Welcome Back to the TVs of Yesteryear

by Roderick Sergiades

Suddenly it’s 1977! …or so I thought.
Being a purist and wanting the ultimate blast-from-the-past experience, I just had to watch one of my favourite comedies in the most authentic manner I know. Wearing my plaid 1970s-made long-sleeve shirt, I watched a 1976 ‘rerun’ of Welcome Back, Kotter, starring John Travolta, through the magic of DVD on my relatively small-screen TV.

I say “relatively small” because compared to today’s living-room conquering flat-screen TVs that are almost as big as the sporting events they show, my once large wooden-bodied, floor-mounted 1977 Electrohome console colour television is by today’s standards quite – humble.

Nevertheless, its 25-inch screen is more than adequate for watching the past or seeing the latest round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Naturally, the handsome wood cabinet nicely complements the surrounding decor, its modest size doesn’t dominate its environs, and being domestically made over forty years ago by a once proud Canadian manufacturer, its carbon footprint is a tiny fraction of the appallingly destructive Chinese-made TVs everyone is clamouring for today.

(In recent centuries gone by, furniture, cooking utensils and other household items were expected to last hundreds of years.)

Interestingly, this now 41-year-old Ontario-made wonder has never once been repaired. Today’s throwaway models are not exactly fix-it friendly, prompting Sweden recently to enact legislation discouraging the sale of non-repairable appliances, including televisions.

Aside from the inherently pleasing qualities of this set, it’s just plain fun having a telly (as the British once called them) that harkens back to a more relaxed and leisurely time. Yet, lest anyone think this set perfect, it came sans remote control, oh the horror.

Of course, appreciating the finer qualities of this set that my eight-year-old daughter regularly watches reruns of Batman and Bewitched on (thank you, CHCH), has also encouraged my ‘inner collector’ to acquire a few other vintage portals to the past.

These include a leg-mounted, floor-model 1964 RCA Victor colour television that the original owner won brand new in a contest because, like most of us, she couldn’t quite scrape together $1,100, then half the cost of a brand new Studebaker. Unexpectedly this set sports a metal cabinet, with a faux wood grain and, again naturally, the requisite rabbit ears from the days before cable and satellite TV.

This early and then quite unusual TV (because it is a colour set) came to her just a year after The Forest Rangers – Canada’s first colour television programme – first aired. (Ironically, this internationally sold CBC show didn’t domestically air in colour initially.)

Of course, television sets, which first appeared in the 1930s, were originally available only in black and white, including my 1957 Philips set, complete with the requisite wood cabinet. Typical of the era, this Canadian-made TV came just five years after The Great White North’s first telecast, on the CBC.

My small coterie of televisions has, not surprisingly, brought me in touch with other similarly ‘bent’ collectors mostly through the Ontario Vintage Radio Association (ovra.ca), who have sets notably earlier than mine.

One such devotee, Paul Rosen, principally collects Philco. A known authority on that brand, he has a much sought after 1960 Predicta model that was also known as The Princess. Marketed as the world’s first swivel TV, Predictas were noted for picture tubes (also known as cathode ray tubes) completely separate from the cabinet. In 1959, Predictas, like all domestically made Philco televisions, were manufactured in Don Mills (Toronto), and sold for anywhere from $289.95 to $459.95. Today that would translate from over $2,500 to just above a cool $4,000.

Other sets of his emanate from the very early post-war era. Noted for their very small screens, often of only 7 inches, TVs of the late ’40s typically came in either wooden or bakelite (an early plastic) cabinets. Often featuring gold and brown-coloured knobs, with similarly coloured channel numbering, there is not a single button or remote control to be found; how did people manage?

In particular, a Port Credit, Ontario-made 1948 Admiral television set is the oldest in Paul’s collection. Next in line is a more modern American-made Motorola model from 1949, originally sold in that country for $149.95 U.S. or a tenth of a brand-new Chevrolet — and paid for in instalments.

Long before computer chips and the solid state or transistor age, these sets with their small light bulb-like vacuum tubes or valves, took a while to warm up and turn on.

Not wanting to be stuck too far in the past, Paul has somewhat moved with the times and bought bigger screened sets, including a 9-inch, Toronto-made Canadian General Electric (CGE) TV set from 1956, their first portable.
Another prized set of Paul’s is the world’s first portable battery-powered transistorized TV, a 1959 Philco Safari, weighing only 15-1/2 lbs. Introduced in 1958, an American television ad then (visit youtube.com) highlights the wonderful advantages of having this set at the beach, or while you’re fishing from your rowboat. It came conveniently with a canopy to block out even the strongest sunlight. When Her Majesty, Elizabeth II, toured the Dominion in 1959, the Queen of Canada’s limousine was outfitted with one.
As a testament to the generally well made appliances of days gone by, Paul’s half-century old CGE Portacolor TV set, which hasn’t been run in 20 years, was pulled out of storage for this article. Once the cobwebs were cleared, it was suddenly 1968 when it lit up. Yup, they don’t make them like they used to.

When Boris C. Dinkoff was born in 1957, his father celebrated his son’s birth by buying a brand new 21-inch Super console RCA Victor television, which came with the latest high-tech feature: a UHF tuner! Known as the Evans model, the salesman assured Boris’ father this advanced feature would come in handy for the new Toronto stations to come. In the 53 years Boris had this set, he only recalls using that feature once. His TV eventually went to a collector.

The Evans’ original purchase price also included a roof-mounted 20-foot high guyed mast with antenna. Like all his neighbours, it faced south to best catch the Buffalo broadcasters (who predated the domestic stations), as well as CBLT and CHCH.

For those of us who don’t have a vintage TV, a visit to Toronto’s MZTV Museum of Television (mztv.com) can rekindle those days of yore.

With retro broadcasting and prerecorded material, those of us fortunate enough to have our own electronic window to the past, can truly return to any year we want, complete with bell-bottoms and sideburns — if you feel so inclined.


One Reply to “Welcome Back to the TVs of Yesteryear”

  1. Hello I found your website using a Google search. I’d like to know how I can share an image of the television we had at home in the 1960s/1970s, along with a brief explanation about it.

    Thank you – Rob

    p.s. I also sent this to the email address at the website.

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