Some time back we had the pleasure of interviewing a man who was in the "bootleg" radio business in New York City during the early Thirties. The gentleman did not want his name published, but had no objection to our printing his story. For convenience, we will call him "Morris" (not his real name).
Morris began his interest in radio during the early Twenties and one of his first jobs was with a radio repair concern in New York City. NYC at that time used direct current electricity to supply its homes and businesses, and this led to many people using some form of a filter on the line to enable them to use this dc source to replace the "B" batteries in their radios. Morris saw an opportunity to make some money and did so by manufacturing these "B" eliminator filters. He recalled using the primary winding of Model T Ford ignition coils as the filter chokes. These coils were almost as common as dirt since every Ford used four coils, and there were millions of Model T Fords. The filter unit was placed in a box then filled with tar so no one knew just how the thing was made.
One thing led to another, and by about 1932 Morris went into the radio manufacturing business. License? What was that? In fact, he and the many other similar operations knew about licenses but in general if they didn't get too large, nobody really bothered them. To play it safe, though, Morris operated under several names (fourteen, he recalled), at several addresses. Furthermore, Morris kept away from the offices as much as possible, "just in case." Additional protection was had by his "connections" which would give some warning if RCA's attorneys were about to serve notice. With this warning, the manufacturing location could be moved before the notice could be served.
Morris acted as his own salesman, selling to a number of businesses on New York's famous Cortlandt Streetthe "radio row" of the cityas well as to other firms. Deals were made in person, for the most part, with the price determined by the market at the moment. In general, he said his radios sold for about $5.00 to the dealer, complete and boxed. Competition was rough during the depression, and at times sets might be sold at a loss if one needed the money. The loss could be made up later.
The radios were AC-DC four-tube table models for the most part. Initially, if his memory served him (Morris was in his eighties and says things didn't work as well as they used to!), they used tubes like '39s, '43s and such. Later versions, all using the same circuit, a TRF type with an RF stage, detector, and audio output, plus the rectifier, used later tubes like the 77, 78, 25Z5, ending up with metal types just before he got out of the business. He also made a "Deluxe" model with five tubes, offering more "power." The fifth tube was a dummy with the heater wired in series with the others but having no real function. This was a good way to get rid of weak tubes, adding to the potential profits. The tubes were series connected, of course, to run from the city's mains without the use of a transformer, so only a technician would know this additional tube was a dummy. A resistance type line cord was used to drop the voltage. Herein lies an interesting sideline.
Quite often one of the stores which had purchased his radios would have one on display in the window at a price of, say. $2.95. This was, of course, below the cost. These were "come on" deals and worked like this: A customer would ask to hear the set play, and upon hearing it would decide to take it. The dealer would then un-plug the set, breaking the resistor cord in the process; pack it in the box, collect the money and give it to the buyer. When the customer got home the set wouldn't play, yet he knew he had heard it play at the store. Back to the store where he was told that his set was the only one they had, and that they would have to send it to the factorywhich they would be pleased to do. The set would be set aside and after a few weeks the customer would want satisfaction. Well, it sure wasn't the dealer's fault that the shoddy manufacturer didn't fix the set right away but, fortunately, the dealer did have a better set in stock, and the customer could apply his $2.95 towards the better model. Before he knew it he had purchased another, similar yet different, set for perhaps $15.00.
Morris manufactured his radios under any name the customer wanted. His house brand name was "Royal" but other names like "Pilco," "PCA" and similar corruptions of known brand-names were often used. After the demise of Majestic (Grigsby-Grunow), the Majestic name became quite popular for these off-brand sets.
Morris' radios used top grade parts. Capacitors were Dublier. Coils by Chicago Transformer. Tubes from Sylvania. Speakers were supplied by Best, in New Jersey. The chassis were stamped and punched by an outside vendor, by the thousands. (It was. not uncommon to have 10,000 on hand.) Sockets were riveted in place and general wiring was done on an assembly line like system, leaving the expensive components for the final assembly when the sets had actually been sold. Cabinets were supplied by outside vendors; Corbett Cabinet in Pennsylvania being the largest. They made wooden cabinets to Morris' design, with variations from time to time when a "new" or "deluxe" model might be introduced. The cabinets cost, he recalled, about $1.00 each.
One might wonder why RCA couldn't locate the operation through these suppliers. There were several reasons; one being that the suppliers could care less, so long as they got their money. Another was that one of Morris' business names might do the buying at one address, then the items sent to the plant. There was no outward connection between the purchaser and the radio manuacturing operation. With fourteen different firm names, no one could trace anything!
When cash was short it was common practice to work on demurrage; shipments were held at the dock by a shipping company for a small fee, allowing time for Morris to come up with the money. This was cheaper than borrowing the money to pay the COD charges. These were hard times.
Morris had just a few men to do the assembly. They were paid about seventeen cents per completed set. Since the men might spend a week or two on subassemblies (doing the preliminary wiring, etc.) they would be paid a “draw” and then the balance when the sets were sold. During the depression they could, make a fair income; perhaps $15 to $20 a week.
Prompt delivery was one of Morris’ major selling points. During the Christmas season, for example, a customer might want several hundred sets in a hurry because of unusual sales. He might try his usual sources and find them unable to deliver, but Morris could assemble from his in-process stock several hundred receivers in just a few hours.
By about 1937 Morris left the manufacturing industry. Apparently RCA was nipping at his heels. He moved West and went into the retailing end. He remained in the retailing field until retirement a number of years ago.