Sparton Model 154B "Bluebird" Mirror Radio (1936)

        

        

The mirrored Sparton "Bluebird" is one of the most recognizable, and most desirable, of all antique radios. I purchased this one in Canada in summer, 2000. The owner told me that his parents had received this radio as a wedding gift in 1936. From the looks of the radio, and the box it was in, it had been stored for quite a long time before I bought it.

Description

The model number of this Canadian Bluebird is 154B. The American model number for the same radio is 566. The following photo shows the Bluebird as it is displayed in our home.

At this stage, I had not replaced one missing knob. The slight texture seen in the blue mirror is the reflection the texture of a facing wall. Unless you place the object inside a large, brightly lit muslin tent, and point your camera lens through a little peephole, it's pretty hard to take photos of a big mirror without catching reflections of something else!

Mirrored radios enjoyed a vogue in the 1930s. The Bluebird was created by Walter Dorwin Teague, one of the most celebrated industrial designers of his time. Teague also designed the front of the Scott 800B from the late 1940s. His most spectacular radio design was the famous Sparton "Nocturne," shown in the following photo.

The Nocturne is a console, standing about four feet high. Few were sold, and even fewer survive. If you are lucky enough to find a complete Nocturne, the selling price would probably start around $25,000. The example in this photo was shown in a design exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum in the late 1990s.

Blue and peach were the most popular colors for mirrored radios. Yet another blue mirrored Sparton is the so-called "Sled," or Model 557.

The cobalt blue mirror that forms the Bluebird's front panel is 14 inches in diameter, 1/4 inch thick, and quite heavy. The mirror is backed with a layer of dark felt. Chromed trim strips fit through small openings in the circular dial bezel. A circle of metal mesh surrounds the small, central dial, giving the appearance of a grille although the radio's true grille is on top of the cabinet. The dial itself is tiny and quite beautiful, marked in blue with a graceful bluebird shape in the center.

This set receives only the standard broadcast AM band. The left knob is the power/volume control; the middle one is the tuner; and the rightmost knob is a three-position tone control.

Two round wooden feet at the bottom of the mirror are strictly decorative. The radio actually sits on thick wooden runners, as you can see from the rear view.

The case is painted black, with contrasting whitish trim strips incised into the wood. Like many 1930s radios, the Bluebird had no back. Two wires leading back from the chassis allow you to connect an external antenna and ground.

The speaker faces upward through the grille opening in the top of the cabinet. The speaker, with its attached audio transformer, is clamped to the cabinet with two rather delicate wooden strips.

The Bluebird is a transformer-type AC radio of conventional design. Here are the types and functions of its five tubes.

Tube Type Function
V1 6F7 1st detector/oscillator
V2 6D6 IF amplifier
V3 75 2nd detector/AVC
V4 42 Audio output
V5 80 Rectifier

Restoration

When found, the radio played weakly and the tuning cord was broken. All of the paper and electrolytic capacitors, except one, were original, suggesting that perhaps it was not used much. Most 1930s radios which saw regular service will have several replacement parts.

The next photo shows the radio on the day of purchase, with the chassis removed from the cabinet. The tuning cord hangs loose, and a thick layer of dust covers everything. But, apart from one missing knob, everything else is complete and original—a restorer's dream.

In the following photo, everything has been cleaned up, the tuner has been restrung, and some small splits in the speaker have been glued.

As you can see from the previous photo, one of the knobs was not original, although it was a reasonably close match. A few years after I first posted this article, a fellow collector made me a complete set of correct walnut knobs, based on one of the originals.

The next photo gives a view under the chassis.

The Bluebird's chassis is more cramped than most 1930s radios that I've worked on. The designers obviously wanted to fit everything into a fairly small, unobtrusive cabinet hidden behind the mirror. That made for a great outward appearance, but rather fussy work when it comes to restoring the electronics.

When replacing capacitors in run-of-the-mill radios, I usually discard the old paper units and replace them with new ones. The Bluebird is much more valuable than most sets in my collection, however, so I went to the trouble of "restuffing" all of the little paper capacitors, to preserve an absolutely authentic appearance inside and out.

For general information about recapping, see How to Replace Capacitors elsewhere in this website.

Restuffing Paper Capacitors

Restuffing capacitors is a straightforward process. To remove the insides from a paper capacitor, you must heat it until its wax melts. This can be done with a heat gun or by heating in a low oven. Clean any dirt from the cardboard shell before you heat it and wear gloves to protect your hands.

In this case, I heated the capacitors in an old tin can inside the oven. It took about 20 minutes at 250 degrees. After the wax has softened, push the insides out of the cardboard shell. If you try to pull them out, you may just pull the lead out of the foil, leaving most of the capacitor still in the shell.

The next photo shows a paper capacitor whose inside has been pushed out. In the middle is the cardboard shell. Above it are the old innards and below it is the new replacement.

Immediately after removing the innards, give the outer shell a quick wipe with a paper towel to remove any wax blobs and leave a consistent, clean coating of wax on the outside.

After the shell has cooled off, slide the new capacitor into the shell and fill the empty space with glue from a hot glue gun. Leave a little space on the ends and let the glue cool until it's solid.

To make the "new" capacitor look exactly as before, melt brown wax into the ends to finish them off and conceal the glue. I save all the bits of old wax from the original capacitor for this purpose. There's usually just enough to refill the ends. If you run short, you can mix in some new beeswax with a little brown color. Another option is to cut little circles of brown cardboard to fit the ends, although that won't look quite as authentic as wax.

The old shells are typically much bigger than their new counterparts. To avoid wasting glue, I wrapped the new capacitors tightly in stiff paper until they barely fit inside in the shell. Then I glued the whole business from each end using hot glue.

The next photo shows the restuffed capacitor ready to put back into the radio. I doubt that anyone could tell it from before, except that it now looks cleaner than most originals.

The remainder of the restoration was unventful. After replacing all the capacitors, I gave the set an alignment and put it back together.

Final Thoughts

The restored Bluebird occupies a prominent place in our home, displayed near the stairs in our front entry. It attracts a lot of comments from visitors.

That's not to say that it's perfect, however. The mirror has some minor edge flaking and the cabinet still has a few little dings. To do a "museum-quality" restoration, I suppose you could send out the mirror to be stripped, resilvered, and recovered with felt.

I have been told that it's no longer possible to buy glass silvered in this cobalt color, and that some people salvage glass tops from blue mirrored coffee tables of the 1950s.

In any case, I don't mind a few tiny blemishes. They prove that this is a real Bluebird, not a cheap imitation! There is a modern company which makes new reproduction radios quite similar to this. It's easy to tell the new ones from the real thing: the repros receive FM and they have chrome-plated knobs.

The large mirror and heavy power transformer make this a very heavy radio for its size. Rather than risk breakage, I drove a few hundred miles to pick mine up in person. If you ever have to ship one, I'd separate the mirror, chassis, and cabinet, and pack them all separately in double boxes. See How to Ship Antique Radios Safely.

©1995-2014 Philip I. Nelson, all rights reserved