Masthead

Notes on Webcor Products

Webster Chicago logoA Brief History of Webcor

A lot of this information is salt & peppered through the site, but this gathers it together and makes a good collection space for anything that is useful or interesting to know but doesn't really fit elsewhere.

Webster-Chicago, of Chicago, Illinois, is known primarily for three consumer-electronics product lines: wire recorders, tape recorders, and phonographs. They dabbled in other lines, but those are their main claims to fame.

The company began as Webster-Chicago (possibly to avoid confusion with Webster Electric, of Racine, Wisconsin. Webster Electric made products under name Ekotape). The earliest mention I can find is that they made wire recorders for the Navy during World War II. After the war, they began making wire recorders for the civilian market.

Wire recorders used a spool of wire as their medium. Steel wire (or iron-coated metal wire) could be magnetized and would thus store information. Wire had the advantage of high tensile strength—it was difficult to break or stretch. It did, however, have to be wound nicely on a spool and the tape recorde mechanism had to do it (as opposed to tape, where the tape simply wound on top of itself). Until anti-spill was developed, one could take a spool out and have it quickly unravel into a mess. Early machines had fixed spools. Later machines with removable spools had an anti-spill method to keep the wire on the spool.

Wire recorders were primarily aimed at business, where they were used as dictation machines. Many Webster-Chicago machines had foot controls so the typist could stop and start the recorder without taking her hands off the typewriter.

A first-season episode of the television series, Mission: Impossible, called "A Spool There Was," has Martin Landau and Barbara Bain trying to recover a wire recording that was hidden by a friendly agent.

Tape recorders also appeared right after World War II, but it wasn't until around 1950 that they really began to challenge wire, and then quickly killed the wire-recorder market. Tape machines were easier to thread, easier to edit, and easier to handle. By the mid-50s, wire recorders were pretty much dead.

Webcor logoWebster-Chicago Corporation's early logos were W/C, but early 1950s machines incorporated their shortened nickname, Webcor. Sometime in the late 50s Webcor, Inc. became their official company name, and their logos simply used a W of some sort.

Early information about the company is spotty and I haven't yet been able to find much. According to mentions in back issues of the Chicago Tribune, it was founded in 1914 by Rudolf (R. F.) Blash, who would run it until his death in 1956.

An internet blog (progress...) says that the company was an important part of the talking pictures transition in the late 20s, and developed the inter-office intercom for businesses. None of this carries source attributions.

Exactly how the name came about is a mystery. Webster-Chicago may have been coined to avoid confusion with Webster Electric, of Racine, Wisconsin. Webster Electric made products under name Ekotape).

During the World War II, they made wire-recorders for the Navy. When they changed back to civilian production after the war, they sold wire recorders to businesses.

Blash died in April of 1956, and was succeeded by Titus Haffa who bought a large block of shares from Blash at a time when Blash was estate-planning. Haffa was quite the character. He'd been a Chicago alderman during prohibition and wasn't shy about using his position to gain and grant favors. In 1929 he was convicted of a violation of the prohibition laws and served 17 months of a 2-year sentence at the Leavenworth Federal Penn, before being sprung by a presidential pardon. His name was linked with the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, possibly as a catalyst because the event took place about the time he was set to go to prison.

It appears he landed on his feet. He ended up running Dormeyer, Camfield Manufacturing, and Haber corp, according to the Chicago Tribune, when he joined Webcor. When Blash died a year later, Haffa became chairman of the board and immeditely cleaned house. A firing of several vice presidents by telegram prompted the resignation of the company's president as well. It may have been the thing to do—Webcor continued to grow and be a market leader well into his tenure.

Webcor logo - lateBut it wasn't all rose-pedal walkways. R. F. Blash had tried to sell the company to Emerson, the big TV and radio manufacturer in New York, claiming that they had different but complimentary lines that would benefit everyone; but a shareholder revolt killed the deal. Haffa tried it again in 1959, at the Webcor's peak—going so far as to sell a large block of his own stock. After another shareholder crisis, he ended up having to buy it back at a loss, and the Emerson deal was gone for good.

Most american manufacturers ran into trouble competing against less expensive Japanese imports in the early 60s (much the way the Japanese suffered from less expensive Korean and Chinese products in the 1990s through today). In June of 1967, Haffa sold controlling interest to Victor Nemeroff of Argus camera, Howard Jacobsohn of Electro Engineering Products, and a group who would end up making Webcor part of Consolidated Merchandising. Webcor became the American brand for Japanese imports (much the way Roberts was the American face of Akai). There is at least one full-size reel machine from this era (model 2500), but mostly I've seen cassette players and radios. They disappeared again in the early 70s.

Webcor Lark fonografAccording to the Chicago Tribune (June 22, 1967):

In the last several years Webcor has been reporting big operating losses. Sales have declined from a high of $49,375,681 in 1962 to a low of $12,325,510 last year.

The company's stock earlier this month was removed from listing on the Midwest Stock Exchang because the company' net worth had fallen well below the minimum requirement of $500,000. The stock is now sold over-the-counter.

According to unaudited figures of the exchange, Webcor in the nine months ended Feb. 28 had a deficit of $342,624 on $8,915,348 in sales.

They Webcor name was purchased and used by another company in the early 1980s, mostly used as a brand of telephone. They then disappeared again until the early 2000s, when it was again used for other cheapo things. I haven't seen it recently.

Fonografs

Webcor made a number of record players, which they called "fonografs," concurrently with their wire and tape machines. Some day I may expand to include them, but at the moment I'm just not interested enough to do the work. As far as I can tell, Webcor made a slew of them; there were already far more tape recorders than I had thought when I started this; I don't want to open up another one of Fibber McGee's closets and be buried under Webcors' phonographs as well.

Also: I don't own any. I've got a half-an-eye out for their Lark, which is the record player Jack Lemmon had in his ice house in the movie Grumpy Old Men (before it was dumped into lake by Walter Matthau). Some day if I find one cheap, I'll probably starting adding phonos somewhere.

Webor "Music Man" ad - 1962Product Placement

There's an interesting short article by George Simkowski on a site called Talentzoo.com. Simkowski was Webcor's Advertising Manager during the Haffa years, and tells of two product tie-ins. The first was providing a Regent Coronet tape machine for the movie Bachelor in Paradise, one of the few good movies Bob Hope made in the 1960s. In 1962, Simkowski concocted a big promotion with the film version of The Music Man. Along with a big contest for children to show off their musical skills, Webcor's model 2356 tape recorder and model 1356 phonograph were each named "the Music Man." Pretty nice ones, too.

Names and Model Numbers

Like many companies, Webcor had a habit making a number of variations on a basic model and giving each one a separate model number but the same name, regardless of how important or trivial the differences are. An excellent example is the Regent, which is covers nine different model numbers: all record mono only, five play stereo, two have remote control features, and one has a two-channel input in place of a single-channel output. And that's just the Regent.

It also doesn't help that there are no consistent, logical rules for designating model numbers. Sometimes it makes sense: the 81 wire recorder was upgraded to the 181; the 228 became the 288, and so forth. But tape recorders are the wild west. Most of them are 2000-series numbers (with the 210 and 240 being early exceptions), but after that it's anybody's guess. The 2020 series is five units: 2020 through 2024, and the last digit designates the cabinet style. Whereas the 2800/2900 series uses the last to digits to differentiate features (mono, stereo, remote control, etc.), and the numbers have large gaps between them: there's a 2810, 2819, 2020, 2910, 2919, 2923, 2950 and 2955; they're all fundamentally the same machine—why not give them consecutive numbers?

Stuff like that is what makes creating and maintaining the comparison tables so frustrating.

Mono and Stereo

I grew up in the era of 8-tracks and cassettes, and the mono/stereo problem did not come up much. 8-tracks were commercial pre-records so you played them only, and they were stereo. Commercial pre-recorded cassettes were stereo play. Growing up I only had mono-cassette recorders and never thought about it until I started to write this section. Stereo recording was mainly done on cassette decks that were jacked into the tuner/amp, and designed to record off the radio, turntable or (later) the CD player.

But reel machines are a different animal, particularly the ones from the 1950s. Reel-to-reel tape machines went through an incredibly rapid development period. From a consumer point of view, you went from ground zero in 1950 to 4-track stereo in about a ten year period. Like many other products that went through a similar fast development (e.g. computers), the future was never clear cut; manufacturers struggled to appear current while trying to sell the equipment they'd already manufactured, all the while never being sure if the decisions they made for next year's model were going to make them a fortune or drive them into bankruptcy.

At the center of the mono/stereo recording system is the "track." If you imagine a length of tape, you can divide it horizontally into tracks, like lanes on a highway.

A full-track recording uses the entire width of the tape, so you can only record in one direction. Early machines and early, monoaural professional machines use this method. It's rarely seen on consumer machines.

Half-track recording provides two tracks, with a gap in-between so one doesn't leak into the other. Early monoaural machines are half-track. Each track goes in a different direction, so each track is a "side" of tape. On most older reel machines, you'd record or play one side of the tape, and then flip it over and record or play the other side. Webcor machines, even the earliest model 210, could record and play in either direction and you didn't have to flip the reel unless you wanted to. Half track is monoaural.

Now things get interesting.

Stereo requires two tracks, typically called a Left and a Right track (to mimic the listener's left and right ears).

A Note About Play/Record Speeds

If you only grew up with cassette players, you don't think in terms of speeds. But it works a lot like the old VHS videotape speeds: the faster the speed, the higher the quality, but the shorter the recording time because you go through tape faster. Reel recorder speeds are measured in inches-per-second (IPS).

7-½ IPS is the highest speed found on consumer machines. It offers the best fidelity (it's usually the speed where frequency response data are quoted), but it goes through tape the fastest. It's best for music or anything where sound quality is important. If you buy pre-recorded 4-track reel tapes, the ones recorded at 7-½ IPS will sound better than those with slower speeds. Just about all Webcors (except the Microcorder) have this speed.

3-¾ is commonly found on consumer machines. It uses half the amount of tape in a given amount of time, but the trade-off is fidelity. The low-end (bass) doesn't suffer much, but the high-end sounds are typically cut in half, which means you get a muddier, AM radio quality sound. This is best for voice recording, even female voices, the very high frequencies aren't necessary. Many commercial 4-track pre-recorded tapes run at this speed. The sound quality isn't as good but the price was lower because they used less tape. Just about all Webcors (except the Microcorder) have this speed.

1-7/8 mostly shows up in the 1960s, along with 3" reel tapes, for voice recording where audio fidelity isn't required. They're good for audio letters, dictation, recording lecturers or interviews, and other things where you need to use as little tape as possible. Cassette and cartidge systems use this speed. I was apalled to see it was used on a commercial pre-recorded 4-track stape. Only a few Webcors use this speed.

Webcor Tape Records ad - 1954Tapes and Records

Webcor branded a number of tapes and records in the 1950s, partly as a way of providing content for the product. I don't personally have any, but I'll add a few examples here if I come across some.

Webcor Shortens Line for 1960

The following appeared in Billboard magazine, June 15, 1959

Chicago — In marked contrast to other leading electronic manufacturers who have bowed stereo playback (tape and disk) lines thus far, Webcor is shortening its line. Tho tightening up the total number of units, the local playback maker is extending its price scope from a low of $37.95 to a high of $390, while last year's line ranged from $99.50 to $625.

In addition to the two self-contained stereo manually-operated Webcor portables at $37.95 and $39.95 (Billboard May 4), Webcor's portable line includes three other new carryables. The Holiday, at $79.95, and the Holiday-Coronet at $99.95, are four-speed automatic changer equipped with slave speaker detachable from the front of the amster enclosure. The Holiday has two wide-range speakers, while the Coronet has a pair of five-inch oval speakers. The $139.95 Holiday Imperial packs 14-watts thru one Bass Frequency Distribution woofer in the master control, while two winged detachable speaker units each carry a five-inch mid-range speaker. All Webcor dual channel portables are available in a variety of two color combinations.

Webcor has six new consoles, three of which offer the dealer real versaitlity in selling because they come as stereo disk playback units only or can be equipped with either AM radio, FM radio or with stereo radio AM-FM combination. Bud Letzler, national sales head, said that exact price of these drop-in features has not yet been ascertained, but will be announced at the NAMM convention.

The three flexible all-in-one consoles, which may add the radio features include: the Moderne ($299.95), a modern styled lowboy with 30-watt peak output thru one 10-inch woofer, a pair of six-inch mid-ranges and two four-inch tweeters, a Contemporary ($289.95), a 60-watt peak output thru one 15-inch woofer, two six-inch mid-ranges and two 4-inch tweeters in a contemporary console design; and the Ravinia Coronet ($369.95), a futuristic lowboy console with 60-watt peak thru a speaker set-up identical to the Contemporary. All Webcor consoles and consolettes feature the Bass Frequency Distribution and dual amplifiers os that all of the all-in-one consoles may be utilized with matching Webcor stereo speakers ranging in price from $24.95 to $79.95 by simply jacking in speaker to master playback unit.

Low-end consolette is the Muiscale ($149.95), an eight-watt peak unit thru two 5-inch mid-ranges and one 6-inch woofer, in an ultra modern thin rectangular cabinet on brass legs. Cabinet carries space for record storage. Innovation ($395.95), a modern lowboy with 30-watt peak thru an identical speaker system with the Moderne. The Constellation is an extremely versatile console, which may be used all-in-one or both speaker units may be removed from the unit itself and palced up to 10 feet from the master unit if such separation is desired. Both speaker units are equipped with handles to make for easy removal. The physical appearance of the set is not changed with speakers are removed because spakers are removed from the rear of the console.

The Minuet ($179.95) is a cubical modern styling all-in-one stereo disk system, with an optional identical cabinet containing matching speaker system ($79.95) . Unit offers 14-watt peak thru one 10-inch woofer and two five-inch high-frequency speakers. Two matched units may be placed together to appear as one furniture piece or may be placed apart.

In additional to the Royalite monaural tape recorder introduced earlier this year, Webcor offers four reel-to-reel tape recorders. The lightweight Regent ($59.95) is a monoaural three-speed portable, while the Regent remote control ($159.95) offers the remote control feature. Both are 8W peak instruments. The Royalite stereo ($239.95) has a 16W amp, working through matching elliptical speakers, while the Regent Coronet ($289.95) through a similar wattage and two wide-range speakers offers the additional feature of being able to record in stereo. Both Webcor recorders play either two or four track pre-recorded tape.

What is my Webcor Worth?

Before I start I want to make this clear. As I say on my contact page: I am not an expert. I keep a casual eye for Webcors, Reveres and Wollensak tape recorders (and a few other makes), so what I'm going to tell you are my own observations over the years. I invite anyone who knows what he's talking about to email me and correct me if and where I'm mistaken.

Also: this isn't meant for museum-quality machines owned by a collector who has all the accessories and all the documentation and the original sales slip and looks like it was stored in a bank vault from the moment it was purchased. This is meant for people who find a machine in Uncle Fred's closet and they want to price it for an estate or a yard sale, and they want to know whether it's worth a couple hundred bucks or if it's just a white elephant.

So what is my vintage reel-to-reel recorder worth?

Probably very little.

Reel-to-reels are impressive but they're big, heavy, they take up a lot of room, and most people don't want to put up with the hassle of running them. You can take a brand new LP and play it on a 1950s era record player as long as it runs 33-1/3rd rpm, but you can't buy reel-to-tapes anymore—not even blanks. The thrift shops have stacks of old LPs, including 78s, and cassettes. But very few have reel tapes. The few you find are usually someone's home recordings. Pre-recorded 4-track tapes tend to be from the early to mid-60s. Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and other classic rock titles might be collectable, but more likely you're going to find Ferrante & Teicher, Brasil '66, "Exodus and other Great Movie Themes"—that sort of thing.

If it were me, I would start the price at $20. And then modify it as I explain below.

Age isn't in your favor. Most people think electronics, whether they're radios, TVs, tape recorders, cameras—even toasters, are older than they really are. A few tape recorders came out in the early 50s, but the vast majority show up in the mid-to-late 1950s and through the 1960s. The American-made machines (Webcor, Revere, Wollensak, V-M, etc.) have a hey-day from the 50s through the early 1960s. With the rise of the Vietnam war, the dominate reel machines are Japanese. The earlier ones have American brands (Roberts, Concertone, Webcor) but later the Japanese names dominate (Sony, TEAC, Akai).

The youngest machines tend to be the most valuable. Pioneers from the 1970s, for instance, fetch quite a price (i.e. over $100). The later Akais, TEACs, Sonys, even Panasonics, etc., from the 1970s onward do better than 1960s era machines, and forget the 1950s. Machines from the 1970s have a modern, sleek look. They're almost always table models—meant to sit on a bookshelf or cabinet and typically hooked up to a tuner/amp and big, separate speakers. They're audiophile equipment.

Machines from the late 1960s look similar but tend to have wood cabinets and a "mod" look. They play the 4-track stereo tapes (the Ferrante & Teicher, Brasil '66, commercially pre-recorded stuff I mentioned above). Pricing on them is tough because you don't see many of them; I'm not going to hazard a guess, but I'd think maybe $50?

Machines from the 1950s and early 60s, however, are not very valuable and few people collect them. They may look neat, but they're heavy, they take a lot of room, and unless you have tapes you want to play, you're stuck. Machines from the 1950s were 1/2-track monoaural, which means they won't properly play 4-track pre-recorded tapes. 2-track mono machines (very late 50s and 1960s) may or may not properly play 4-track tapes, depending on the machine. So unless you have a bunch of tapes for the machine to play—what you've got is just a curiosity. It's kind of like owning an old cartridge video game system, like a Magnavox Odyssey or an Intellivision.

Small Portables are Not Valuable. In the mid-to-late 60s, many companies made small, truly portable machines that ran on a fistful of C or D batteries, took little 3" reels and ran at slow speeds: 1-7/8" or 3-3/4 inches-per-second. They were used by reporters who would tape interviews, college students to tape lectures, or people who record and play audio-letters for friends and relatives. If you ever saw Apocalypse Now, they had one on the boat playing a letter from home when they came under a javelin attack (about 2/3rd of the way through the movie). They were great for that. But they don't play the full-size, 7" prerecorded reels. And the slow speeds mean the sound quality is fair to abysmal. I'm sure a few people collect them, but for the most part they're "working" machines and people who want a compact recorder either get small cassette or digital recorders that do the same thing on AA or AAA batteries, with better sound, more features, and fewer headaches. I would price compact portables at $10.

How Much Stuff Does It Have/is Missing? I recently bought two Webcors and both of them were missing the AC power cord. A lot of the older American machines had unpluggable cords that were kept inside the cabinet top—Wollensaks do that in particular. Later Japanese makes tend to just have brackets on the back for the able to wind onto (e.g. my Roberts machines). You can make a replacement cord for some machines—I just use a straight-end extension cord for my Webcors, but the Wollensak has an odd end and you have to be more creative to make a replacement.

Some machines loose the microphone. Usually there's a clip in the case top or storage somewhere for it. Machines from the 50s almost always come with a microphone. The higher-end stereo machines from the early 60s would have two. Usually it ought to be obvious whether it comes with one or two, but even if only has one, that's good. Machines from the late 60s onward may not have any. The main thing is to see if there's a clip or storage spot for one in the cabinet—if there is, it should have the microphone.

Vew people these days are going to actually record, but it looks better if the microphone is there, even if the mike doesn't work.

Some machines came with other accessories, like patch cables to go into other machines, or record players or tuner/amps. They're nice if you have them but not a big deal if you don't. Owner's manuals are nice to have, especially now since most people don't know how to run a reel machine anymore, but are not required.

How Does it Look? Most machines from the 50s were styled to look like luggage: fabric covered wood. The fabric tends to get faded, stained or frayed, but that's normal. Some look they spent the last 5 years sitting in the back yard, exposed to the elements. If you can do anything to clean up the cabinet, that would help. Fabric can be tacked down with glue. Shoe polish can help with some of the bad spots. On bare wood, try some furniture cleaner like Old English. Try plastic polish (you can get it at auto-parts stores) for the plastic.

Does It Play? Forget whether it records, because almost nobody's going to use it to record anymore. But does it play? You're much more likely to sell it if you can demonstrate that it works. It amazes me how many people on eBay are either too lazy or unwilling to do anything more than plug it in and see if any lights turn on. That doesn't tell you a lot. They expect someone like me to pay a chunk of money for something and then I have to fix it afterward.

If the machine came with a tape, see if you can get it to play. If you don't know how to thread the machine and make it play, try a YouTube search—there are a number of videos that demonstrate how to do it, or at least show it running so you can figure it out yourself. Most reel machines have two speeds, some have three, so if it plays too slow, try the faster speed, and vice-versa. If you can get it to play, you're ahead of the game.

You can do this with a lot of machines but it works best on the bigger, better ones from the late 60s. Get a 4-track stereo commercial pre-recorded tape, preferably one that plays at 7-1/2 IPS (best quality). Plug the machine into a modern tuner amplifier (like an 80s stereo system) with big speakers. Just plug it into the amp's "cassette" ports. Start it running and turn up the volume. Even if you're not a fan of the period music, it sounds incredible. I don't particularly care for Herb Alperb and the Tijuana Brass, but playing a 7-1/2 IPS, 4-track, stereo reel though my Pioneer stereo and my big speakers really makes those trumpets come alive.

What If It Doesn't Work? Price accordingly. Someone may want it as a parts machine. Or may be able to fix it.

It Probably Just Needs Tubes. Maybe, but not likely. That's like having a car that won't start and saying it just needs new spark plugs. Most reel machines (and this goes for radios too) don't need new tubes. If they fail electrically, usually they need new capacitors. The good news is you can get new capacitors and replace them. The bad news is that you have to know what to get, how to solder, and which ones to replace.

Mechanically, reel recorders may fail in a number of places. It's possible that the motors can be freed up and a few key spots lubricated. But again, you need to know what you're doing.

Very likely, you need belts. Just about all reel recorders (and most phonographs) use rubber belts to transfer power from the motors to other parts of the machine. Rubber belts get old and either stretch, break, or disintegrate. I had a CD player apart recently where the belts turned into goo. Bad belts can mean that the machine turns on but won't run. Or one reel will turn but the other won't. Or it's turn too slowly at its rated speed. To replace the belt you have to figure out the correct size, figure out where to order it from, and then take the unit apart to put it on.

Why You Probably Don't Want to Work On It Yourself if you don't know what you're doing: shock hazard. Solid state (transistorized) electronics generally run at low voltages (modern stuff is in the 12 to 15 volt range. Older stuff may be 50 volts), but tube amplifiers can run 200, 300 volts or more, and the low voltage stuff (like a 12 volt motor) may pull heavy amperage. Old televisions can kill you outright, but an old radio, reel recorder, amplifier, etc., even if it doesn't have sky-high voltages, can still ight you like a pinball machine and go tilt. If you aren't familiar with working with tube equipment, don't do it.

What about Webster-Chicago Wire Recorders? That's a tough one. I see that sometimes they sell, sometimes not. The problem is that they were sold and used primarily as business machines, not consumer. So unless you have an old wire you want to listen to, they're really just a piece of industrial art. Rather like having an old adding machine or a manual typewriter: you can still use them, but mainly they're now just decoration.

So that's it, folks. I can't offer much more than that. The old machines have a lot of character but are mostly curiosities. The newer machines are more desirable because you can still use them. Any of them are better if they work, otherwise they're just parts donors.

 

©opyright by James Ollinger. All Rights Reserved.