By the late 1930s the vast majority of American households had a radio. So how were radio manufacturers supposed to expand their market? By insisting that the ideal American home has a radio in every room. Sometimes that meant putting radios in the latest appliances — like right inside every American’s favourite new gadget, the mechanical refrigerator.
Jesse Walker, author of the book Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America, pointed me to this rather novel invention from 1937 — the refrigerator-radio combination unit. This may seem like an odd marriage of tech, but it makes perfect sense when you realise that it in the 1930s it was becoming harder to sell new radios and much easier to sell new fridges.
Despite the Great Depression, America saw an explosion of mechanical refrigerator ownership during the 1930s. In 1930, just 8 per cent of American households had a fridge. By the end of the decade, nearly half of American homes had one.
But the market for radios was pretty saturated in the late 1930s. Over 80 per cent of American households had a radio by the end of the decade. So radio set manufacturers tried to insert their products into new places that from the vantage point of the future, we can see didn’t pan out (like refrigerators) and others that did (like cars).
From the August 1937 issue of Modern Mechanix magazine:
A refrigerator equipped with a built-in radio has been placed on the market. So popular was the first model that the manufacturer has made available a choice of several models in different sizes equipped with radio. This has been accomplished by having the radio mounted in the top of the refrigerator, and having the refrigerator constructed so that a top equipped with radio may be substituted for one without.
It has been said that the housewife spends sixty per cent of her time in the kitchen. Now by having a radio installed in the refrigerator, she may listen to her favourite program while working.
Because most radios are placed in the living room, one or two rooms from the kitchen, usually the housewife, when she is in the kitchen, finds it necessary either to miss a program or turn the volume up to a point where it is objectionable to the rest of the family. With this popular combination the housewife may work and listen at the same time.
Of course, combining a radio and a refrigerator was never a terribly useful idea. Simply placing a radio in the kitchen worked just as well, and presumably was a much cheaper option.
For the rest of the 20th century, this radio-refrigerator combo may have seemed quite silly. But with today’s rise of the internet of things and our fridges talking to our toasters talking to our cereal boxes, one has to wonder if the future might have a good chuckle about our desire to mash-up technologies that seem like they perhaps don’t need to be mashed up.
Picture: From the August 1937 issue of Modern Mechanix magazine at the blog Modern Mechanix