Cars, Radios & Appliances: How Powel Crosley Jr. Changed Industries
The brand name Crosley is primarily associated with radios, but behind that vintage sound is a wealth of other product lines, many of which changed their industries. From automobiles, to the first refrigerator with shelves on the door, inventor Powel Crosley Jr’s life was filled with both failures and triumphs, along with many firsts.
Born in Cincinnati, Ohio on September 18, 1886, Crosley built his first car when he was just 13. His lawyer father bet him $10 that his build couldn’t make it a block, so the young boy convinced his brother, Lewis, to invest in the construction of an electric motor (which Crosley designed), and they won.
Crosley graduated from the Ohio Military Institute in 1905. He spent two years at the University of Cincinnati before dropping out to build an inexpensive car, the Marathon 6. Unable to secure adequate funding, the project failed and Crosley went to work at various auto companies.
According to his brother, Crosley was desperate to get into auto manufacturing, and happened upon his first fortune as a result of writing copy for a client in the rubber business during the mid-1910s. At the time, car tires were made of fabric encased in rubber, and the lifespan was only about 3,000 miles. Crosley created a special reliner he called “inside tires” (also referenced as “insyde tires”) and sold them via mail order. When the cord tire was introduced, which increased tire lifespan up to 15,000 miles, Crosley sought out other business ventures.
Crosley also worked building cycle cars, and became convinced that smaller vehicles were more practical and could be produced less expensively. It wasn’t until 1939, though, that the first Crosley Motors, Inc. car was introduced. With a price tag capped at about $350, Crosley sold the car through department stores and appliance dealers. He’d produced just under 6,000 cars before the war effort brought auto production to a halt.
A Radio for Every Home
While his true obsession was with cars, it was radio that actually made Crosley his biggest fortune. In 1920, his son asked him for a radio which, at the time, cost $80 to $100. The high price tag inspired Crosley to develop a five tube receiver, which he marketed with a price of less than $20. By 1922, the Crosley Radio Corporation was one of the world’s largest manufacturers, having sold millions of household radios.
The Crosley Pup radio was introduced in 1925. A small, 1-tube regenerative unit, the Pup sold for less than $10. The low price, in conjunction with a brilliant marketing campaign, made the Crosley Pup an instant hit. A reported 14,000 of them sold in the first five weeks.
Crosley Radio further marketed the Pup by holding unique contests, including one that offered a grand prize of $1,000 to the Pup radio owner who provided the best report of results using the radio over a six-month period. Other prizes included live pedigreed puppies.
Though trained as a lawyer, Crosley had unique and admirable marketing skills. Creating an even bigger market for his radios, he launched the Crosley Broadcasting Corporation in March of 1922. WLW’s station originally operated at 50 watts. Six years later it was broadcasting at 50,000 watts, making it the most powerful radio broadcaster in the world. By reaching millions of more homes, Crosley would sell more and more radios, making the cost of running the station well worth it.
WLW stayed on air through the 1930s, and featured many key entertainers like Red Skelton, Rosemary Clooney, Fats Waller and Doris Day. Crosley also produced soap operas with the sponsorship of Procter & Gamble.
During the late 1930s, the Crosley Reado became the first radio printer. The machine converted radio waves into text and pictures, which would then print. Crosley saw the radio facsimile receiver as “the future”, and in 1939 announced production of 500 receivers for the home. At the time, 13 stations were equipped to transmit pictures to the unit under the Finch system. During the beginning of WWII, Crosley read his own Reado printout every morning.
With a desire to always do more, Crosley’s station was upgraded in 1939 so it was able to broadcast at up to 70,000 watts. However, the FCC forced WLW to downgrade back to 50,000 watts because the signal was so powerful it interfered with competitors. Power was increased again during WWII, resulting in WLW being heard throughout most of the world.
Appliances, Sports & TV!
Also in the ’30s, Crosley produced a full line of household appliances, including the Shelvador. The first refrigerator to have shelves on the door was a major game changer. It made Crosley millions, and competitors scrambled to find ways to compete.
Crosley was also big on sports. In 1934, he bought the Cincinnati Reds baseball team, reportedly to ensure the team could remain in the city. Redland Field’s name was changed, and a year later Crosley Field hosted the first MLB night game. In the late ’40s, Crosley’s WLW-T was broadcasting games via television.
The War Effort & Beyond
During WWII, Crosley’s plants were transitioned to build military radios, radar equipment, bombsights and bomber turrets. The company continued to run ads in magazines as a means to keep consumers aware of its products so it could hit the ground running when production of appliances picked back up.
Post-WWII, Crosley continued to invent and dabble in other markets. In 1945, he sold his company to AVCO, and took a seat on the board of directors. The company would go on for another decade, dabbling in television (WLWT-TV), radios and appliances. The first portable television was a Crosley, introduced in 1954.
One thing Crosley could never shake, though, was the automobile. In 1949, he introduced the famed Hotshot and Super Sports. Unlike traditional car manufacturers, who sold their vehicles primarily through dealership channels, Crosley ran campaigns to sell his cars via appliance stores. Even Macy’s listed Crosley cars in ads, saying, “100 cars can be delivered in 30 days”.
While Crosley’s station wagon line once accounted for a third of wagons produced, by the 1950s, the Crosley’s demand diminished. Today, Crosley cars are considered quite collectible, and an online auto club is dedicated to the make of vehicle. Other product lines, though, have relaunched. While many of these are much more modern, the production and customer service carries on the Crosley tradition.
In 1976, a group of independent distributors bought rights to the Crosley trade name and released a new line of home appliances, including refrigerators, freezers, washers, dryers and dishwashers. These newer appliances are actually manufactured by other big-named corporations, like Whirlpool and Electrolux.
In the 1980s, Crosley Radio began introducing a vintage-inspired line of telephones, turntables, radios and other electronics. In 1998, it released a full-sized jukebox replica, complete with bubble tubes. Throughout the 2000s, and even now, the company continues to introduce replicas and retro-inspired goodies for music and tech lovers.
Today, Crosley brand electronics are gaining popularity because of their vintage styling and modern technology. Replica telephones feature pulse dialing, miniature jukeboxes have iPod docks, and turntables can convert your favorite albums so you can listen to them on a portable MP3 player. For the retro lover, it’s the perfect mix of old and new.
We Can All Learn
Even today we can learn a great deal from Powel Crosley Jr. As creative as he was, Crosley was also brilliant in how he handled funds. Because he continued to invest in his own companies, Crosley’s businesses were in a much better position than most during the Great Depression. This allowed his plants to get right back to business after WWII, and benefit greatly from the post-war boom. He also set a precedent we find admirable in businesses today—producing quality-made products at a lower price, all the while offering a guarantee.
At the time of his death in 1961, Crosley had spent decades raising the bar for several markets. He is touted as such a smart businessman that many companies study his efforts in their quest for success. That includes Crosley’s practice of working with even unknown inventors to bring game-changing products to life.
Here’s a recap of just a few things Crosley introduced from the 1910s to the 1950s. Many of these prompted like manufacturers to watch, itching for an opportunity to compete with his lines.
- the second car radio (he’s sometimes given the ribbon for first, but it was Motorola, actually).
- the first non-electric refrigerator (the Icyball).
- the first refrigerator with shelves on the door (the Shelvador).
- the first push-button radio.
- early radio soap operas.
- the first MLB night game via a lit field.
- the Reado, allowing news broadcasts by radio fax.
- the most powerful radio station (WLW).
If you grew up in yesteryear, did your household feature a Crosley product? Was your Mom or Dad one of the few to drive an early Crosley car? We’d love to hear your memories and see pictures of anything Crosley.