During the glory days of vacuum-tube radios, roughly the late 1920s up to the 1960s, there were a few manufacturers whose products earned them sterling reputations. Any radio historian could talk about RCA, Crosley, Philco, mention a top-of-the-line Atwater Kent or Zenith, or maybe even a budget model Silvertone (Sears’ house brand). However, there was another manufacturer, forgotten today, that carved out quite a little niche by being just a bit unique. That company was the Midwest Radio Corporation of Cincinnati, Ohio. Founded by E. G. Hoffmann sometime around 1920, the company grew from a small maker of tabletop radios to a large manufacturer of ornate radios, chiefly through mail order and direct sales. There was, however, another reason for Midwest’s fame.
Midwest was notorious for the number of tubes they managed to stuff into a radio chassis. They did this not for technical reasons, though – tube count was a selling point! Salesmen of the day might emphasize the sound of a radio, or how beautiful its fine wood cabinet would look in the customer’s home, but most people just wanted to know how many tubes were in the radio. The average consumer, having little knowledge of radio’s inner workings, had seized on this idea as a handy measurement of a radio’s worth. After all, everyone knew more meant better, and of course a radio with lots of tubes just had to be better. It helped, as well, that most Midwest models featured large tuning dials sometimes framed with fancy chrome metalwork.
Though it was widely thought among radio servicemen and engineers that some of those tubes were unneeded or useless, the fact is that every tube on a Midwest chassis had a function. It’s true that, for example, Midwest’s designers might use four or six audio tubes where two would have been sufficient, but still the radios worked nicely and were usually the equal of the other manufacturers’ best efforts.
Purchasing a Midwest radio was usually a two-step process. First, the customer selected a particular chassis; and then they’d select a cabinet to house the chassis, both usually bought direct from the factory. Here’s where Midwest’s advertising got just a bit deceptive – their radios were indeed low-priced, but the quoted price never included the cost of the cabinet. Still, though, on the average a customer could frequently buy a lot more radio for a lower price with a Midwest than they might get from another manufacturer.
Midwest’s cabinets were another story. They were usually large, with interesting multi-veneer designs, sometimes with “futuristic” or art-deco styles, especially during the 1930s. However, cabinetry was where Midwest accomplished most of their money-saving measures. Though the cabinets looked marvelous, if one looked closer they’d notice the thin wood used in the construction. Also, instead of using more expensive screws, glue and nails were used to build the boxes. Midwest skimped a bit on finish as well, using less lacquer than many other manufacturers. Even so, the cabinets had a look about them that few companies could match.
After World War II, Midwest suffered the fate of many radio companies that weren’t able to make it in the post-war market. The company continued to produce radios, though with scaled-down chassis and cabinet designs, and even ventured into television production for a few years. By the late 1950s, Midwest was again a small firm, producing a line of small home appliances and television sets, before it finally faded away.
Today, Midwest radios are a prized item among radio collectors and on eBay.. I have one myself, a large model from 1939 with 17 tubes – and, after restoration, it plays as well or better than any other radio I’ve ever owned!
Simpson, Mike. “The Midwest Radio Museum”, A Bit About The Midwest Radio Company And Its Products. 1998-2003. <http://home.comcast.net/~midwestradiomuseum>. (10 - 12 February 2004) .
The Farmers. “The Farmer's Old Radio Notebook”, The Farmer's MIRACO Notebook. 31 August 2002. <http://www.geocities.com/SiliconValley/3839/Radio/midwest.html>. (10 - 12 February 2004) .