The August Artifact of the Month is a 1954-55 Admiral black-and-white television set.  Glen and Nellie Birdsell, of Bushnell, recently donated the television to the museum.  The Birdsells are the original owners of the television, having purchased it in approximately 1954, and they have kept it in their family for the past 59 years.

Remember don’t touch that dial, and stay tuned, or turn the channel?  If you remember any of those sayings, then you remember when televisions had dials with numbers used to select a channel.  It was a time before remote controls when parent made children jump up to change the channel.

Televisions have changed since their introduction in the 1950s, when Americans were buying its first black and white set.

During the 1940s and ’50s, acquiring a television was a momentous event for a family.  Nellie (Murfin) Birdsell remembers fondly purchasing the Admiral television set on display at the museum because it marked of a special time in a special place during her life.   Both Nellie and her husband, Glen, were born and raised in Macomb, and they got married in 1951. During the Korean War, Glen was assigned to the USS Chanticleer (ASR7), an air-sea/submarine rescue ship based in San Diego.  From October 16, 1951 to July 1, 1955, Glen was a petty officer third class.

Nellie remembered the television set as a part of their married life in San Diego as a young couple, living in their first apartment together.  Nellie recalls that Glen was paid $85 a month, and there was not a lot of money for going out on the town. They enjoyed spending time staying home and watching the television together.  Their life as young marrieds was simple.  Nellie recalled, “I remember our first apartment together in San Diego, I got old orange crates from the grocery store, brought them home and put a cloth on them and we used them as our end tables.”

After Glen finished his time in the Navy, the young couple returned to their western Illinois roots and moved to Bushnell in 1956, in order to be near Nellie’s grandparents and help take care of them.  They brought their Admiral television set with them when they moved, and gave it to Nellie’s grandparents to watch.

Nellie’s grandparents enjoyed watching the television until 1968 when they passed.   At that time, Nellie cleaned out her grandparent’s home and stored the television set away in the garage.  As Nellie admits, she is a “sentimental keeper,” and she kept the television because every time she saw it it reminded her of living in San Diego as a young naval bride with her new husband.

Through the years, the television sat silently in the garage, carefully covered.  Nellie recalls Glen grumbling about getting rid of the set every time he had to move it to get to things in the garage.  However, Nellie held on to the television, same as she kept the memories of being a bride at the age of 17 and the early married years living in California.

It was not until May of this year when Nellie saw the story in the newspaper about the Western Illinois Museum antique radio display at the east branch of the First Bankers Trust bank that she thought about the television set, and thought perhaps if the museum had a collection of radios, they might be interested in a television set.

Nellie says, “I just didn’t want to throw it away.”  Thinking that the television would be better appreciated at the museum than in the garage, Nellie and Glen donated it to the museum in June. For the museum, the television set, which is in excellent condition, represents significant developments in broadcast technology of the 1950 and is an important addition the museum’s collection of early electronics and appliances.  Now the television joins other historical artifacts as an illustration of what life was like in the 1950s, educating young museum visitors who have never seen a TV like this, or do not know what “don’t touch that dial!” means.

The Admiral television on display is a T1812B model; it has a 17″ diagonal screen, and is designed as a tabletop model.  The cabinet is made of Bakelite, a type of early plastic, in a brown color. The television sold for $149.95 in 1954, which in 2013 dollars is equivalent to about $1,300.00.  The T1812 came out in 1954 and the T1812B model (slightly modified) came out in 1955.
During the 1950s and 60s, Admiral was a leading maker of televisions and appliances. The company was founded as Continental Radio and Television Corp. in 1934 and later changed its name to Admiral Corp.

During World War II Admiral supplied the US military with electronic equipment; business grew due to war demands and after the war, Admiral began producing televisions. In 1949, Admiral produced 400,000 television sets. It made more than one million televisions in 1950 and in the following year, it manufactured five million sets.   Admiral was one of the first major advertisers on television, sponsoring Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” and Notre Dame Football games.

During the 1950s, the range of products Admiral produced grew beyond radios and television sets to include phonographs, record changers, electric refrigerators and freezers, room air conditioners, electric ranges, and other consumer products.  The growth of the company reflected the prosperity of post-World War II America.

Admiral televisions were innovative. While other companies were making large, bulky, expensive models in the early years, Admiral sold small, low-priced table models in a plastic cabinet, such as the T1812B model on display at the museum. Admiral was also in the forefront producing and selling color television sets.

Seeing this television set is sure to bring back memories to those who lived during the 1950s, and for those younger than that, it is a graphic reminder of how far television has developed in the last 60 years.

From and essay by Heather Munro