The midcentury radio—iconic to the era, it’s a perfect item to start collecting as an MCM enthusiast. Here’s a brief history and some go-to tips for collecting.
1930 and ‘40s
To talk about midcentury radios, we have to start before WWII in the Great Depression. At this point, most radios were large—they served as pieces of furniture and weren’t portable. Many collectors consider this the “Golden Era” of radios because of their handcrafted beauty. “The independence of design is very often missing from today’s mass-produced and mass-marketed items,” says Paul Sanders, who restores radios from the 1930s and ’40s.
As more materials became available after the war, radios began transitioning from wood to metal and plastics. It was during the ‘40s that portable radios also became more popular. While they were available in the ‘30s, the post-war versions were smaller and easier to transport.
1950s and ‘60s
In the 1950s, the invention of the transistor changed the face of the radio. “The bulky tube radios disappeared and were replaced with smaller transistor radios that could fit in a shirt pocket or purse,” says Camil Moujabar of Midcentury Radios. “These radios were icons of technological triumph and dominated the market until the late 1960s.”
Styles to Collect
When it comes to midcentury radios, there are two types you’ll want to keep an eye out for: plastic and transistor.
These include Bakelite, Plaskon and Catalin. Bakelite was the first type of plastic to appear as a radio, in the early 1930s. It was quickly followed by Plaskon, which could produce colors such as white, beige and red. The most popular midcentury plastic radio, however, was the Catalin, which created bright neon colors that became popular with the general public.
Invented in 1947, the transistor made radios smaller, sleeker and more user-friendly. The most popular transistor radios to collect are Japanese and American. Look for Japanese radios from 1956-1963, made by companies such as Toshiba, Sharp, Sanyo, Mitsubishi, Realtone and Sony. For American radios, the sweet spot fwas 1955-1960, made by companies such as Regency TR-1, Zenith, RCA, GE, Moterola and Emerson.
The best way to identify a vintage radio is to look for the model number, which will be a combination of letters and numbers printed somewhere on the piece. If it’s not visible on the outside, try inside the chassis, the inner workings of the radio. The model number may be stamped on the tubes or another part of the components.