Photo Finish

Detrola crafted thousands of radios and cameras, but after producing M-1 minesweepers for the U.S. Army during World War II, it failed to regain its earlier success. While long gone, the brand, in a bid to nostalgia, lives on.
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Dynamic Range - Founded in 1931, Detrola Corp. found early success producing low-cost radios during the Depression. They soon developed private brand radios for department stores and merchants, and added cameras in 1939. // Courtesy of Mike Eckman
Dynamic Range – Started in 1931, Detrola Corp. found early success producing low-cost radios during the Depression. From there, they developed private brand radios for department stores and merchants, and added cameras in 1939. // Courtesy of Mike Eckman

Even as a novice photographer in the 1930s, Saul Leiter enjoyed the smooth precision and bold design of the Detrola camera his mother had given him. He went on to shoot photos for Life and show his fine-art efforts at the Museum of Modern Art. Around 1942, Robert Frank, another member of the New York School of photography, created an image titled “Detrola Camera” that he later gave to the National Gallery of Art.

Detrola Corp. of Detroit was an important manufacturer and significant brand. Detrola took its name by adding the suffix “ola” to make a new noun rooted in Detroit’s name. Player pianos called Pianolas started the trend in nomenclature in the late 19th century. Then came the Victor Talking Machine Co.’s Victrola phonograph, the Moviola film editor, and Motorola car radios.

Founded by John Ross in 1931, Detrola operated in Ecorse, then on nearby Fort Street, before moving into a spacious four-story factory at Beard and Chatfield streets in southwest Detroit. With about 1,000 employees, Detrola ranked as Michigan’s largest manufacturer of radios and, in 1936, it claimed to be No. 6 nationally. Contemporary collectors prize the PeeWee and Super PeeWee sets, which “took the market by storm,” according to an enthusiast’s blog. The Super PeeWee came in four colors; today, a rare lavender example can fetch thousands. While marketing products under its own name, Detrola also fulfilled contracts for Western Auto Truetone and Sears, Roebuck Silvertone radios.

Detrola somewhat resembled The Crosley Radio Corp. of Cincinnati, which Powel Crosley Jr. established in 1921. Crosley’s techniques of mass-manufacturing resulted in radio industry dominance. Instead of branching into cameras, though, Crosley introduced its innovative Shelvador refrigerator and, in 1939, a line of subcompact cars and trucks.

During World War II, Detrola produced M-1 minesweepers, electrical panels, and aircraft radios. // Courtesy of Mike Eckman
During World War II, Detrola produced M-1 minesweepers, electrical panels, and aircraft radios. // Courtesy of Mike Eckman

Detrola started to make cameras the same year. The venture lasted only two years but yielded memorable results. Low-cost, lightweight production meant using formed tinplate instead of metal castings and working with generous amounts of Bakelite, the thermoset plastic named for its inventor, Leo Baekeland. Ribs and grooves in a streamlined Art Deco style distinguished the bodies.

A February 1940 ad in Popular Photography claimed, “Thousands of camera enthusiasts agree: Detrola precision-built cameras top them all for extra value!” Five models ranged in price from $3.95 to $22.50, but the top-of-the-line Detrola 400 was $69.50. Features abounded on the 400: full-size frames, a 50-millimeter Wollensak Velostigmat lens, a Miracle Eye rangefinder, a built-in flash synchronizer, and a broad range of shutter speeds and exposure settings.

Camera production ended with the start of World War II, and Detrola joined the Arsenal of Democracy. Early in the conflict, it made the M-1 minesweeper for the U.S. Army. But John Ross sold his interests to International Machine Co., and the result was that International Detrola Corp. used “Detrola Radio” in ads. One promotion looked forward to the war’s end, boasting, “With the eclipse of the Rising Sun, Detrola will manufacture distinctive radio and television receivers (and) sturdy record changers, all of unparalleled design.”

Detrola did make record players, but operations ended in 1948 before the costly production of TVs commenced. Low margins were too much for Detrola’s medium-scale operations, and Motorola acquired the car-radio division. At some point the factory was demolished, and the Roberto Clemente Learning Academy now stands on the site.

Meanwhile, Crosley went out of business in 1956, but the new Crosley Brands revived the name in 1989. It has made a reproduction radio and the Detrola Crosley 5-in-1 Entertainment Center. And back at home, Shinola in Detroit has a line of Detrola wristwatches, including the irresistible 25-millimeter model called — what else? — the Pee-Wee. 

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