Buying a Television in 1949

One of the items I found among my father’s papers was the 1949 receipt for my parents’ first television set.

The receipt is from the Trotter Motor Company of Waldorf, Maryland and details the sale of a brand new television set.

June 13, 1949

It does not state the brand of TV being sold. However, there is a model number, 8T241. A quick internet search turned up a newspaper ad that reveals the television was made by RCA.

In 1949, the Trotter Motor Company sold cars made by Pontiac and REO. REO is the now defunct automobile company that gave the name of one of its vehicles to the 80’s Classic Rock Band, REO Speedwagon.

Apparently, thinking televisions just might turn out to be a big thing, the Trotter Motor Company added them to its inventory. For an extra $65 they provided installation and a year’s service.

I wondered if selling televisions at a car dealership was unusual at that time. It turns out it wasn’t. Using to look through ads from that period, revealed everyone wanted a piece of the action.

According to a 1949 ad in the Fitchburg Sentinel, Elliot’s, “Fitchburg’s busiest Jewelry store”, had jumped on the TV bandwagon.   For $32.50 down and $2.50 a week, you could own the RCA Bystander, “America’s favorite Television”.  In Fitchburg, Elliot’s was competing with Parke Snow’s Appliance Annex.

In Pittsfield, Massachusetts, televisions were available at Pittsfield Hardware and Plumbing Supply and in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, TV early adopters went to The Portsmouth Refrigeration Company.

It comes as no surprise that the New York area was rich in television outlets. And they were just as eclectic as the rest of the country.

In addition to the expected furniture stores and appliance stores, in Flatbush, the Central Tire Company and The Fixit Shop sold televisions, in Bay Ridge, the Ideal Music Company and the Marconi Camera Service sold them, in Bedford you went to the Standard Supply & Tire Company, in Bensonhurst to Pearson Hardware, in Williamsburg, to Kulansky Electric Supply or Nick’s Radio Shoppe.

A note on Nick’s… I am intrigued by the anachronistic spelling of “Shoppe“.  I can only assume Nick figured his customers would be more comfortable buying 20th century communication equipment in a 17th century kind of store.

Over in Brownsville, New York, one forward thinking visionary opened the impressively named Bressner Television Corporation. By May of 1948, BTC could claim, “Bressner has sold over 6000 Television Sets”. By 1949 Bressner had two additional stores in Brooklyn and one in Queens (“All stores open until 10 p.m.”) and claimed, “Over 20,000 Bressner customers enjoy Television every day”.

RCA had three models that year; the previously mentioned Bystander, the Onlooker, and the Harrison.  All three models were the exact same television just housed in different cabinets.

The names RCA chose for its three models are interesting. By definition, an onlooker is a non-participant observer of an event while a bystander is merely present at an event and may or may not be observing what’s taking place. In fact, the bystander may not even be aware something is taking place. On the whole, I would say, RCA had a pretty good handle on what middle America was looking for as far as entertainment goes.

At the top of the product line, the Harrison was a console model that, in addition to a television, featured a Victrola phonograph and a radio. People who bought a Harrison were involved in their entertainment. They had choices. They made decisions.

The Harrison was probably named after the RCA plant in Harrison, New Jersey that was originally founded by Thomas Edison for the production of light bulbs.

Dad bought the Bystander.  After all, it was “America’s favorite Television” and, more important, it was the least expensive.

The ads proclaimed that RCA televisions of the day featured a 52-inch screen. I was surprised, I had always thought television screens of that era were tiny.  A closer look at the ad revealed the screens were 52 square inches.

The screens measured 6.5” x 8” and some companies did use the diagonal measurement we use today. That meant they were boasting their televisions had a 10-inch screen. It’s easy to see why RCA went with the square inch measurement.

There are stories in the newspapers in 1948 about Hollywood Studios refusing to allow their big stars to appear on this new medium. It appears the fear was, the transition from being larger than life on a movie screen to 4 or 5 inches tall on a television screen would both figuratively and literally diminish them.

After World War II, “television” was in all the newspapers. In 1945 it was widely reported that there were only 7000 television sets in the United States and that 5500 of those were in New York City. All over the country, from newspaper to newspaper, the numbers never vary, 7000 and 5500. North, South, East, West, big city, small town, local journalists had all gotten the same press release, 7000 sets in the entire country and 5500 of those in the Big Apple.

In an article about education in The Mount Pleasant News from September 22nd, 1945, an uncredited writer was apparently already concerned about the effect TV might have on children and asked, “What will happen when television operates in all homes all of every evening?

I suspect, if that writer saw a current cable channel guide or a single episode of The Kardashians, their head would explode.

It is clear from the article the writer feels that, when it came to television, in 1945, a critical level of moral decay had already been reached and drastic measures were needed. To keep children in line, the writer suggests that the discipline of the “bamboo stick” and the “black walnut ruler” should be brought back into the public school systems.

A “black walnut” ruler was so specific, it sent me off on another look around the internet.

The first hit at the top of the first page of my Google search turned up an Etsy artisan who makes something called a “Solid Black Walnut Ruler Holey Spanking Paddle”. They also craft, “Tender Butt Clacker”, “Stingy Slapper”, and “Ultra Thuddy” spanking paddles. At the time I wrote this, the Ultra Thuddy sold for $46US and came in cedar.

In spite of having the word “ruler” right in the name, the “Solid Black Walnut Ruler Holey Spanking Paddle”, is not, in fact, a ruler. It is ruler shaped.   It is rulerish.  It is rule adjacent. However, in spite of not actually being a ruler, to imagine that it was a ruler would only take a little willing suspension of disbelief and, most likely, a safe word.

The entrepreneur who fashions these woody delights explains on the Etsy site that they are “For Novelty Purposes” and claims to be “super discrete”. One would certainly hope so.

I would wager, that the writer who, back in 1945, suggested bringing the Black Walnut Ruler back into the classroom, would have found the Etsy site, at the very least, intriguing.

On a personal note, what I like best about these particular spanking paddles is, they are made in America.

As to the question of my dad’s motivation for purchasing a television, that is open to debate.  In 1949, there was seriously not much going on in the way of television programming.

Dad bought the set on Monday, June 13th. TeleVision Guide (Later TV Guide) was launched the very next day.  The previous week the Texaco Star Theatre with Milton Berle had debuted on NBC. The show had been a hit on radio during the war with Fred Allen as host, so that could have been the draw.

It could have been sports. There was some boxing and the first live coverage of the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness had taken place the month before on CBS.

Maybe the attraction was political. The end of June, NBC and CBS covered the Republican National Convention as they nominated New York Governor, Thomas Dewey and California Governor, Earl Warren for president and vice-president.

In the end, I suspect the real reason dad bought a television was, it was new technology and it fascinated him.  He was buying computer equipment well into his eighties.  He loved that kind of thing.

Author: Tom Parks

After 35 years of stand-up comedy and acting, I have retired to play golf and write for the sheer pleasure of it. With no schedules to keep, I am left with an abundance of time to follow both interests and distractions wherever they lead me. Life is pretty swell.

3 thoughts on “Buying a Television in 1949”

  1. I remember when color TV came out. Mrs. Weir down the street had one ! Right there in her living room ! Just like the movies. She would let all us kids on the block come in the watch Batman once a week. It was pure heaven.

    1. Mrs. Weir sounds like a champ. Where we grew up, it was the Schafer kids… Their parents were rich. I’m not saying the Schafers didn’t invite people over to look at their color TV… I’m just saying I wasn’t invited. And no, I DON’T think I’m holding a grudge… anymore. I am totally over it… mostly. Ok, ok…. I’m seeing a professional therapist and we’re working on it… Satisfied?

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