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Radio a la Cortlandt Street!
September 1932 Radio-Craft

September 1932 Radio-Craft

September 1932 Radio Craft Cover - RF Cafe[Table of Contents]

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles from Radio-Craft, published 1929 - 1953. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.

New York City has forever, it seems, been the place to be for street vending. A famously large pedestrian populace creates an ideal venue for hacking goods of all sorts to passers-by. A phenomenon in radio was created in the early 1930s with the rapid advances in technology and high volume manufacturing techniques, coupled with increasingly efficient transportation of goods on interconnecting roadways and delivery trucks. The photos included in this 1932 Radio-Craft magazine story illustrate the level of enthusiasm by the public for radio. A plethora of replacement components for repairing malfunctioning sets and for scratch-built sets at fantastically low prices helped fuel the fire. An offer of "aluminum chassis" with pre-punched and drilled holes was really surprising not because of the holes, but for the claim of aluminum as the chassis material. I thought all the early radio chasses were made of sheet steel, since aluminum was relatively scarcely found in consumer products.

Radio a la Cortlandt Street!

Sidewalk display, at the corner of Cortlandt and Washington Streets, is typical of New York's Radio Row - RF Cafe

"Pick 'em out yourself! the prices are all marked." This sidewalk display, at the corner of Cortlandt and Washington Streets, is typical of New York's Radio Row.

By Robert Hertzberg

There is no city in the world that has a Radio Row comparable to New York's Cortlandt Street. To the great army of Service Men outside of New York City, this article is dedicated. Read it and weep!

Any set - 25 cents." This crudely crayoned, yard-square sign, stuck on a heap of once-expensive broadcast receivers, thoroughly exemplifies the spirit of New York's famous "Radio Row," where there are more radio shops per square foot than anywhere on earth. The stores themselves are not big enough to hold all the cut-price merchandise offered to the passing crowds, so they disgorge their surplus onto the narrow sidewalks. Here loud-voiced barkers exhort the cash customers not to overlook the wonderful bargains, and at the same time they keep a sharp lookout for the light fingered gentry to whom the low prices mean nothing.

The whole district has a sort of carnival atmosphere, with only the music, the kootch dancers and the freaks missing. What, you exclaim, no music on Radio Row? Until a few years ago every store kept two or three powerful sets running from morning to night, but the din was so terrific that the city was forced to pass a municipal ordinance to curb it. Where once the roar of the nearby elevated was completely obliterated by the output of 12-inch dynamic speakers, today the receivers in the windows stand altogether silent. Demonstrations are given in private rooms, with soft lights and artificial flowers lending a much needed air of respectability.

The main axis of Radio Row is Cortlandt Street, on which the majority of the stores are located. The two blocks between Greenwich Street and West Street (which runs along the Hudson River), are practically solid with radio stores, with the exception of a few interlopers, such as beverage dispensaries, and an empty bank. On Greenwich and Washington Streets, which cross Cortlandt, and on Liberty Street, one block south, and Telegram Square, one block north, are dozens of additional stores. Some are mere holes in the wall, perhaps eight feet deep and five feet wide; others are really fine places with balconies and plenty of aisle space.

honest-to-goodness photo of a Washington Street sidewalk - RF Cafe

This is an honest-to-goodness photo of a Washington Street sidewalk. The sign is no joke; you can take away any set you like for one quarter, no more, no less.

Why Cortlandt Street?

Just how or why the district assumed its present identity no one knows. A factor of undoubted importance is the location of a string of ferry slips at the foot of Cortlandt Street, from and toward which New Jersey bound commuters stream by the thousand twice a day. During the week the "Street" is filled with normal New York crowds, but on Saturday afternoons it is well nigh impassable, for radio men from the entire metropolitan district come down to do their weekly buying.

A casual tour from store to store soon reveals the attractions that have crowded Radio Row for ten years. On Washington Street between Telegram Square and Cortlandt Street the visitor finds himself tripping over chasses by the dozen, with the most absurd prices marked on them. Look at the heap pictured below, with the "Any Set 25 cents" sign in plain view. Shades of departed glory! Here we find Radiola second-harmonic superheterodynes that once sold for $200; old three-dial Grebe's with their beautiful workmanship; Freshman Masterpieces, with one R.F. coil missing; Stromberg Treasure Chests, once the finest radio instrument in existence - and others too numerous to mention.

Move along a few feet and you encounter a line-up of cabinets, some with sets still in them. Look at that yard-long Fada, marked $1.00! Or the Philco midget for 50 cents! Of course, everything is sold "as is" and refunds are unknown, but who can go wrong or a mere quarter when one socket or transformer may earn two or five dollars in a repair on a customer's set of the same make?

A sidewalk display at the corner of Washington and Cortlandt Streets draws the visitor because the apparatus looks pretty clean. An Amrad screen-grid job for $11.50, Atwater Kent Compacts for $2.50 and $3.95, Exide batteries that you can't even lift, for $4.50. This is all workable apparatus, not junk.

And parts! Stuff that you thought went out of existence in '18 finds space alongside of pentode output transformers and make believe the boys aren't buying! You don't even have to go inside a store to do your shopping, as in many places the counters are right on the street, with big items like chasses and loudspeaker baffles hanging invitingly in open sight.

Cabinets, with and without sets, 50 cents and up - RF Cafe

Cabinets, with and without sets, 50 cents and up! The center set at the bottom, marked $1.00, once sold for about $275. No refunds; you pay your money and take your chances. 

Radio Row's latest boom - auto radio - RF Cafe

Radio Row's latest boom - auto radio. Service Men are enjoying considerable business in this field. A little thing like a fire hydrant doesn't annoy these men at all.

Look at these prices for aluminum chassis - RF Cafe

Why go into a store. Just gather your parts on the run. Look at these prices for aluminum chassis! 25 cents, 75 cents, 85 cents, and all cut, drilled and bent.

Watching an auto radio receiver being installed on Cortlandt Street - RF Cafe

A common scene on Cortlandt Street: watching an auto radio receiver being installed. Note the sign on the top of the car. Plenty of interest, and plenty of business.

A Radio Paradise

The variety of the parts available is beyond belief, and is amazing to the man who has grown up on mere catalogs. From the Service Man's standpoint the district is a virtual paradise, because in it he can find pretty nearly everything that was ever made in radio, from the year one and on. This is by no means an exaggeration. One famous store, hardly wide enough to accommodate two people but running three stories high, will sell you pre-war loose couplers and electrolytic detectors in their original factory cartons also fixed spark gaps, coherers, oscillation transformers, and absolutely any ancient part you can think of. Only a few steps off the busy waterfront, it is a meeting place for radio operators from all over the world.

They come in to buy spare or replacement parts for their private short-wave receivers, for their captains' broadcast sets, and for the sets of friends and relatives in remote places where an extra tube or filter condenser may save months of boredom or loneliness. They often leave souvenirs in the form of tropical fish, South Sea Island shells, Japanese fans, etc., which help to dress up the window displays.

Don't get the idea from the foregoing that only obsolete junk is on sale along Cortlandt Street. Far from it. The street boasts a number of flouncy stores, with canopies 'n everything, where you can see, hear and buy the very latest superhets with two or more loudspeakers, and where you can be waited on by polite salesmen who actually wear coats and speak English.

Auto Radio Booming

The Street attracts the ordinary radio buyer as well as the professional worker, for here a prospective purchaser can look over everything the market has to offer without walking more than two blocks from the subway and "L" stations at the corner of Cortlandt and Greenwich Streets. Some of the stores with small fronts have considerable display space inside, where a bewildering array of receivers ranging from tiny midgets to big phonograph combinations awaits the customer. One firm has just taken over an old movie theatre, and by removing the seats, covering the screen with big posters, and building up wall and floor displays, has created a permanent little radio show all its own. The former balcony serves as a convenient and accessible stockroom.

The latest development along Radio Row is automobile radio. It is an inspiring sight to the visiting Service Man to see the curbs parked solid with all kinds of automobiles, on, in, and under which one or two men are working. A car owner can leave his machine in front of a store in the morning and drive it away in the afternoon with a complete radio receiver in it. The installation men run A.C. lines out from the stores to the curb, draping them around convenient light poles to prevent passers-by from tripping over them. Oblivious of the curious crowds that gather to watch them work, they dope up ignition wiring, saw out footboards, rip out upholstery for aerials, and snake wires around hot exhaust pipes and steering columns. A lunch hour tour on an average Tuesday revealed more than two dozen cars being fitted with auto radio, right on Telegram Square and Washington and Cortlandt Streets. There must have been as many cars on the side streets.

Taking advantage of the gathering crowds, the store owners put big signs on the tops of the cars, giving prices and descriptions of the auto sets they sell.

Circulars are handed out freely, and business appears to be booming.

Special Service Station

So far the police have been obligingly tolerant of the curbside activities, but traffic being what it is in lower New York, some of the store owners are making other provisions for their rapidly expanding auto-radio business. One man, now occupying a large store, has rented an adjoining one, which he plans to equip as a special auto-radio service station. The car owner, instead of leaving his machine at the curb to the not-so-tender mercies of the curious onlookers, will drive it right into the store, where it will be fitted with a receiver in jig time. This arrangement is the answer to the question that has perplexed auto-radio manufacturers for so long: should auto sets be installed by auto mechanics who have only a faint notion of what it is all about, or by competent radio Service Men who know just what they are doing?

It is an unusual auto mechanic who knows how the third brush on a charging generator works; and he is even more unusual if he can distinguish between the primary and secondary of an audio transformer. A radio Service Man, familiar with the intricacies of superheterodyne power systems, finds an auto ignition system child's play.



Posted January 2, 2023
(updated from original post on 11/2/2015)

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