“Static From My Attic” would make a great title for an antique radio blog, but, it is just a coincidence that this month Andy Senior mentioned a recent purchase of several 1920’s era battery radios in his column going by that name. An alert reader noticed a familiar model among the radios he listed and sent us a letter which began:
From Norton Bell, Palo Alto, California:
I was surprised to read in your column that you had a Pfanstiehl radio.
My father was the manager of the tiny company in North Chicago IL.
They had a few employees and made battery operated radios and a few with AC power supplies.
They couldn’t compete with the newer AC sets and went out of business about 1932. My father lost his job and we had very hard times during the depression.
We had a Pfanstiehl radio in our living room I recall in about 1935.
Do you have a photo of your radio and any information about it??
Carl Pfanstiehl was an independent entrepreneur and was wealthy.
When the economy improved a little my father, Oscar Bell, went back with Carl & they operated a small business until about 1950.
In those days only a few completed high school. My mother used to say proudly “Your father is a high school graduate!” Things have changed.
Upon receiving this letter Andy took some pictures of the radio in question.
Battery operated “Farm Radios” like these were popular in the 1920’s. Huge swathes of the country were yet to be electrified. They ran on two, and sometimes three, different voltages, requiring multiple batteries. In addition to this cabinet, containing the radio’s tuning mechanism, you would also need those batteries, an external antenna, and a separate speaker.
Many of the earliest radios weren’t made with speakers in mind, they used headphones, it wasn’t yet the communal experience radio would become. The speakers they did have were essentially headphone drivers with acoustic amplification. In this video, which walks through the operation of another Pfanstiehl Model, you can see the base of one of these early speakers on the right. (Begins about 4:38) It looks like a cygnet style phonograph horn which is essentially all it is.
He went on to Provide us with a more personal history:
I was drafted into the Navy in 1944 a few days after I completed high school in Libertyville IL.
The GI Bill provided my education at the University of Illinois. I ended up at Hewlett Packard Company in Palo Alto CA and retired there in 1988.
I have played bass since 1938 in symphonies, dance bands & more. For the last 20 years, I have played in a ragtime orchestra, Paul Price’s Society Orchestra.
We used to play at ragtime festivals all over but now play only in the SF Bay area.
We played at the Scott Joplin festival in Sedalia MO & the Sacramento Ragtime festival several times & more.
Norton Bell, Palo Alto CA
We found a story about Paul Price’s Society Orchestra. It was already well established, and with Bell on bass, in 1995.
Currently, they host a monthly dance where you are as likely to see the one-step or fox-trot as any lindy moves. It looks like good clean fun for anyone in the Bay Area.
Here’s a Dance Blog About One Of The Castle House Events
And finally here’s some video of the band in action:
Norton Bell was kind enough to send us other youtube links, to the original recordings of the songs they played at their June show, and it is a great setlist, but he introduced them better than we ever could have, so here it goes:
Here are Youtube links for the tunes that we played Sunday afternoon, 6-17-18, at our monthly Tea Dance.
Paul Price’s Society Orchestra (of Palo Alto, Calif.) brings the original vintage sounds of pop music from the early 20th Century alive for modern listeners and dancers. Timeless standards and long-forgotten gems are played with historical accuracy and verve and spirit.