Tuning in to Modern Design

By Michael Windover

Magazine Issue: Spring/Summer 2022

 
Film still featuring Jimmy Stewart and Virginia Bruce from Born to Dance (dir. Roy Del Ruth, MGM, 1936).

Last year, my wife and I inherited four antique radio receivers from her relative, John Struthers. He had amassed an impressive number of radios over the years, and while I had never seen them, he had mentioned his collection to me as he knew of my research into Art Deco design and the visual and material culture of radio, interests we held in common. As a dedicated educator and administrator at Seneca College for over thirty years, he perhaps intended these receivers to be more than a bequest to us personally, but also as historical object lessons about design that could be shared with a broader audience.


Although the four radios were all designed and manufactured in the United States, they nonetheless provide insights into the development of radio’s place in Canadian homes. Radio receivers not only played an essential role in a new form of public culture, with listeners adjusting their dials to hear broadcasts and joining others across the country in shared cultural experiences. They were also a key conduit for the entry of modern design into domestic space.


Broadcast radio entered Canadian homes increasingly during the 1920s. Initially a solitary activity undertaken by enthusiasts delighting at the distances they could travel with a simple crystal set and a pair of headphones, by the mid-1920s radio listening was becoming a source of home entertainment, with amplified radio receivers placed in wooden cabinets that could sit comfortably next to the living room furniture. The radio apparatus, which included vacuum tubes plugged into a chassis and integrated cone speaker, disappeared behind a sometimes ornate façade.


Rogers Batteryless model 110, c. 1925. Photo: Peter Coffman.

At this point, radio receivers became expressly representational. They gave material form to the auditory medium’s domestic appearance. For upper and middle-class consumers, expensive floor models in recognizable historical styles, such as Queen Anne or Chippendale, became status symbols of good taste and modernity. The traditional appearance helped secure a place in the sacrosanct living room or parlor for the new technology, which by the mid-1920s included alternating current-powered vacuum tubes to avoid wet batteries that could leak and damage rugs and flooring. [1]


It was in the 1930s, however, when radio sets really became a regular feature in Canadian homes. Radio ownership grew dramatically over these years, from 11.1 percent in 1924 to over 81 percent by 1940 in Canada. [2] Receivers began to appear in shelter magazines, not only in advertisements for radios but also in interior design schemes and advertisements for other products, such as flooring and insulation.


As a Donnacona Insulation ad from 1931 makes clear, the radio was becoming an important part of what made a living room inviting, functional, and modern. The fashionably dressed woman leans toward the receiver, engaging with the broadcasted program from the comfort of her warm, environmentally and acoustically insulated home.


Advertisement for Donnacona Insulating Board. Maclean’s Magazine, 15 May 1931.

In the early 1930s, the design of radio cabinets themselves evoked the modern experience of space-compressing, instant communication. There were some early experiments with floor consoles—including Raymond Loewy’s unique, tapering skyscraper grandfather clock radio, the Westinghouse Columnaire of 1931; however, it was smaller, tabletop radios that became the main avenues for modern design.


The increase in Canadian radio ownership in the 1930s was due in no small measure to the development of tabletop models around 1930. Tombstone or cathedral models, as they are sometimes described, were more affordable, making radio accessible to a greater audience. Perhaps because they were less costly—sometimes becoming additional radios in a household and placed in different rooms—tabletop radios and other even less expensive “miniature” sets, became objects of modern design.


The 1936-1937 Silvertone tabletop model 4422 is a good example. Like most tombstone-type models, this six-tube, battery-operated receiver is symmetrically arranged. Its design clearly references fashionable Moderne architecture, with its stepped silhouette and speaker grille that recalls the frozen fountain motif seen at the Paris Exposition des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes in 1925. This popular form of modernism—dubbed Art Deco in the 1960s—was representational at its core. It gave the look of the modern through references to new features of contemporary life, whether metropolitan skyscrapers, speeding airplanes, or the medium of radio itself.


Indeed, contemporary spaces associated with radio production or transmission, including the Canada Broadcasting Corporation’s high-power transmission stations erected across the country beginning in 1937, were designed in a modern mode. The Silvertone set’s large round dial glowed after the listener turned the Bakelite (phenolic resin) knob on the left-hand side and waited as the tubes warmed up. The dial, with a globe at its center, evoked a sense of international travel, and it allowed the listener to navigate to stations on the standard-wave spectrum (AM), police/emergency bands, or further afield with shortwave. While the wood case would blend well with other living room furniture, this receiver was meant to announce the modernity of radio listening.


Silvertone radio was a house brand of Sears, Roebuck & Co. In Canada, the great department store chains, which had an even bigger share of the domestic consumer market than those south of the border, [3] also had house brands. The T. Eaton Company, for instance, sold its electronics under the Viking label, which aptly suggested long-distance travelling and overcoming the obstacle of space. Eaton’s Viking radios were produced by other companies, most prolifically by Kitchener-based Dominion Electrohome. The department store advertised receivers through a special radio catalogue that brought sets and their component parts (batteries, antennae, and tubes) to Canadians living far beyond urban centres.


As with Sears, Eaton’s sold the image of radio as an exciting and integral part of the modern home. The cover of the 1935-36 catalogue, for instance, highlights the cosmopolitan potential of radio listening, with the large dial, reminiscent of the Silvertone model, surrounded by images of diverse people and cultures from around across the globe. The cover also underlines the visual and tactile qualities of using the receiver, reminding us that that radio listening was a multisensorial experience. In the face of the Great Depression and another war on the horizon, Canadians were anxious to connect with the wider world and escape into entertainment, whether a variety show, soap opera, concert, or hockey game.



In addition to using modern formal vocabularies, some radios in the 1930s appeared in new, synthetic materials. Although several components of radio sets used early plastics, such as knobs, dials, and vacuum tube insulation, the 1936-37 Emerson model 108 radio offers an example of an entire case of moulded plastic, in this instance Plaskon (urea-formaldehyde) . The Emerson radio’s smooth, ivory-coloured case refers to earlier tombstone-style receivers, although here on a smaller scale. One advantage of using plastics was their thinner shells, which left more internal space than in typical wooden cases.[4] While plastic cabinets were more fragile and tended to crack over time, they held up better than wood against water and humidity. Most importantly, plastic allowed manufacturers to produce radios in a variety of colours.


Another example is the miniature RCA Victor Little Nipper of 1938. Like the Emerson model 108, this radio followed forms popular in wooden cases on a smaller scale—here, the horizontal tabletop model, rather than the vertical tombstone style. The Little Nipper, a reference to RCA’s dog mascot, was designed for economy. It has only the most basic elements: a red volume knob and circular tuner set against a streamlined, glossy orange Catalin (phenolic resin) body. This miniature model added a pop of colour to any room, while connecting the listener at home to the world, including to news from the front during the war.


Models like these American ones were also produced in Canada, often in branch plants. Despite protectionist policies and “Buy Canada” initiatives during the 1930s, the radio industry in Canada was integrated with that of the United States. The countries shared patents, parts, and designs, even if regulations were more stringent in Canada, which led, in some cases, to modifications to some designs to meet Canadian standards. A prime example of the differences between Canadian and American radios is the Sparton Bluebird, designed by Walter Dorwin Teague. Although the blue mirrored case is similar, the radios themselves are very different, with the US model including shortwave in addition to standard broadcast and the Canadian model equipped with a power transformer, which was required by law and made them safer than their American counterparts to operate.


The development of the electronics industry to support domestic radio use in the 1930s expanded during the Second World War to meet the needs of the military. As design historians Rachel Gotlieb and Cora Golden note, the same companies that produced communications equipment for the war began production of electric and electronic appliances for the postwar market; and radio, they contend, “was the glamour product,” a design object that could operate as “a marketing tool to increase the appeal of an entire brand."[5] This “halo effect” comes as no surprise given radio’s existing association with modernity and modern design. Speed and travel imagery continued to influence radio case design. The Crosley 56-TD Duette of 1946-47, for example, reveals a fascination with automotive design.


While the postwar era witnessed a more enthusiastic adoption of modern style in domestic architecture and design in Canada, the spaces and objects associated with radio, such as the collection bequeathed to me, helped to pave the way. Radio listening required an infrastructure that included new appliances and emerged as an everyday practice alongside the arrival of Art Deco. The radio cabinet of the 1930s provided an opportunity for designers to explore characteristics of the medium—speed, precision, and long-distance travel—and, by extension, those of modern life.


As televisions and hi-fi stereos replaced the centrality of expensive floor model radios in the postwar era, the place and nature of radio listening began to shift. Radio became increasingly associated with mobility, whether listening in the car or through a portable radio set, first with miniature tubes in lunch pail-sized devices then in smaller plastic units with transistors. Radios would continue to affect the experience of space at home by bringing the outside world inside in an intimate and immediate manner. However, the impact of their visual and material forms that made them harbingers of modernism would lessen as they were joined by new appliances and other domestic technologies. Canadians by then had tuned in to modernism.


Michael Windover, PhD, is Associate Professor and Head of Art & Architectural History in the School for Studies in Art and Culture at Carleton University in Ottawa.

 

[1] AC tubes were famously pioneered by Ted Rogers in Canada and began hitting the market in 1925. For more on the development of the first all-electric and Rogers’ company, see Ian Anthony, Radio Wizard: Edward Samuel Rogers and the Revolution of Communications (Toronto: Gage Publishing for Rogers, 2000). It is worth noting that battery-powered radios remained popular through the 1930s, particularly in non-electrified portions of rural Canada.


[2] Anne F. MacLennan, “Women, Radio Broadcasting, and the Depression: A ‘Captive’ Audience from Household Hints to Story Time and Serials,” Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 37, no. 6 (2008): 618.


[3] Donica Belisle, Retail Nation: Department Stores and the Making of Modern Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011).


[4] Herbert Chase, “New Plastic Materials for Cabinets,” Electronics 10 (November 1937): 28. The article is reproduced on “Radio Plastics Explained,” Classic Radio Gallery, accessed 27 February 2022, http://classicradiogallery.com/plastic.html, along with some other fascinating print images from the era.


[5] Rachel Gotlieb and Cora Golden, Design in Canada: Fifty Years from Teakettles to Task Chairs (Toronto: Design Exchange and Key Porter Books, 2004), 148.

 

Image Credits


Emerson model 108, c. 1936. Author’s collection. Photo: Rebecca Windover


RCA Victor Little Nipper (model 9TX5), c. 1938. Author’s collection. Photo: Rebecca Windover