Let’s Talk Rusty Iron

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Left: The Radio Sermon. (Cover of the May 1924 issue of Successful Farming.)
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Above: Byline for the regular radio column of Farm Mechanics magazine, July 1925.
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Above: After evening chores, a farmer and his son listen to a tube-type radio, while mother looks on approvingly. (Advertisement for RCA in the March 1924 issue of Successful Farming.)
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Below: A cartoon showing the advantages to the farmer of listening to the radio. (Advertisement for Atwater Kent radio in the September 1925 issue of Successful Farming.)

Newfangled radio technology brought the world to the farm

My aunt, Louise Moore, was born in 1913. She
recalls, while living in Pittsburgh in about 1924, listening with
her family to radio station KDKA on a crystal receiving set. At the
time, the radio station held a contest for the young girls among
their listeners. The young ladies were to write a letter to the
station recounting a good deed they had recently performed. A
weekly drawing was held and the winner was proclaimed the “KDKA
Sunshine Girl.” Louise sent in a letter telling how she had helped
her mother with a household chore, and her name was drawn! She
still remembers getting a card in the mail and the thrill of
hearing her name announced on Saturday as the reigning “Sunshine
Girl.”

Radio broadcasting didn’t really take off until the 1920s, well
within the memory of many folks living today. In the years leading
up to World War I, amateur radio stations transmitted semi-regular
programs, broadcasting phonograph records and news bulletins. There
were, however, no receiving sets available to the general public.
Only radio enthusiasts, who built their own receivers, heard these
broadcasts.

Wartime restrictions shut down most amateur stations, but
several resumed transmitting after the war. One of the most
prominent was Station 8XK, run by Dr. Frank Conrad, an engineer for
Pittsburgh’s Westinghouse Electric Co., out of his garage in
Wilkinsburg, Pa.

Conrad broadcast music from records several nights each week and
word soon spread. In September 1920, a Pittsburgh department store,
Joseph Horne Co., announced plans to sell “Amateur Wireless Sets,
$10 and up,” so Pittsburghers could hear Conrad’s programs. At
last, one didn’t have to be a radio “nut” to listen in.

Conrad’s boss at Westinghouse quickly saw the potential to make
money by building and selling radio sets. He proposed setting up a
radio station and transmitter to broadcast the results of the
upcoming presidential election. On Oct. 27, the U.S. Department of
Commerce issued the new Westinghouse station the first commercial
broadcasting license, and the call letters KDKA, giving KDKA
bragging rights ever after as the “pioneering broadcasting station
of the world.”

Although it took some doing, the new station went on the air at
8 p.m on Nov. 2. That first broadcast ended after midnight with
Republicans Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge declared the clear
winners over Democrats James Cox and Franklin Roosevelt.

After the election night success, KDKA began nightly broadcasts,
at first limited to 8:30 to 9:30 p.m., but soon expanded
programming. Transmitter power was increased to 500 watts from 100
watts, and before long, people from as far away as Washington, D.C.
and Illinois were huddling over their crystal sets to hear scratchy
broadcasts from Pittsburgh.

A few other stations across the country got into the act and
secured commercial licenses, although programming schedules were
limited to only two or three hours each day and consisted mostly of
playing phonograph records and reading news and community service
bulletins. By the mid-1920s, however, baseball games, symphony
orchestras and even Will Rogers were heard regularly in living
rooms across the country.

During those years, the advertising possibilities of the new
medium began to be exploited. Programs such as the Maxwell House
Hour and the Philco Hour were being aired, and the radio commercial
was born.

By 1924, farm periodicals such as Successful Farming
were full of articles about the benefits and pleasures that radio
afforded farm families. Farm Mechanics magazine ran a
monthly column titled “Farm Radio Department” instructing readers
in how to build radio sets, erect antennas and make
loudspeakers.

A Minnesota farmer wrote that he received more for his cattle
and hogs because of up-to-date market reports, while weather
reports helped him get the spring planting finished before the
rains. An Iowa man said now that weather, crop and market reports
were within his reach, he was no longer obliged to “Plant by faith
only, harvest by hope mainly and market by accident mostly.”

A potato farmer from New Jersey said “Purely as a business
proposition, a good radio is an absolutely necessary part of any
up-to-date farm. It also keeps the women and kiddies in touch with
the world, gives them diversion and sends them to bed happier.” An
Illinois woman wrote: “With six small children on a large farm nine
miles from town … the radio is the only outside enjoyment I get.”
Another farm wife was quoted in an ad for a popular radio of the
day: “It used to be pretty lonely out here. But since we bought our
Atwater Kent, I feel as if I was out visiting every evening.”

The cover illustration of the May 1924 issue of Successful
Farming
shows a man relaxing in his easy chair, coatless, with
his vest unbuttoned and a big smile on his face. He has on
earphones and behind him is a radio set. Through the window can be
seen a nearby church with a number of folks walking to the
entrance. His wife and two children are all dressed up and
obviously ready to go out the door to attend services. The kids are
looking at him questioningly, and the wife disapprovingly, but he
doesn’t care; he’s listening to a sermon on the radio.

The new medium was especially welcomed by farmers and their
families. Now they could be just as well informed and entertained
as their city cousins. That 1920 election night broadcast by KDKA
set off the communication and entertainment boom that we enjoy (and
complain about) today.

In these days of instant news, music and pictures from anywhere
on the globe, and even from outer space, it’s hard to imagine what
a thrill it was back in the 1920s, to sit in your own living room
and hear music and voices magically coming from out of the air.

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He
now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements
and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at
letstalkrustyiron@yahoo.com

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