April 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 3
Mass-produced implements designed to make the owner’s life easier have long been a commonplace in the United States: already in the 1860s there were patent stoves giving more heat and mangles wringing more water out of newly washed clothes. Even the automobile, once Henry Ford produced the Model T, belonged in the category of utilitarian objects whose functioning could readily be understood; and then, just after World War I, came the radio.
Hesitantly at first—the earliest sets were anything but easy to listen to —and under the guise of being just another household gadget, the radio brought magic into the lives of most Americans. It provided entertainment, of course, a new kind of entertainment; it made the news readily and quickly available; and while it was at it, it went on to revolutionize politics. By the thirties this was a recognized fact, and so it stood to reason that what had come to be an essential object would be made to look handsome. The Air King radio on the opposite page embodied the latest in modern design.
Nothing could be more appropriate: the essence of Art Deco, the prevailing style, was in its search for clean, modern, industrial lines. Just at the moment when machines across the land were in fact slowing down or stopping—more than a third of the labor force was unemployed by 1932—the machine aesthetic triumphed. Curlicues were gone: plain curves, semigeometric forms were the order of the day, and so were new, cheap compounds like Bakelite, which provided designers with easily shaped materials and shiny surfaces. As an added convenience, the same design, made in the same mold, could be produced in a variety of appealing colors. The Air King model reproduced here, for instance, also came in a brilliant tomato red and, of course, in black.
Even the vertical thrust of the design is typical of the age that produced some of the best skyscrapers ever, the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building among them. As for the little central dial, it already evokes something technologically advanced and powerful, a trend that has continued to our day of stereo components that look like parts of an airplane cockpit.
That was just right in an era when the prevailing aesthetic was consciously applied to everyday objects, and a new profession, that of industrial designer, was born: how the object looked was just as important as the way it functioned. Radios, like cars, had an aero-dynamic shape (an oddity in the case of the radio ); they, too, came in a vast number of varieties; and they were clad in the most fashionable materials, chrome and mirror among them. Of course, like all fashions, this one ran its course: nothing displeases more than yesterday’s look, and so, as time passed, Art Deco radios, now collected eagerly, seemed the very essence of the passé and the undesirable.
Far more important, though, is the role radio began to play as soon as it became universally available. It would be almost impossible to overstress the isolation in which most Americans lived before the mass media came into being. There were newspapers, of course, and magazines; but outside the big towns they arrived late and could only, at best, describe. With the advent of radio any- one could hear Toscanini conduct or Rudy Vallee sing; ball games could be transmitted as they happened; the news was always the very latest.
Then, too, radio was capable of revealing a great deal. It is one thing to read a politician’s speech, quite another to hear it. The heat, the eloquence of a demagogue was remarkably effective on radio, for a while at least: Father Coughlin, a semifascist anti-Semite, is a good case in point. But soon the public grew sophisticated enough to tell the difference: by 1938 the radio priest from Detroit was only a fading memory. It was, indeed, a more reasonable, caring, and convincing voice that caught the public’s ear for good. When he began his Fireside Chats, FDR did something no President had ever done before: he communicated directly with the American people. It is a measure of his success, and of the public’s ultimate ability to discern hype and insincerity, that Roosevelt remained believable and was, in fact, believed until the very end.
Still, politics is only a part of life. With radio, a new entertainment industry was born. People who had never been inside a theater could now actually hear plays being performed, and sometimes the plays were all the more effective for being unseen.
As a result new stars were made, and older performers lost their popularity. That demure-looking radio changed the world for all those who listened to it, and at the very end of the decade, as Europe was ravaged by war, it was to radio people turned for the latest, the most vivid, news. In its emphasis on a technological look, Art Deco was an optimistic style that looked forward to the future, but from that Air King radio, what the listeners eventually heard was the tale of a world in pain.