy (though tubes were $18 extra – this was still a hefty purchase) yet performing on par with larger, more expensive sets, more than 300,000 of these things left the shelves in a matter of months and helped turn the radio from an expensive plaything into something any house would have.

I picked up this set as a donor for a 20-A (the Canadian version) that I already had.  This one had severe cabinet damage – most of the grillework was smashed out and there had been a good impact on the right side that broke most of the joints in the shell.  It had enough pieces left to fix the one I had.

What surprised me, though, was that the thing still played.  It even played well.  Out of respect, I set out to find a new cabinet and the missing hardware that would take it from being just a miscellaneous collection of bits into a real radio once again.

The cabinet I did find has seen some repair – most notably veneer patches around the grille and some glue where it some seams had let go – but was basically solid.  The escutcheon (the shiny bit in the middle) was a lucky eBay score and the centre knob stands out primarily because it’s cleaner than the rest.

The result is what you see above – a Philco that desperately needs a refinish but is an actual, viable thing and not just a broken bunch of parts.  Ultimately, I didn’t need it as I already had one, so I let a local auction place find it a good home.

I recognize that this isn’t really the normal fare around here, but I like these things for the same reason I like the old cards – they’re a piece of history and they once meant something to someone.  This was a big purchase for somebody 83 years ago.  They would have put it in a place of prominence in the house and sat together to listen to shows, music, news, sports, what have you.  There would be that moment of anticipation between the turn of the switch, the illumination of the dial and the beginning of the first sounds as the tubes warmed up.  A lot of things are built to be used and discarded.  This was, too, really – but it was also built to be something special for the people who had it.  This was magic and we don’t get as much of that now.

I hope whoever bought it feels the same way.

Philco 20 - rear of cabinet

Don’t touch – it gets hot back here.

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One Response to A home for a classic radio

  1. I don’t know anything about radios, but I do love vintage and I have to say that is really, really cool!

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