Radio Sets – Technology or Furniture?

If the Irish Free State was to fully participate in the radio age, then its citizens would of course need to own radios.  This was in itself a new departure in mass media, given that print culture required no special technology in order to participate (although it did require the special skill of literacy, but that had of course become largely taken for granted by the 20thC).  In this sense, the arrival of broadcast media had more in common, for its first generation of users, with the arrival of recorded music their parents’ generation had experienced twenty or thirty years earlier, because it also required the purchase of expensive and perhaps rather intimidating new technology.  The gradual spread of gramophones through middle-class homes from the 1890s (when many department stores, including Arnotts and Pims in Dublin for example, began advertising and selling them) may well have helped to prepare the Irish public for the arrival of radio sets as new media technologies for their homes.

Nevertheless, radios were expensive consumer goods in the 1920s, and there was clearly an understanding among all those involved in establishing Irish national broadcasting that persuading a sufficient proportion of the population to buy a set was a necessary part of radio culture taking hold in the country.  This was perhaps most immediately true of the retailers who initially committed to selling radios, and who could be seen in the mid-1920s working hard to establish them as desirable consumer goods.  Of course the cheapest way to acquire a radio was to build it yourself, as the component parts were relatively inexpensive, especially for the more basic crystal sets of the early 1920s.  The pages of the Irish Radio Journal were full of advertisements for fuses and valves, appealing to this market of early adopters.  However, the number of people with the skill or interest to build their own radios was finite, and if the medium was to expand into the wider population, then they needed to be persuaded to buy a fully-constructed radio from a retailer.

It is noticeable that the range and variety of retail radios being advertised to Irish consumers increased from the start of 1924, once the BBC’s programmes were already within range and the country waited for 2RN to begin broadcasting, reflecting an expansion of interest among the general public.  And some retailers used imaginative means to promote the new technology.  As early as March 1924, the opticians Dixon & Hempenstall (who had branched into selling radios as soon as they arrived on the Irish market) imported a delivery van whose chassis was an exact replica of the Ethophone V model of radio they were then currently selling for the eye-watering price of £37 10/- in their shop.  It drove around the streets of Dublin with speakers attached to its roof, replaying radio broadcasts to passers-by as a taste of what they could experience at home if they purchased a radio.

Looking at advertisements and feature articles for radios during the 1920s and 1930s, you can clearly see that their design rapidly developed its own aesthetic, and one which carefully negotiated both the excitement and anxiety involved for many purchasers in introducing a completely new form of technology into their homes.  This era was one which – in tandem with the spread of electrification into middle-class suburban homes – saw a great many new domestic appliances arriving in Irish homes.  The wonderful ESB archive for example shows many advertisements for electric cookers, irons, and fridges for sale via its showrooms during these years.  These were however all kitchen technologies, and as the idea of ‘domestic science’ took hold as a method for creating more efficient and comfortable homes, technological kitchens were readily accepted (especially as these appliances which were easier and cleaner to use than old kitchen ranges and fires).  The gramophone and then the radio were, however, the first technologies to invade living-rooms, traditionally a soft-furnished sanctuary from such signs of industrialisation and modernity.  Both of these technologies – but especially the radio – insinuated themselves into living-rooms by disguising themselves as furniture, their valves and wiring invisible inside walnut and mahogany cabinets of varying size depending on how upmarket a model the consumer could afford.  Smaller sets sat on table tops like polished wooden workboxes, larger ones were free-standing cabinets the size of a chest of drawers.  If the cutting-edge technology was hidden away, it was in the lines and patterns of their cabinets that radios embraced modernity – they typically displayed the sleek lines and bold patterns of art deco design, and may well have been the first example of modernist design into many Irish homes.  In 1934 for example Pim’s department store in Dublin were advertising ‘table’ and ‘console’ models of Murphy radios for just over £20 and £24 respectively, each displaying only a few discreet controls and one small dial on the face of bold contrasted wood cabinets which were made of ‘walnut and bird’s-eye maple’.  At the same time HMV were marketing combined radio-gramophones for £31, disguised in cabinets of dramatic art deco inlaid marquetry.  Even the Irish state recognised these radios as furniture, as indicated by a 1925 letter to the Evening Herald, complaining that imported radios were taxed at a rate of 33% precisely because ‘being enclosed in wooden cases they will be classed as furniture’.  This made radios very heavily-taxed consumer items indeed, given that buyers were also expected to buy a £1 annual license, the revenue from which was theoretically used to pay for the running costs of 2RN and 6CK.  In actual fact of course, non-payment of licenses was an issue from the very start.  Richard Pine’s excellent history of the early years of 2RN cites an estimation from 1926 that while there were 10,000 sets in the country there were only 3,000 licenses.  Even after the license fee was dropped to 10/- the following year and the number of radios had reached 25,000, only approximately three-quarters of those owners had a license.

The spread of radio ownership during the 1920s and beyond was therefore affected by the cost of sets themselves.  However from relatively early on, radio manufacturers began producing a wide range of models so that the market became very stratified and allowed ‘budget’ models for those with much more limited income.  To take just one example, by 1937 Philco were boasting that they offered 24 different models, the cheapest of which was £7 15/- and was branded as a ‘People’s Set’ because of its relative affordability (it is important to stress that this was still a considerable expense to most households).  However, there were other impediments to the spread of radio across all of Ireland, most significantly the lack of electricity in most rural homes until well after WWII.  Electricity spread fairly swiftly through middle-class homes in cities and towns after the founding of the ESB in 1927 but even then what it meant to ‘have electricity’ might often have meant only lighting and a couple of sockets. The villages and cottages who had been spoken of by officials in the run-up to 2RN’s launch as being the main beneficiaries of Irish broadcasting because of the improving effect it would have on country life frequently had no electricity in their homes until the late 1950s.  For this reason, ‘wet battery’ sets which could be recharged (a service often offered by local garages) were crucial to the spread of radio across rural Ireland, and it is significant that Philco’s relatively cheap ‘People’s Set’ was itself a wet battery model.

Although we have come to think of domestic media such as radios and televisions as being for private family use, this was frequently not initially the case, precisely because of their costliness.  Edward Brennan’s social history of television’s arrival in Ireland during the late 1950s and early 1960s includes many memories of people whose family was the first in their street to buy a television set and found themselves hosting many of their neighbours for particularly popular programmes (an experience which often involved having to feed those neighbours as well, a considerable cost in itself) and similar experiences seem to have occurred for early adopters of radio.  There is a remarkable photograph available on the RTE Archive website from 1933, and captioned ‘neighbours gathered at the house of Christy O’Riordan, O’Neill Street, Clonmel in 1933, to hear the 1933 All-Ireland Senior Hurling Final on Radio Éireann’.  The photograph shows a group of men (and a few children) sitting on the ground in a garden around a large wooden radio which has been moved outside to accommodate the sheer size of its audience, all apparently listening with rapt attention.  Scenes like this, even on a much smaller scale, would have been a frequent social consequence of the gradual spread of radios throughout the country.  They were also of course a cause of that spread, as people experienced broadcasts in other homes and increasingly wanted a radio of their own.  Indeed, this aspect of radio’s spread through the Irish population had even been expressed by the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs at the Wireless Exhibition in November 1925 when he declared (in best salesman fashion), ‘Let every owner of a wireless set allow his friends to hear 2RN’s programmes, and we shall be quite safe, for each non-owner of a set will promptly decide that he must have one.  Christmas will soon be here – the ideal Christmas present is a wireless set complete with licence’.

References

Richard Pine, 2RN and the Origins of Irish Radio (Gill & MacMillan, 2002)

Edward Brennan, A Post-Nationalist History of Television in Ireland (Palgrave MacMillan, 2019).

Irish Broadcasting Hall of Fame Blog, at https://ibhof.blogspot.com/