Following his graduation from high school, Bill Yoder and a friend floated down the Erie Canal from Auburn to Schenectady in a boat turned into a photography studio and paid for their trip by taking and selling picture postcards of people’s homes. When Bill and his friend reached Schenectady, Bill’s friend returned to Auburn. Bill applied for a job with General Electric, was hired, and worked initially with Charles Steinmetz. Bill Yoder waited until his nineties to write his memoirs. I am privileged to own a copy. Bill was born before the age of flight and died after man landed on the moon. I reread Bill’s memoir from time to time to remind myself how fortunate he was to be at the right place at the right time so many times during his life.
The older I get, the more I find myself reflecting back and analyzing my past. It is part of the aging process. I often have the same feelings about my life experiences as I have for those my good friend Bill Yoder experienced. I have been extremely fortunate to have been at the right place at the right time multiple times during my life.
[Author’s Note #1: I suspect many “Rinker on Collectibles” readers have this same feeling. The right place for one individual is not the same as the right place for another. Is it kismet, luck, or deliberate planning that puts a person in the right place at the right time? Or, is it some combination of the three?]
This “right time at the right place” column is about how a technological revolution during my youth had a major impact on me and what I garnered from it. The technological revolution was television.
I remember life before television. Many of my contemporaries and those in the generation that immediately followed me do as well. In my case, I was fortunate to grow up within television’s initial frontier, the Atlantic seaboard between Boston and Washington, D.C.
In 1929, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), located in Camden, New Jersey, hired Vladimir Zworykin to head a team to develop and conduct field tests for television transmission. In 1933, the team successfully transmitted an image of Mickey Mouse to a test site in Collingswood, New Jersey. In nearby Philadelphia, Philo T. Farnsworth was hired by the Philco Radio Corporation in 1932 to conduct experiments similar to those of Zworykin. W3XE, located at Philco’s plant at C and Tioga Street, was established in the same year. Farnsworth left Philco but continued his research at the University of Pennsylvania until he left the region in 1938. By 1941 (the year I was born), there were close to 7,000 television sets in the United States and 50 hours of national and local programming. Limited broadcasting continued during World War II.
The first commercial stations appeared in the Philadelphia region in the mid-1940s. Channels 3 (WPTZ and later KYW, NBC), 6 (WPVI, ABC), and 10 (WCAU, CBS) broadcast signals providing television coverage within Pennsylvania’s Delaware Valley, southern New Jersey, and northern Delaware.
My parents moved from Dundalk, Maryland, to my mother’s parents’ home in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in 1946. Grandpop Prosser did not have a television. There were two reasons. First, he was incredibly thrifty. Newfangled gadgets had no appeal for him. The second reason was South Mountain, a large mountain range just South of Bethlehem that effectively blocked the Philadelphia stations’ television signals. Keep reading to see how this geographical feature has impacted how almost everyone watches television today.
In the fall of 1948, my parents moved from Bethlehem to Hellertown. From a right place at the right time perspective, this move was judicious. Hellertown was on the south side of South Mountain with clear access to the Philadelphia television transmissions.
My family’s first television set, a Philco with a 12” screen, arrived in 1950. Although the dial had 13 channels, only channels 3, 6, and 10 produced images that one could watch. The set initially had a rabbit ear antenna which my father was constantly adjusting to get the clearest picture possible. Eventually, he installed a rooftop, rotating antenna that he could adjust from a box on top of the television set. Each time he switched the channel, he rotated the antenna. In the pre-clicker era, this was a major form of exercise for male household members.
On June 27, 1947, several years before my family acquired its first television, NBC established the first regularly operated television network. The network served Boston, Schenectady, New York City, Baltimore, and Washington, DC. As a result, I was exposed to national as well as local programming from the moment a television arrived in my house.
At first, national networks did not begin their weekday broadcast until 7:00 o’clock in the evening. Children’s shows filled much of the daytime hours. “Uncle” Pete Boyle hosted “Lunch Time with Uncle Pete” on Channel 3. Sally Star hosted Popeye Theater on Channel 6. The syndicated “Howdy Doody Show” was a popular after school favorite.
Because so many shows were local, local children had the opportunity to visit Philadelphia and be part of the audience. In the early 1950s, I attended one of the broadcasts of CBS’s Big Top, a circus themed show that originated from the 32nd Street and Lancaster Avenue Philadelphia Armory. Little did I realize that Ed the Clown was Ed McMahon who became Johnny Carson’s sidekick.
In the spring of 1958, the senior class at the Hellertown-Lower Saucon Joint Junior Senior High School, sponsored a bus trip for the junior and senior classes to Dick Clark’s American Bandstand broadcasting live on the national ABC network. I keep meaning to ask my Class of 1959 classmates or those from the Class of 1958 if they can provide me with the exact date of the trip. If there is a tape of the show, I want a copy.
I was addicted to television. The same applied to my father, especially if a western was televised. Together, we saw the first episode of almost every television western from The Hopalong Cassidy and Roy Rogers shows to Gunsmoke and Bonanza.
In 1958, NBC launched Continental Classroom which was broadcast in the early morning hours. Season 1 (1958) offered a college credit course in physics. Although a junior in high school, I was determined to arise every morning and watch the show. I even bought the textbook. The course began on October 6, 1958 and consisted of 165 lectures. I did not stay the course. I gave up after two months.
I did not realize at the time how my television addiction would serve me well during my career as a writer in the antiques and collectibles field. Besides watching the shows, I ate a great deal of the advertised products, usually to gain access to the premiums that came with them. I drank out of Welch’s grape glasses until I left for college.
The 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s were the golden age of television licensed collectibles. At the very least, the primetime shows had a boxed board game or lunch box. In many cases, the licensed products number in the high teens. My friends and I received these for birthdays, Christmas, and after constantly pleading with our parents that we just had to have one. By the late 1970s, television shows became increasing more adult in their content. The number of licensed products decreased.
Early I promised to explain how South Mountain in eastern Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley impacts how you watch television. Because residents of Bethlehem and Allentown could not easily receive Philadelphia television transmission, John Watson founded Service Electric Cable, the first community antenna television system in the United States. Service Electric, located in Mahanoy City, pioneered the concept of cable television. As Paul Harvey said: “Now you know the rest of the story.”
This is only one of the many right time, right place stories in my lifetime. Do you have a story you wish to share? Email it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[Author’s Note #2: Every collector can relate dozens of right time, right place stories concerning the purchases of key items in his/her collection. Mine would fill dozens of columns. This column’s focus is different. It is about time periods, moments, or experiences that shaped a person’s mindset – the big picture if you prefer. For some reason, perhaps it is because I am getting older, I find myself reflecting and thinking about these experiences more than objects. Maybe I should wait until my nineties to start writing my memoir.]
Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Selected letters will be answered in this column. Harry cannot provide personal answers. Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned. Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Point Court SE, Kentwood, MI 49512. You also can e-mail your questions to email@example.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered.