Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Powel Crosley, Jr. and Medical Research

During the waning years of the Crosley automobile, Powel Crosley went through a brief illness that left him bed-ridden for time. He continued to work from his bedroom on the second floor of his Pinecroft mansion, even seeing visitors there.

One of the visitors, an account executive from the ad agency handling the Crosley Motors account, was surprised to find Crosley stocking a wide variety of patent medecines, and to see that his bed and its canopy were festooned with cotton balls. After Powel's death, his brother, Lewis remarked that Powel was a real nut for patent medecines and oddball cures. Perhaps this is why he backed a Cincinnati inventor's patent medicine, which the Crosley Manufacturing Company bottled and sold by mailorder in the early 1920s. (Dick Perry, writing in Not Just a Sound: The Story of WLW, claimed that the medicine was named "Peptikai," but the real name is slightly different. We also referred to it as "Peptikai" in CROSLEY. I'll post it later when I find my notes.)
Crosley's commercial interest in things medical went beyond the patent med. There was, for example, the Xervac, a hair-restoring machine that the FCC jumped on, forcing Crosley to withdraw claims as to it effectiveness. Powel Crosley also backed a medical researcher in the 1930s and 1940s. The researcher was Dr. George Sperti, who developed "Preparation H," and other cures.

Sperti did extensive work with tropical and sub-tropical plants in Florida, stating that he was on the track of a cure for tuberculosis (which would kill Crosley's first wife, Gwendolyn), and even cancer. He came up with several burn ointments and some citrus by-products. At one point Crosley was going to give his Sarasota mansion, Sea Gate, to Sperti as a research base. This was in 1946, seven years after Mrs. Crosley had died there. For whatever reason, Crosley ended up selling the mansion. Sperti had, by then, gained the support of the Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati. This was dropped a few years later, the event surrounded by rumors of misspent money.
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

Monday, October 29, 2007

Crosley and the American Austin

As many auto enthusiasts know, the American Austin and the American Bantam preceded the Crosley automobile in the pantheon of economy cars in the U.S. The Austin Motor Company of England began making the diminutive American Austins here in 1930.

Powel Crosley, Jr. owned a least one American Austin (the predecessor of the Bantam). He kept the Austin at his Florida estate, Sea Gate. Neill Prew, the son of the realtor who sold Crosley the 63 acres on which Sea Gate was built, remembers that the first time he saw Powel Crosley, the radio magnate was in his American Austin.

Prew, who was 8 years old at the time, remarked that, "He looked like a whole bunch of clowns climbing out of that little car." This confirms that Crosley had some enthusiasm for diminutive autos, and it's easy to imagine him thinking in terms of the novelty value of a really small car. One of Crosley's biggest marketing strategies was to be different, and a tiny car certainly fit that criterion. By 1935, when Crosley was developing the first pre-War Crosley automobile, the American Bantam had supplanted the failed American Austin, but was about to fall on hard times. To Crosley this may have represented a hole in the automobile market--a hole that he felt he could fill and exploit.
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Crosley Items Ebb and Flow on eBay

For a time earlier this year there seemed to be an increase in the the number of Crosley items on eBay. That includes cars and auto-related items, appliances, radios, books, magazines, etc. The number has dropped by about 20 percent in recent months. I think the increase was probably due to the publication of CROSLEY, which was published in November, 2006.

As the number of Crosley items offered fell off, I noticed a trend toward lower prices. The Simplicity of Radio, by Powel Crosley, Jr., for example, is selling for a quarter of what it was bringing a couple of years ago. It's possible that increased awareness of the Crosley name resulted in more people putting Crosley items up for sale on eBay, and thereby satisfying the market. The diminished market course means less competitive bidding, which knocks the heck out of prices.

I've seen this happen with other books, and I'll be following this phenomenon as other books on collectibles and history (including two of mine coming out in 2008) hit the market. This could lead to a new marketing strategy: if you have a large collection of a specific kind of item, try to get a book for collectors on the market, to increase awareness and drive up demand. If you can't produce a book, keep an eye out for forthcoming books that may affect the demand for your items.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Another Auto Accessories Manufacturer Who Switched to Radio

In the late 1920s, the name Atwater Kent was almost as big as Crosley. And it remains a big name among collectors today. Atwater Kent company founder Arthur Atwater Kent was, like Powel Crosley, Jr. a successful automobile accessories manufacturer and marketer before he got into radio. Kent got into electrical manufacturing in 1895 (fans and motors), and in the early 1910s expanded into automotive electrical connectors. He next perfected several automobile ignition systems and other electrical devices that made him wealthy.

In 1924 Kent decided to get into the burgeoning radio field. He took a cue from Crosley and decided make his product really different. He accomplished this by selling radios without cabinets. In the earliest days, nearly all radios had been sold without cabinets, and it was left to the buyer to buy or build a cabinet. The industry was moving away from this in 1924, building radios in cabinets that doubled as fine furniture with complex veneers and trendy designs.
So, a radio without a cabinet was something different. But Atwater Kent radios weren't simply ugly radio components mounted on a board. Kent designed his radios to be objects of beauty, like the one shown here. All the wood, brass, and ceramic components were highly polished, and some were enclosed. The overall effect was pleasing, and expensive. The idea of making his radios really different--along with spending %500,000 on advertising in 1924--put him and his company on the map, and Atwater Kent quickly became a major brand.

Once Atwater Kent radios were established, Kent left the "breadboard" design started building sets in cabinets, like all the other manufacturers. He continued to promote his radios in a manner similar to that of Crosley. He bought full-page ads in newspapers and magazines to tell "The Atwater Kent Story," and even established an NBC Network radio program, "The Atwater Kent Hour."

In the midst of the Great Depression, Arthur Atwater Kent decided to pack it in and retire--no doubt much to the relief of Crosley, RCA, and other manufacturers. He shut down his factories in Philadelphia (where he had been a noted philathropist) and moved to Hollywood, California, where he continued his tradition of philanthrophy and hung out with clebrities until his death in 1949.
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

Friday, October 26, 2007

Two Pioneers on Similar Paths to Radio

Back in 1898, Powel Crosley, Jr. and his brother Lewis made their first run at building an automobile. As detailed in CROSLEY, they based it on an old buckboard wagon stored in their maternal grandfather’s barn, and powered it with a scrounged electric motor and batteries.

They weren’t the first to motorize a buckboard, as the photo on the left shows. This was California radioman Earle C. Anthony’s first shot at building a car, at the age of 16. (On the right is Powel's 1927 sketch from memory of his electric-powered buckboard. Click for larger image.)

Anthony and Crosley had quite a few things in common in addition to their electric buckboards. Not the least of which was the fact that each was into automobiles in a big way. Both men made a lot of money in the automotive business before turning to radio. Anthony was the largest Packard dealer on the West coast (in fact, he had several dealerships), and eventually owned a large percentage of the Packard company, which put him into automobile manufacturing, where Crosley wanted to be. Crosley, of course, made his first small fortune in the automobile accessories business.

In 1923 Anthony became interested in radio, and followed Powel Crosley, Jr. along the trail the latter had blazed. Already wealthy from Packard, Anthony built a radio transmitter and receiver on his kitchen table, got an amateur’s license, and not long after that he founded radio station KFI in Los Angeles. KFI followed WLW in going to 50,000 watts (though it never reached 500,000 watts). Ironically, Earle C. Anthony passed away in 1961, the same year as Powel Crosley, Jr.
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Powel Crosley & the 20th Century Video

Those who live in the Cincinnati area may recall public television station WCET (Channel 48) showing the mini-documentary, Powel Crosley, Jr. and the 20th Century earlier in 2007. The video was produced in 1986 and first aired in 1988, and has the usual percentage of errors that you'll find in most magazine articles and other works about Crosley published before 2006. The folks who put this together seem to have relied on legends and things "everybody knows," rather than doing the necessary research.

Narrated by Bill Nimmo (himself a WLW announcer and local TV legend), the video is a decent summary of Powel's life. The documentary has been shown rarely over the past two decades, and the 2007 broadcast was inspired by the appearance of CROSLEY: Two Brothers and a Business Empire that Transformed the Nation.

The production values are local-TV grade, which is to say not the best. Producer Gene Walz, perhaps the best in Cincinnati at the time, apparently did the what he could with the equipment and probable small budget he had to work with.

Surprisingly, there is no video of Powel himself--only still shots. (Video footage of Powel Crosley, Jr. does exist.) But the interviews with his sister, Edythe, and grandson, Lewis L'Hommedeau Crosley, are really good, and shed quite a bit of light on Crosley's personality. Segments with Crosley friend, neighbor, appliance dealer, and collector Bill Angert add a lot to the production.

Two slightly overdone fantasy sequences show a slice of life in the 1890s and the origin of the song "Moon River." For the latter, actors and actresses were hired and placed in a shadowy barroom setting to play out a scene in which prostitutes were supposedly reduced to tears by the words to the song as a Crosley employee wrote them. It was a nice vignette, but, unfortunately, the story is a fabrication.

Still, the video is well is worth seeing. It's completely enjoyable. But it's not easy to find. Crosley Automobile Club members can borrow the Club's copy. A few libraries have copies, but nobody is selling it online, perhaps because WCET is the sole distributor and the video wasn't produced in large quantities. WCET itself doesn't appear to be offering Powel Crosley, Jr. and the 20th Century, but if you contact the station you can probably buy one. Last time I checked, the suggested donation was $60.
CREDITS: Producer: Gene Walz. Director: Taylor Feltner. Writer: Thomas Ashwell. Financed by a grant from the Crosley Foundation (now dissolved).
Copyright 2007, Michael A. Banks

Monday, October 22, 2007

Crosley Pomotional Stunts

When Powel Crosley, Jr. was working for auto dealer Carl Graham Fisher in Indianapolis in the early 1900s, he was exposed to some ideas and attitudes about promotion that stuck with him for the rest of his life. Fisher, a bicycle dealer who expanded into automobiles and became one of the country’s largest auto agencies, was famous for doing things like pushing a car from the top of a three-story building to the street below, then driving it away. In another stunt, he floated a car across Indianapolis on a balloon. Eventually, he stunted his way into history as the driving force behind the Lincoln Highway, the Dixie Highway, the Indiapolis Motor Speedway, and the development of Miami Beach. (For more info on Fisher, see this biography: The Pacesetter, by Jerry Fisher.)

Decades later, Crosley was pulling similar stunts to draw attention to his products. Some are detailed in CROSLEY, but most aren't. For example, in the 1920s Crosley bought and rented aircraft to perform “special deliveries” of the latest Crosley radio sets to dealers around the country (in small quantities, of course). The airplanes were bannered -C-R-O-S-L-E-Y- on wings and fuselages, and when newspapers flocked to the photo opportunities Crosley got the free publicity he was after. And in 1947 when Cincinnati’s Terrace Plaza Hotel was being completed, he arranged for a Crosley pickup truck carrying an American flag to be hoisted 19 stories to the top of the building, where the flag was transferred to a flagpole. Crosley also set up less-dramatic stunts, such as the double-parked 1947 Crosleys shown in the accompanying photo, the cop scratching his head over how or if he should ticket a cars for sharing a space.
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Crosley Events for October, November, and December, 2007 (and early 2008)

For those who may be interested, I have these speaking engagements coming up in October, November, and December, 2007, and into 2008:
At each talk, I'll be sharing new facts and stories about Crosley autos, radios, the Crosleys themselves, and more. I'm bringing a number of Crosley artifacts from my collection to each program. Looking ahead, here's a partial lineup for 2008:
  • In April, 2008, I will be giving a talk at the Cincinnati Old Time Radio Convention.
  • May 2-4, 2008, I'm doing a Crosley presentation at the Early Television Convention, in Hilliard, Ohio.
  • June 6 & 7, 2008, I am the keynote speaker at the Mid-Atlantic Antique Radio Club's annual gathering (this is a large regional organization). Unless something else gets in the way, I hope to be at the Crosley Automobile Club's annual meet in July.
More to come. In the meantime, listen for me on WLW.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007, Green Township Branch Cincinnati Public Library, Cincinnati, 7:00 PM. Tom Miller will be there with his 1948 Crosley Station Wagon! (No charge. Call 369-6095 to register.)

Edison Inventors' Group, Fort Myers, Florida

Thanks to everyone who came out for the meeting of the Edison Inventors Group at the Thomas Edison Museum in Fort Myers, Florida, Wednesday October 17. This is an impresive group, with over 80 members at that meeting. They're a real hands-on organization, with lots of experts willing to educate and train others. Anyone in the area who is an inventor or wants to be an inventor should join.
For a map, contacts and additional information, click here. Or call (239)-275-IDEA (4332).\


Sunday, October 14, 2007

Voice of America, Bethany Relay Station

One of Crosley Broadcasting's lesser-known yet far-reaching projects was the construction of the Voice of America (VOA) facility next to the WLW transmitter site at Mason, Ohio. (Actually, it was located in Bethany.) Later on, I'll post an article about the site that I wrote in 1983. For now, here's a photo from the site. The view is looking out from beneath the antenna switching center (hoe handles were used to move giant knife switches) to a portion of the antenna array.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Bridge and Whist by Radio!

In the broadcast world of the 1920s, Powel Crosley, Jr. was best-known for WLW. However, he owned two other stations before World War II. One was WSAI.

WSAI was established by the United States Playing Card Company of Cincinnati in 1923, as a means of promoting the game of Bridge (along with Whist and other card games). Advertising still wasn't common, but U.S. Playing Card executives were aware of the potential of radio for reaching the masses. So the company applied for and received a commercial broadcast license. Programming alternated between live bridge games and musical acts. Surprisingly, the station helped sell playing cards--enough to more than earn its keep. That is, until 1928, by which time advertising had become commonplace and it was possible to reach farther than WSAI with the NBC network, at less expense. Powel Crosley, Jr. bought the station, whose transmitter was at the site where WLW's 500,000-watt transmitter and the disinctive diamond radiator antenna would be built. (The antenna is still in use, and WLW's current transmitter is on the same site.) The image here is a 1924 WSAI magazine advertisement, requesting listeners to tune in at specific times to listen to a famous foursome play Bridge. Players' initial hands were listed in the ads, too, so listeners could follow along with their own play at home. Whist and other games were played, too. (Click the image to see a larger version.)
Copyright © 2007, Michael A. Banks

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Crosley Program in Fort Myers, Florida, October 17

For anyone who may be in the area, I'll be speaking at a meeting of the Edison Inventors Group at the Thomas Edison Museum in Fort Myers, Florida, Wednesday October 17.
I'll be speaking about Powel Crosley, Jr. as an inventor and entreprenur. The meeting begins at 7:00 PM. For a map, contacts and additional information, click here. Or call (239)-275-IDEA (4332).

The Crosley Amerinola Phonograph (Pre-Radio)

As discussed in this post, the Crosley Manufacturing Company was building phonographs before Powel decided to get into making radio parts and radio receivers. Herewith, two ads for Crosley's phonographs. On the left is an Indiana retailer's ad for the "Amerinola" phonograph. As noted earlier, the name was changed to "Marion" shortly after it was introduced in 1920. The ad on the right, circa 1921, is for the Marion, offered at a dollar down and a dollar a week! Click for a larger image.

Monday, October 1, 2007

WLW Radio 1938 Mobile News Units

WLW was big on mobile news coverage coverage in the 1930s. The station equipped large automobiles with transmitters, and reporters went out to cover breaking news in the region. Two units are shown here--one a newsman interviewing champion Indy driver Louis Meyers at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway early in 1938, the other supporting an interview with Eastern Kentucky coal miners. Lettered on the side are "WLW-WSAI, Cincinnati, Mobile Unit No. x." This appears to be a Buick Series 40 trunkback sedan.

This was not new in the 1930s. I have a photo of an early 1920s mobile rig that I'll post at another time. I also have some fascinating images of the outside and inside of WLW-TV's first mobile unit, a 1948 bus.