"Sixty Years of Lafayette Radio" article
I was asked to write this feature article on Lafayette Radio for Monitoring Times in the December 2012 issue. A follow-up article titled Lafayette Surprise: Political Intrigue and Radio is in the April 2013 issue of Monitoring Times.
I've decided that more folks might want to read the original article as published in December. I previously placed some additional supporting images on this website but have now included the entire article content. Please note that the article is copyrighted and may not be reproduced without permission of Monitoring Times or the author.
The year was 1921. Radio broadcasting was still in its infancy. Experimenters were building radio receivers. Most were crystal sets. Those with a bit more money were buying or building radios with vacuum tubes that ran off batteries. All entertainment broadcast stations were assigned to a single frequency of 833 KHz causing stations from different cities to interfere with each other. Since frequency control was also in its infancy, stations would drift down to 820 or up to 840 or in between, allowing listeners to sometimes hear 3 or 4 stations in one evening. Most broadcasters were on for only an hour or two each day. Multiple stations in a single city would have to agree to share the 833 KHz frequency. Prime time early evening hours were the most in demand. A fuller broadcast band would not come until 1923 when 550 KHz to 1350 KHz were set aside for broadcast. The "short waves" above 1500 KHz including what is now part of the broadcast band were considered relatively useless and were the domain of amateur radio and experimenters.
Radio parts and tubes were also expensive by 1920s standards. However, manufacturers had sprung up to offer tube sockets, galena crystals, headsets, "amplifying" (interstage) transformers, coils, variable capacitors (called "condensers" back then), and of course, rheostats to vary the filament voltage on "audions" as an early form of volume control. The term "triode" for describing the tubes of the day still had not fully caught on.
Wholesale Radio Service Company founded
For the most part, it was teenagers and youth who were the radio experimenters. They were the geeks of their age. It was in this time period that small stores selling radios and parts sprang up in major cities. Wholesale Radio Service Company was founded by 21 year old Abraham Pletman in New York City. Did Pletman have help setting up Wholesale Radio? That is likely. Just a few years later not only was Wholesale Radio Service Co. doing business as a New York store but had developed mail-order sales. A 1924 ad in Wireless Age magazine offered a free copy of their catalog, proclaiming "We Sell Retail at Wholesale Prices".
The following year, Wholesale Radio advertised an 80 page catalog in an ad in the April 1925 issue of Popular Radio followed by a 96 page catalog in October. The full page ad offered a complete set of parts for a superhet that Popular Radio's Technical Editor Lawrence Cockaday had designed and written up in the January 1925 issue as the Cockaday Improved DX Receiver. In addition to a kit of parts for that particular radio, Wholesale Radio Service also offered a fully-built version complete with tubes and a Korach tuned-loop antenna for $132.00, serious money in 1925. An equivalent value in 2012 dollars would be about $1700. That superhet was an exceptional performer in 1925. The ads for a complete set of parts or a custom-built version avoided the sticky issue of patent royalties. The superhet was a closely-held patent in the 1920s. Wholesale Radio placed more ads in subsequent issues of Popular Radio.
Patents helped create a strong market for parts kits for radios that originated in magazine articles. The experimenter could build a set and avoid the expense of royalties. Cockaday would continue to introduce a radio of his design in Popular Radio magazine and its successors for each new year.
Cockaday's LC-27 and LC-28 bore his initials and the year following the article, a bit like the way automobiles were sold. New radio sets for the following model year were introduced each Fall just in time for the holiday buying season. Catalog sales for Wholesale Radio Service continued throughout the 1920s although few catalogs seem to have survived from those years. A 1927 catalog flyer was 26 pages and included radios, parts, and kits by well-known names of the era such as Hammarlund, Loftin-White, Remler, Silver-Marshall, and of course, Cockaday.
Radios sold directly by Wholesale Radio were trademarked "Lafayette" in July of 1931. The company also registered Trutest, Symphonic, and Duo Symphonic as trademarks.
The first radios manufactured for or by Wholesale Radio as listed in Volume 1 of Rider's Perpetual Troubleshooting Manual are AC-operated screen-grid TRF (Tuned Radio Frequency) types typical of the times. Some radios were manufactured for Lafayette by other companies such as Wells-Gardner. The same chassis was often used for a number of different models. The 1934 Rider Volume 4 in its miscellaneous section makes the the first mention of the name Lafayette Radio and Television Corporation. Four superhet models are listed, three of which are the lower-end "hot chassis" AC-DC versions and one a transformer-operated version. Those again were typical sets for the time, in the middle of the Depression.
Growth of the company
Wholesale Radio grew during the tough times. An ad in the New York SUN in November 1931 touts "Replacement parts of every description for all model receivers are available at lowest Wholesale prices." "Write for big Tenth Anniversary catalog." The 1932 catalog claims, "Our business runs into millions of dollars per year", quite a statement during the height of the Depression. A 1934 catalog notes that "12 years have passed through good times and bad times". During those years, some major radio manufacturers went under. Their excess inventory could of course be made available through catalog sales.
Not all investments worked out. In 1932, Pletman and Leonard Welling purchased the CeCo Manufacturing Company from Ernie Kauer. CeCo was a tube manufacturer licensed by RCA. Apparently, the purchase did not prove profitable. According to Henry Davis, author of Electrical and Electronic Technologies; a Chronology of Events and Inventors, "they moved their company to France where it was soon taken over by their attorney, leaving them nothing". Welling was President of K. W. Radio in 1929, a large distributor for Majestic Radio for numerous franchised dealers in the New York and New Jersey metropolitan area. In 1930, he became a Sonora distributor and was later added to Sonora's Board of Directors. Later in 1930, he headed a syndicate that purchased Temple of Chicago, a loudspeaker manufacturer. Discussing the Temple purchase, an April 1930 note in Radio Broadcast magazine describes him as "formerly" a New York-based distributor for Majestic Radio.
Did Welling partner with Pletman in Wholesale Radio Service Co. as stated on some websites? His obituary in the March 1950 issue of The Billboard mentions him as the National Sales Manager for Electromatic Manufacturing Corporation and that he had previously served several radio concerns including the Sonora Radio Company in Paris and the Emerson Radio and Phonograph Company. Wholesale Radio and Lafayette are not mentioned.
He is also not mentioned in 1935 in an action brought by the Federal Trade Commission against Wholesale Radio Service. Apparently the FTC disapproved of advertising radios at "lowest Wholesale prices" for a retail organization.
Federal Trade Commission action
One ad example: In the March 22, 1935 issue of Georgia School of Technology's (now Georgia Tech) weekly newspaper, "The Technique", the Wholesale Radio Service Co. Inc. Atlanta store advertised a "Swell Little 4 tube AC-DC midget. ... List price $18.90 Our wholesale price $9.45"
The ad notes "Wholesale Radio Service Co., the largest Radio Organization of its kind in the world - now has great modern sales rooms in Atlanta. TECH students are invited to avail themselves of the opportunity to buy at our lowest Wholesale Prices - kits, sets, parts and experimental equipment always in stock. Big section devoted to "Ham Stuff". All nationally advertised lines. Say, "I'm from Tech" -- and get our wholesale prices."
The FTC brought action against the company in June 1935 for "misrepresentation as to radio prices". Named in the action were Pletman, Samuel Novich and Max Kranzburg. It took Wholesale Radio a while to get the message. A small ad in the February 1937 Boy's Life magazine is headlined 'Buy Wholesale' "Free 156 page catalog. Save money on Radio sets, electrical appliances, tubes, parts, tools, accessories, etc. Thousands of bargains in our Big, Free radio catalog. Buy from Wholesale and compare."
The FTC action dragged on until May 1941 when the New York Times reported "FTC DROPS RADIO CHARGE; Had Accused Wholesale Radio Service of Misrepresentation."
By the time FTC charges were dropped, Wholesale Radio Service had changed its name. A note in Printer's Ink in 1939 mentions that "Radio Wire Television Corp. of America is formed at 160 E. 56th St, New York, embracing the former holdings of Wire Broadcasting, Inc., Wholesale Radio Service Co., and other subsidiaries of these enterprises".
An ad in the October 1939 Popular Science magazine announced:
"And so today, Wholesale Radio Service becomes Radio Wire Television Inc. Here is why the name was chosen, word for word.
RADIO: With radio broadcasting this company has steadily expanded. It was and is the backbone of our business. Naturally radio will continue to engage our interests.
WIRE: We believe the new technique of broadcasting by wire will one day encompass the transmission of both sight and sound. Every current technological development points toward this end.
TELEVISION: Whether tomorrow's televised programs be received by radio or wire, it is our aim to offer the finest services anywhere. Our new name thus embodies those important factors which, in the very nature of things, comprise our business. Already several associate enterprises in control of patents relating to the communications field have been merged with this company. Conscious of our great responsibility, plans are even now under way to expand the number of Radio Wire Television Inc. retail outlets."
The ad lists locations in New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, Newark, Bronx NY, and Jamaica NY.
Note that "wholesale pricing" is no longer part of the description. The choice of "Wire" as part of the name is interesting. If Pletman were around today, he might have said, "we predicted it, cable TV and the internet now brings 'sight and sound' by wire." The "several associated enterprises" comes in the fore later.
Despite the FTC action, the company continued to grow in the 1930s, keeping up with the electronics industry and typically distributing two catalogs a year, Spring-Summer and Fall-Winter as well as bargain "flyer" catalogs.
The Lafayette-branded radios advertised in the catalogs represented both the low-end like the four-tube advertised in the Georgia Tech ad and the very top such as the Wholesale Radio Service 12 tube model L-1 in Riders Volume 3 and the 24 tube set shown on the cover of the 1937 catalog and described inside. Consumer Reports review of radios and consoles including those from Lafayette had some "Not acceptable" (due to bolts from the hot-chassis AC-DC set protruding from the bottom of the cabinet) and a couple of "Best buys". This was the norm for Lafayette, marketing sets from the low-cost end up to the much higher quality level.
Ham Radio Division
Lafayette developed its own ham radio division. One example is a transmitter that was written up as an article by Frank Lester, W2AMJ (footnote 1) in the December 1936 Short Wave Craft magazine. Lester was Chief Engineer - Transmitting Division for the Lafayette Manufacturing Co. Titled the "25 watt Junior transmitter", the article notes that the Trutest transmitter uses the same circuit as the "now-popular Lafayette P46 transmitter. The circuit was chosen for simplicity of construction and operation, as well as its sure-fire performance. The circuit consists of the Les-tet oscillator buffer or doubler...". The "Les-tet" circuit was named after Lester himself. A type 53 tube was used as oscillator, a 56 as buffer/doubler and a parallel pair of 46 tubes for RF output. For more on the Trutest 25 watt Junior, see K2TQN's excellent column in the May 2010 QST magazine.
The 1937 catalog has a complete description of both the 25 watt Junior and the larger P46A, a handsome rack-mounted 30 watt output transmitter which sold for $52.95 plus cabinet, tubes and crystals. A matching modulator, the B46, was available for $39.50 plus tubes and an antenna tuner, model 46A sold for $19.95. The catalog notes that the transmitter is conservatively rated and was tested at higher outputs.
For television, the company sold a simple mechanical TV in 1932 called the "See-All" Television Kit advertised as "The Most Successful Low Priced Televisor on the Market". Just six years later, Wholesale Radio is named as the distributor for the all-electronic 16 tube TV kit with a 5 inch CRT (cathode ray picture tube) produced by Garod.
More name changes:
The 1933 catalog cover headlines, "Lafayette radios and Trutest parts". Despite the longer corporate names at the bottom of the catalog covers, the name Lafayette Radio was prominently featured on the top of most of the catalogs. Lafayette Radio Manufacturing Company is listed as the manufacturer of the ham radio transmitters just mentioned. The 1939 Spring-Summer catalog has both Radio Wire Television Co. Inc. and Lafayette Radio Corporation named on the cover.
The New York-area based Lafayette Radio apparently split off from its Chicago and Atlanta partners during World War II. The Atlanta-Chicago part of the organization had the name Lafayette Radio Corporation while the New York area (including Boston) kept the Radio Wire Television name. There were two distinct catalogs in 1942, both number 87, one from Radio Wire Television Inc. naming New York, Bronx, Newark and Boston as locations. The other 1942 catalog lists Lafayette Radio Corporation and only the addresses in Chicago and Atlanta. Things apparently came to a head in 1945 when the Chicago and Atlanta side of the organization announced they would no longer be named Lafayette Radio Corporation but would be changing their name to Concord Radio Corporation. Separate catalogs would continue from both until 1948 when the two sides produced a combined catalog under the name "Lafayette-Concord" billing itself as the "world's largest radio supply organization". That continued for a couple of years.
In August 1951, ads for the new 1952 catalog from Lafayette listed only the New York area and Boston addresses. It marked the end of the Chicago and Atlanta as mail-order addresses for Lafayette Radio. Concord Radio, as a separate entity, is listed in the Sams Photofacts Index as a manufacturer of radios right into the transistor era.
Mail orders to Lafayette
I personally became acquainted with Lafayette in the late 1950s. The 1959, 60 and 61 catalogs, typical of their catalogs of that era, had attractive futuristic space-age cover art. It was a true dream book for a school kid with an interest in electronics. I pored over the pages.
My first order was for a VOM meter (measuring volts, ohms, and milliamperes) for the price of $9.95 plus postage for shipping. It was Lafayette's Argonne brand that was made in Japan but worked very well. I followed up with an order for a small four-speed turntable with plywood mounting board, a radio-phono adapter switch, and the cheapest stereo tone arm offered by Lafayette, also Japanese-made, all so I could listen to records through an old Philco console I had repaired.
But I really wanted a separate audio amp. A few months later, I ordered an aluminum chassis, knobs, a red-jeweled pilot light, some resistors, and a tube. That, along with other parts stripped from a couple of dead radios went into a homebrew hi-fi amp. The push-pull 6V6GT amp came from an article I had seen in a 1958 Radio-TV Experimenter magazine.
I later built an Eico signal tracer kit ordered through Lafayette. My Lafayette catalog dreams-turned-to-reality were limited by paper-route money.
Reliance on Japanese imports
Lafayette relied on Japan for many of their branded offerings, much more so than their competitors such as Allied Radio. All seven of the Lafayette-branded shortwave and ham receivers in my radio collection (see cover picture) are made in Japan. Fred Osterman's Shortwave Receivers Past and Present, Third edition, lists 19 Lafayette radios, all of which were made in Japan with the exception of the KT-135 Explor-Air, a three tube regenerative kit.
My Lafayette KT-195 Wireless Broadcaster kit and 1957 vintage "Music-Mates" LA-40 amplifier and LT-40 tuner were also made in Japan. Even some items Lafayette manufactured in the USA used Japanese parts such as the S-meter on my 1961 vintage HE-20A citizen's band radio.
Lafayette apparently foresaw the growth of CB radio in the 1960s and wanted to spur sales. It even offered free QSL cards for CB users. However, the FCC ruled in July 1964 that "A Citizens radio station shall not be used for engaging in radio communications as a hobby or diversion, i.e., operating the radio station as an activity in and of itself."
Lafayette wanted to sell CBs and petitioned the FCC for a temporary restraining order and injunction on that rule on the basis of free speech, but in April 1965 the FCC denied the petition.
Lafayette celebrates a half century
The 1971 catalog announced Lafayette's Golden Jubilee 50th anniversary. Abraham Pletman in "A Message from our Founder" states, "This year Lafayette has reached an important milestone - our 50th year in business - and we wish to share the celebration of this occasion with you who have helped make our success possible. Fifty years is a long time. During this half-century, Lafayette has grown from a tiny store into one of the world's largest suppliers of electronic equipment. In fact we are the world's largest distributor of several major product lines... We believe that the difference between the company that stands still and the company that grows is the customer who comes back. And we take the greatest pride in the fact that we still count among our customers people who did business with Lafayette 50 years ago." Pletman ends his message with, "All of us at Lafayette thank you for coming back".
In August 1973, the New York Times reported the passing of Pletman. His estate held over 325,000 shares of Lafayette Radio Electronics stock. He did not live to see the beginning of the end for the company he founded.
CB and the FCC
In 1973, the federally-imposed 55 mph speed limit caused a sudden spurt in CB sales that ended in a national craze. From a total of less than one million CB users before 1973, the FCC suddenly saw half a million license applications each month. CB users also started to use pseudonym "handles" rather than FCC issued call letters to the point where the 1965 ruling against Lafayette was made unenforceable. Over 10 million CBs were in use by January 1, 1977 when the FCC expanded the band to 40 channels. Lafayette, which claimed to have the world's largest selection of CB sets, and other manufacturers, had made millions prior to that date in 23 channel CB sales.
But all that came to an end. Exactly one year later, the FCC banned the sale of any new 23 channel sets that did not meet the tougher type-acceptance standards required for the new 40 channel sets. Those type-acceptance standards were also not communicated quickly enough. That meant a mad rush in 1977 to sell the 23 channel sets that were already in stock or in the manufacturing pipeline. The FCC-created "perfect storm" resulted in huge numbers of 23 channel sets being sold at well below cost combined with the reluctance of the public to buy the more-expensive-to-manufacture 40 channel sets. A number of CB manufacturers never recovered. Lafayette losses were reported to be in the millions.
During the 1970s, Lafayette also invested heavily in 4 channel sound. However, there were competing standards, none of which took hold. Lafayette again lost money.
At the same time, a company called Radio Shack was expanding its network of local stores across the nation. Their electronic offerings were very similar to those of Lafayette. Also, Hi-Fi store chains sprang up in major cities taking the high-end market share.
Lafayette started opening company-owned local stores but was late getting into that market segment. The Summer 1965 catalog shows 12 company owned stores, all in NY, NJ, and Massachusetts, except for a new one in Maryland just outside of Washington DC. But they had the beginning of a national reach with 148 associate store locations in 42 states and Puerto Rico. The 1971 catalog shows 40 company owned stores. The 1972 catalog shows 53 company owned stores and notes that there are 260 associate stores. Addresses are not listed. The 1975 catalog mentions "over 100" company stores but does not indicate the number of associate stores. The associate stores were individually owned. In 1965, you needed from $10,000 to $30,000 to open one. The quoted cost increased to $40,000 to 75,000 in 1975.
In comparison to a few hundred Lafayette company and associate stores, Radio Shack grew to over 7000 stores.
Lafayette filed Chapter 11 in January 1980.
Responding to an inquiry I made via the on-line Antique Radio Forum, Pete WA2CWA, who worked for Lafayette, supplied a first-hand perspective of the end of the company:
"When they went Chapter 11 .., roughly 60 stores of the now roughly 125 (company owned) stores were closed immediately. At our store, we had 48 hours to tear the entire store down, get everything boxed that had a valid and current stock number, and get it on a truck to take it back to Syosset (Lafayette's Long Island warehouse). Anything that wasn't on the official inventory sheets was to be discarded."
"Shortly after this (1981), Lafayette Syosset had a huge warehouse and tent sale on their property to dispose of all the inventory which included not only Lafayette finished goods, but all the parts and assemblies related to them, test equipment, warehouse equipment, fixtures, etc. Tons of stuff to grab and buy at below cost prices but hours to wait to pay for the stuff. They were not prepared for their version of the "electronic Oklahoma land rush". During this final period, Associate Stores were not allowed to order or return merchandise back to Lafayette. The bankruptcy actions left them high and dry as far as Lafayette material was concerned."
The year 1981 marked the end of Lafayette Radio in Chapter 11 bankruptcy with subsequent sale of its New York area stores to a company that would soon become known as Circuit City.
Now, whenever I see a piece of Lafayette gear, my mind goes back to those earlier years of drooling over their catalogs. Regardless of how good or bad the Lafayette device is, I have this desire to check it out and dream some more.
Supporting images for this article
The images below coincide with portions of the article. They are primarily in date order.
The follow-up article titled Lafayette Surprise: Political Intrigue and Radio as published in the April 2013 issue of Monitoring Times is now also available on the web.
Updated 3-29-13 and 6-14-13
A Ferris 22D "Microvolter" signal generator was the previous item on the bench.