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By Oliver Arney
One of my favorite memories growing up was opening up a new cereal box and discovering a quirky prize. Sometimes you had to mail back the proof of purchase to get a cool toy, which I was happy to do. At the Tennessee State Museum, you may be surprised to learn that we have a mail-in prize from the early 1920s in our collection and on display – a radio made out of a Quaker Oats container. That’s right, the same cylindrical container of oatmeal that many of us grew up eating out of, can (and still can) be used as a radio. When I learned of it, I immediately I wanted to know why the Museum had the artifact and where it came from.
Quaker Oats Crystal Radio (Tennessee State Museum collection, 2001.19.145.1)
First, some brief history. Radio started as a theory in 1864; was proved possible by Heinrich Hertz by 1888; and by 1896 a patent for the first transmitter was submitted. Early radio did not consist of radio jockeys and music. Originally, the shipping industry was its biggest proponent. Radio possibly helped save 700 people from the Titanic disaster in 1912. The ship was using an early form of radio to communicate with other ships. Since radio was not as far reaching, operators from other ships had to project their message, which is how the Carpathia heard the distress call. When radio enthusiasts started broadcasting in 1906, the popularity of radio began to rise. By the 1920s, radio had become a major part of many Americans lives. The Grand Ole Opry started broadcasting in 1925.
Quaker Oats has been a popular brand in breakfast foods since the late 1800s. In 1915, they released the iconic cylindrical container. In order for consumers to expand their own knowledge on “how to cook oats,” the company began putting recipes on their boxes. Eventually, this would expand to include additional promotions. One of their most interesting promotions lasted from 1921-1923, when Quaker Oats would ship a crystal radio directly to customers who had sent them two proofs of purchase and a single dollar. Those two requirements are different today than they were in 1921. They did not have barcodes, so the proof of purchase would have been a cutout of the logo from the box. A dollar in January 1921 is equivalent to $13 thirteen dollars today.
Quaker Oats Factory, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Labeling and inspecting, c. 1920 (Library of Congress collection, LC-H814- 0466 [P&P])
The Quaker Oats container radio that the customer received back was a crystal radio – a simple radio consisting of a receiver, antenna, and a crystal detector – manufactured by Marquette Radio Corporation for Quaker Oats using a Quaker Oats container. Around the turn of the 20th Century, Greenleaf Whittier Pickard discovered that crystalline minerals could detect radio signals. Since the detector was made out of a crystalized mineral, the radio required no external power source. That’s because the mineral is a conductor and powered the radio by using the same radio waves it was detecting.
For a child or a radio enthusiast, crystal radios were a great way to get involved in this new phenomenon. They were small, easy to put together, and you could listen to the radio without having electricity. There were several downsides to using a crystal radio, however. The receiver was not that powerful, so a user could only hear stations with a powerful signal, which meant they were mostly local. Listening was also a challenge since you had to find headphones that could pick up a sensitive signal. Eventually, the invention of vacuum tubes would make these radios obsolete, although the hobby of making crystal radios – especially from Quaker Oats containers – continues today, mostly by enthusiasts and for science projects.
The Quaker Oats crystal radio that we have in our collection was not donated by an individual, but acquired from the Cumberland Science Museum in 2001. Founded in 1946 as the Children’s Museum of Nashville, it changed its named to 2003 to what we now know as the Adventure Science Center. Sadly, we do not know who owned this originally, but we are sure glad that we have it now. You can seek out this item and many more like it online by searching our collection here or by visiting the Museum when we open back up to the public. It’s on display in our Change and Challenge gallery.
If you think this is a unique promotion from Quaker Oats, search online for the Klondike Big Inch Land Promotion.
Oliver Arney is a Museum Program Assistant at the Tennessee State Museum
Sources and additional information:
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