Philco Model 90 Cathedral Radio (1931)


The Philco Model 90 is the most desired cathedral radio of all time in the eyes of many collectors. Designed by Edward Combs, its classic lines epitomize the cathedral style, which became wildly popular in the 1930s.

Model 90 Supersedes Model 20

In 1930, the year before the Model 90's introduction, Philco had scored a home run with its "midget" Model 20, a tabletop radio with a rounded cathedral cabinet, offering the same performance as much larger console radios in a smaller, cheaper package.

Prior to that time, most radios came in one of two packages. Console, or floor-standing models, came in squarish (sometimes ornate) wooden cabinets, usually standing on thin wooden legs. Tabletop models generally came in plain, coffin-shaped boxes.

The new "midget" cabinet was much smaller than contemporary consoles, yet more attractive than the coffin style tabletops of the 1920s.

Philco sales skyrocketed, quickly launching the company to the top of the US radio market. (Philco was not the first manufacturer to offer a cathedral cabinet, however. That honor belongs to Jackson Bell for their 1929 cathedrals, and possibly one or two other minor manufacturers.)

The 1931 Philco Model 90 capitalized on the success of Model 20 and added some key innovations. First, it adopted the newer superheterodyne electronic design, which offered better performance than the finicky TRF (tuned regenerative frequency) design and was ultimately embraced by all radio manufacturers.

The 90 also added a tone control, which is the leftmost knob as you look at the front. It's a simple two-position treble/bass type control. Click it to the left for more treble, and to the right for more bass.

Model 90 employed nine tubes compared to the seven of Model 20. The tube lineup is as follows: 80, 24, 27, 24, 24, 24, 27, 45, 45.

The Model 90 cabinet is more sophisticated and dressy than that of the Model 20, which has the same general size and shape, with a fancy grille, but an otherwise plain-Jane front panel.

The Model 90 cabinet adds stately columns at the sides of the cabinet, creating a distinctive "Gothic arch" appearance. It also adds discrete feet at the bottom corners, along with more complicated beveling and pattern-matched veneer in the upper front perimeter.

Judging by continued interest over the decades, this has to rank as one of the most successful and pleasing of all cathedral radio designs.

Despite the "midget" appellation, this is a large, heavy tabletop by modern standards. (It's a midget only in comparison to a full-sized console radio.) If you ship one of these sets, I advise removing both the chassis and the speaker and packing them in separate boxes. If they are left in place and the box is dropped, the heavy chassis may crash right through the bottom of the cabinet. Even worse things might happen if the radio happened to fall on its face.

Two Model 90 Versions

All Philco 90s have the same cabinet, but there are two different electronic versions. Mine is the early one, which used two type 45 tubes in a "push-pull" circuit to provide high-quality (and loud!) audio output.

This early version of the Philco 90 did not use automatic volume control (AVC), also known as automatic gain control (AGC). Put simply, AVC smooths out the signal strength between very strong local broadcast stations and faint, distant stations.

If you are listening to a radio without AVC, the difference is obvious as you turn the tuner. If you turn up the volume far enough to receive a faint distant station, the radio will blast your ears off when you tune into a strong local station.

The second version of Model 90, introduced in October, 1931, used a single type 47 tube for audio output and it did have AVC, making "station surfing" a less ear-shattering experience.

The earlier version of the 90 also has a two-position "Local/Distant" switch on the back of the chassis. The toggle switch is visible in the following photo, near the center of the chassis back.

If you plan to change from a strong local station to a faint, distant station, you would flip the switch from Local to Distant. This turns up the gain on the receiver for the faint station, an operation that is done automatically with AVC.

The smallest, centrally located, knob is the radio's power switch. Next to it is the volume control. Later radios incorporated the power switch with the volume control, an arrangement that quickly became universal.

One Cabinet for Several Radios

If you find a radio with this cabinet, look carefully at the details. More than one Philco model was offered in this cabinet, and there is even a modern transistorized reproduction that (although smaller) bears a strong resemblance.

During the same years as the Model 90, Philco also sold the Model 70, a cathedral with the same cabinet but only seven tubes and somewhat lesser performance. The 70 outsold the 90 by a factor of more than two to one, so if you want a vintage cathedral that looks like this but you don't care so much about its performance, a 70 is a fine choice.

Another Philco using this cabinet is the model 21. It is easy to distinguish from the Model 90 because it lacks a tone control, hence it has only three knobs rather than four. The 21 is essentially a Model 20 in a newer cabinet, using the older TRF technology.

Here is the drawing from the design patent application (number D83,956) for the Model 21 cabinet.

If you own a model 21, 70 or 90, you can frame a printout of this drawing to hang next to your radio.

Since the model 70/90 cabinet differs only in the number and placement of knobs, I believe Philco did not file a separate design patent for that cabinet.

Incidentally, if you know the patent number, you can look up all sorts of interesting radio patents at the US Patent & Trademark website.

When I looked up this patent, I discovered an odd thing. Patent number D83,957 (next in numerical sequence) was filed on the same day as this one and it shows exactly the same cabinet—only without any grille opening for the speaker! Perhaps Philco wanted to patent the basic fluted-column cathedral design and reserve the ability to use some other grille design.

Who knows? In any case, the columnar design was not repeated by Philco during the next few years. Cathedrals of that vintage tend to have flat fronts without columns, similar to my Model 60B.

Final Words

My model 90 was fully restored when I bought it, so I don't have a restoration story to tell about it. This is the only fully restored set that I have ever bought. I don't think I will do that again. There's nothing wrong with this radio, but to me, restoration is the most interesting part of radio collecting!

©1995-2023 Philip I. Nelson, all rights reserved