Though for many it was just a name on an old wooden radio, at one time the Crosley Radio Corporation of Cincinnati, Ohio was one of the giants of American radio production. From the 1920s until shortly after World War II, it ranked, in sales and consumer recognition, with other classic radio manufacturers such as Philco and Atwater Kent.
The company’s story begins in early 1921 when Powel Crosley, Jr. (1886 – 1961), a successful maker of automobile accessories sold via mail, wanted to purchase a radio for his small son Powel III. The radio industry was still in its infancy and consequently prices remained high. The least expensive radio Crosley could find was one manufactured by a Cincinnati firm, the Precision Equipment Company, that sold for $35. Shocked at the cost, Crosley decided instead to learn enough about radio construction and operation to build a receiver himself. Crosley built his son a rudimentary crystal radio, and the process of learning and building caused him to consider radio manufacture as a business venture.
CREATING A COMPANY
Crosley teamed up with a local amateur radio operator, Dorman Israel, to design and manufacture a commercial crystal set. He converted part of his factory operation to radio production and, working from Israel’s design, turned out his first commercial radio set, the Harko Junior. As with his automobile accessory business, Crosley sold the Harko via mail order. Its cost was a more reasonable $20, made possible by adapting mass production methods to manufacture the radios.
A vacuum tube-based version called the Harko Senior soon followed. By 1924, Crosley was producing not only these two models, but also elaborate multi-tube models, and had implemented a dealer network to supplement the mail order business. Crosley was doing well as a manufacturer of radio receiving equipment, but he soon ran into the problem that faced many emerging radio firms. The Radio Corporation of America (RCA) held most of the patents on the better radio circuits, such as the superheterodyne which was quickly becoming the standard for commercial receivers. Those who wished to manufacture radio sets using patented circuits were required to purchase a license from RCA. The problem was that RCA wasn’t in the mood to license very many new competitors.
Just as Bill Halligan of Hallicrafters would do ten years later, Crosley got around the dilemma by purchasing a company that he knew already held an RCA license – none other than the same Precision Equipment Company of the expensive radios. With a name change, the Crosley Radio Corporation was born. The newly named company continued to do well and, for a few years, it was the largest producer of radios in the world – over 5000 a day by one account. Print advertisements trumpeted the many features of a fine Crosley radio, always with the now familiar slogan, “You’re There with a Crosley!”
As the company grew, Powel Crosley began to diversify. He’d already expanded into broadcasting with the construction of radio station WLW in 1922; now his company added major appliances such as refrigerators (the famous “Shelvador”) and electric ranges to the product line. Another innovation was Crosley’s introduction of the first commercial car radio, the Roamio, in the 1930 model offerings. The Roamio was one of Crosley’s most successful models, and demand for it helped make radio a standard feature in automobiles.
When the Great Depression came along, the Crosley Radio Corporation was in a good position to ride it out not only due to the company’s strong cash position, but also because Crosley himself had stayed away from the stock market and was thus unaffected. Unlike other manufacturers that were reduced to selling cheap models just to survive, Crosley was able to continue marketing better-quality radios and appliances, while still keeping them at affordable prices.
Crosley didn’t neglect automobiles, either. Applying what he’d learned as a radio manufacturer, Crosley introduced a low-cost compact automobile in 1939. The Crosley Automobile sold for what was then an affordable $325, direct from the factory. It was designed to be economical and economical it was, getting over 30 miles per gallon of gasoline. Though the automobile was never a best-seller like the company’s radios, many examples have survived and are now prized collectibles.
During World War II Crosley, like most radio manufacturers, converted to wartime production. Along with the usual receiver and transmitter contracts, the company produced, for the United States Navy, a proximity fuse used in shells designed to attack aircraft.
CROSLEY RADIO’S DECLINE AND REBIRTH
After the war, the Crosley Radio Corporation resumed production of domestic radios and appliances. Powel Crosley sold the company to AVCO in 1946, and it became the Crosley Division of AVCO. That year, Crosley entered the television market with a full line of receivers (including the first commercial portable television set in 1954), and as a broadcaster with station WLW-T in Cincinnati. WLW-T would make some history of its own in 1957, when it became one of the first major television stations to broadcast in color.
Crosley remained a major manufacturer of radios, television sets, and appliances throughout the 1950s and well into the early 1960s. As time went on, the company’s fortunes declined somewhat as AVCO turned its interests toward aviation and industrial electronics, and the Crosley brand all but disappeared from dealer shelves. The Crosley name appeared to be headed for history until a group of investors purchased the company in 1976, creating a reborn Crosley Corporation.
The new Crosley Corporation immediately heralded its return by introducing a new version of the venerable Shelvador refrigerator. A complete line of appliances, including modern radio and television receivers, followed in 1978 and continues to the present day, sold through independent distributors. The original Crosley classic radios have been rediscovered as well, with a growing collector network devoted to their restoration.
Young, Anthony, “America’s Forgotten Entrepreneur,” Foundation for Economic Education: The Freeman. <http://www.fee.org/vnews.php?nid=355> (November – December 2004).
Homepage of the Crosley Automobile Club, Inc., <http://www.ggw.org/~cac/index.html> (November 2004).
Crosley Appliances and Distribution, <www.crosley.com> (November – December 2004).
Watson, Jim, Jim’s Crosley Antique Radio Page. <http://www.crosleyradios.com/> (November 2004).
The Powel Crosley Museum, “Industralist, Inventor, Visionary,” Crosley History. <http://www.powelcrosley.com/pages/history.html> (November – December 2004).