by Doug Heimstead
Mirrored radios have always been treasured by vintage radio collectors. They are a combination of beauty and function, making them uniquely desirable. The Sparks-Withington Company (Sparton) produced some of the most interesting mirrored radios from 1935 to 1939, and their radios are the subject of this article.
In 1900, the Withington brothers founded the root of the company in Jackson, Michigan. They began by making small metal parts for farm tools, buggies and early automobiles. Captain William Sparks joined the company in 1920 and, in 1922, the name Sparton emerged.
Sparton introduced its first battery operated radio in 1926 and produced a series of battery sets in the late twenties. In the early thirties, Sparton produced a few cathedral models and some ornately carved console radios. In 1935, Sparton produced two mirrored radios, the Bluebird and the Nocturne, which nicely complemented its more traditional line of wooden console and table radios.
Like most other radio companies, the production of Sparton commercial products was halted during World War II. After the war, Sparton resumed manufacture of commercial products until the late 1940s. The Sparton Company is still in business today, producing industrial and military electronic products.
The Design of the Sets
In the mid-thirties, Sparton, like many other manufacturers, commissioned an industrial designer to help them design a radio that would have more appeal to the consumer. Sparton hired Walter Dorwin Teague, a prominent designer who, at the time, was also commissioned by Eastman Kodak. Teague worked for Kodak until his death in 1960 and had many interesting products during his lifetime—from the interior design of a Boeing 707 to the front panel of an E.H. Scott 800B radio.
Teague's influence gave Sparton's radios a cool and sleek appearance. The ebony-lacquered wood, chrome accent pieces and colored mirrors provided a simple but very modern style. The asymmetric, geometric shapes and accent designs are distinctively art deco in appearance. The chrome strips on the 557 and 558 radios are strongly reminiscent of the "speed lines" used in art deco illustrations of the period.
The 506 Bluebird
Sparton introduced the Bluebird late in 1935 (See above). It is simply a radio in a wooden box affixed to a 14 1/2 inch-diameter blue mirror with some chrome trim, but as Sparton described it: "The beautiful circle of rich, dark, midnight blue mirror surface slants backwards at an artistically correct angle, concealing a dependable five-tube radio receiver of finest design and construction. The repertoire of the Bluebird embraces not only the usual broadcast programs, but interesting police, airplane and amateur events as well."
As with all of the Sparton mirrored radios, the choice of mirror color could be cobalt blue of old rose (peach). The Bluebird was also sold with an optional plateau mirror—a mirror of the same size and color upon which the Bluebird would sit.
The radio is a typical five-tube, AC-DC, superheterodyne circuit with a resistance line cord. A switch on the back of the set allowed for broadcast or shortwave reception. Please note that this particular radio can be very hazardous. Since the knobs on the front are made of chrome-plated brass, one may plug it in so that the only thing separating the user from the 120-volt power line is a choke in the power supply. If you own a Bluebird and plan to operate it, be sure to read the article by Bill Fox in A.R.C., October 1987: "Owner Safety and the AC-DC Radio." And use an isolation transformer.
The 1186 Nocturne
Sparton introduced the Nocturne early in 1936. This is probably the most spectacular radio ever produced! Selling for $350 (over $10,000 has been offered for these sets today), the Nocturne was not the typical family radio; it was destined for the foyer of some posh hotel. The Sparton ad tells it best: "Daring and brilliant ensemble in glass and metal by Walter Dowin Teague...A circle of midnight blue Tufflex mirror glass rests in a satin chrome cradle...Beautiful stage setting for high-fidelity receiver cleverly concealed behind the chrome barred grille..."
The receiver is a 12-tube, quality-built radio with a 12-inch electrodynamic speaker. It features a tuning eye "Viso-Glo" tube, push-pull audio output, 1 RF and 2 IF stages and an adjustable IF bandwidth control. All of this is behind a 46-inch diameter mirror. The 557 and 558
The Sparton 557, introduced late in 1936, was a departure from the round Bluebird and Nocturne styles. Another classic design, it featured mirrors on the front, top and left side, in contrast to the ebony lacquer finish and chrome-plated accent pieces.
The Sparton 558 was the "deluxe" model. It appeared late in 1937 and was manufactured through 1939. The deluxe version is the same size as the 557, but sports more engraving in the mirrors and a distinctive black line across the front and top mirrors. Both radios are similar in design—five- tube superheterodynes with both broadcast and shortwave tuning. The deluxe model used the newer octal tubes available in 1937. The only real difference in the circuit was the addition of a tone control.
Both radios are a study in motion. The left end is streamlined; the right end has the chrome fins which give the illusion of motion and speed. The lacquer finish on the blue mirrored models is a decorative finish, typical of many items produced in the thirties. The black nitrocellulose lacquer was mixed with naptha and sprayed onto the wooden parts of the radio. Naptha caused the lacquer to dry into a crystalline pattern, similar to ice crystals on a winter windowpane. It is easy to tell if the radio has been refinished, because the distinctive finish will be missing.
A different color scheme was used on the peach mirrored 557 and 558. The wooden body and knobs are finished with a dark chocolate brown lacquer without the crystalline effect. The fins and knob inserts are copper plated instead of chrome. These are much warmer looking than the blue-chrome- black models, but are still very striking in appearance. Sparton's model numbers for the 558 identified the mirror color—blue on the 558-B, peach (copper) on the 558-C.
In 1938, Sparton introduced the last of its mirrored radios, the Model 409-GL, a seven-sided "personal radio." This radio sold for $18.95 and was marketed as a second radio for the den or boudoir in the home. As Sparton tells it: "Here is beveled midnight blue mirror glass modeled in a rhythmic, modern design enriched with touches of silver glints and ebony black. It is a magnificent, artistic coalition of contour and colors...a worthy successor to the widely accepted Sparton Bluebird model...a radio thoughtfully designed to harmonize with all interiors, whether modern or traditional. Truly an original and imaginative gift whose beauty and character are too elusive to be trapped in words."
As companies do not build radios like this anymore, no one writes ad copy like this anymore, either.
The radio is a four-tube, AC-DC, superheterodyne circuit with both a ballast tube and a resistance line cord. The two feet on the radio were finished with black lacquer. A grey flock finish was used on the back of the mirror and the wooden cabinet. This provided a very unobtrusive matte finish.
Final Thoughts for Collectors
These are the mirrored radios which Sparton produced. Many other companies made mirrored radios in the thirties, but none of them could match the flair and classic styles that characterized the Sparton radios.
If you decide to collect them, beware. They are hard to find, very fragile and relatively expensive. The rewards are great though. They are always a pleasure to own and to appreciate intimately. These Spartons are truly the jewels of vintage radios.
Photography by Zone V Productions
I would like to acknowledge the assistance of fellow Sparton enthusiasts Karl Rommel, Ed Sage and Nate Alexander in researching this article.