Don’t Use It Wear It – Radio Hat was basically the geekiest invention of 1949

Neil Patrick
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In the early ’30s, there was a boom in the exploration of wireless radio, but long before the transistor  offered such an option, something called, “Radio Hat” was seen at the streets of Paris in 1931. This later was renamed as Dadaist Radio Hat. Although, this fashionable portable radio never made it, the idea of  “don’t use it wear it” led to the later invention of the  “Man-from-Mars Radio Hat.” that was a huge hit in 1949.

The  1949’s Radio Hat was a portable radio built into a pith helmet that would bring in stations within a 20 mile (32 km) radius. It was introduced in early 1949 for $7.95 as the “Man-from-Mars Radio Hat.” Thanks to a successful publicity campaign, the Radio Hat was sold at stores from coast to coast in the United States.

The Radio Hat was manufactured by American Merri-Lei Corporation of Brooklyn N.Y. The company was a leading supplier of party hats, noise makers, and other novelty items. Its founder, Victor Hoeflich, had invented a the machine to make paper Hawaiian leis while still in high-school (1914), and by 1949 the company shipped millions of leis to Hawaii each year. An inventor and gadgeteer, Hoeflich continued to develop and even sell machinery that manufactured paper novelty items.

Battery-operated portable radios had been available for many years, but Hoeflich hoped a radio with innovative packaging and a publicity campaign could be a runaway success. The transistor had just been invented, but was still an expensive laboratory curiosity; the first pocket transistor radio was still 5 years away. This radio would have to use the existing vacuum tube technology and the tubes would be a prominent design feature. The loop antenna and the tuning knob were also visible. The hat was available in eight colors: Lipstick Red, Tangerine, Flamingo, Canary Yellow, Chartreuse, Blush Pink, Rose Pink and Tan

n March 1949, Victor Hoeflich held a press conference to introduce the “Man from Mars, Radio Hat”. Hoeflich knew a picture would tell the story so he had several teenagers modeling the Radio Hats for the reporters and photographers. Soon pictures and news stories appeared in newspapers coast to coast.The articles typically included a photo of a young lady wearing the hat and a six-paragraph story. The Radio Hat also received widespread coverage in magazines. This included do-it-yourself magazines such as Popular Mechanics, Popular Science,  Mechanix Illustrated, and Radio-Electronics. There was also coverage in general-audience magazines such as Life, Time, Newsweek, and The New Yorker.

The Radio Hat was sold in department stores and by mail order. A Van Nuys, California service station chain sold the hats as a promotion item to customers who purchased gasolineThe massive publicity did not lead to lasting sales. Advertisements for the Radio Hat stopped in early 1950. In a 1956 interview, Hoeflich said the company still got orders for the hat even though it was long out of production.

Hugo Gernsback, the Editor of Radio-Electronics, was impressed with the Radio Hat and the June 1949 issue had a two-page article describing the circuitry and construction of the radio. The cover photograph shows a 15-year-old Hope Lange wearing a Lipstick Red hat. She went on to become an award-winning the stage, film, and television actress. She was nominated for the 1957 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Selena Cross in the film Peyton Place.