Aficionados of recorded sound seek out LPs, 45rpm, and/or 78rpm records – as well as the vintage machinery to play them – all of which may be 50-60 years old these days. A somewhat smaller fraternity seeks out records and phonographs dating back a century or more. These antique “talking machines” usually wind up with a crank, and the records play without the use of electricity. With no volume or tone controls on these ancient phonographs, the music has an eerie “presence” that collectors liken to a time machine. As one enthusiastic adherent recently exclaimed, “What a splendid addiction!”
The earliest phonographs that were available to the public may be divided into two general categories: those playing disc (flat) records, and those playing cylinder records. Both formats were envisioned from the first (1877) by the inventor of the phonograph, Thomas Edison. By the mid-1890s, prices had dropped enough for middle-class families to begin buying cylinder phonographs and records, as well as the rapidly evolving disc-playing machines (called “Gramophones”) and flat records. (Nowadays, some early 1890s talking machines can be worth as much as a brand-new luxury car!) Surprisingly, the cylinder and disc formats coexisted as competing products until 1929, after which time the 78rpm disc ruled supreme until the appearance of LPs in 1948, and 45s in the following year. Even so, the venerable 78 persisted as a viable product until the late 1950s. Millions still survive in attics, basements, and barns.
What’s the Attraction?
As you’d expect, some collectors seek out particular music such as jazz, or certain artists such as Blind Lemon Jefferson. What might surprise you is that others buy records solely for their artifact value. For instance, most cylinder records are about 4” long and 2¼” in diameter. Variations from this configuration – and the specialized phonographs designed to play them – are avidly pursued, regardless of what may be recorded on them. Some collectors focus on the many types of phonographs available, keeping only a token few records to demonstrate their machines. Conversely, many record collectors have no interest in machinery; they purchase only those phonographs necessary to play the records in their collections. Other collectors want only cylinder type machines and records. Some collectors buy only “external horn” talking machines, similar to that seen in the famous RCA Victor trademark of Nipper listening to “His Master’s Voice.”
Still others seek out Victrola-style phonographs with “internal horns” hidden inside attractive wooden cabinets. Some enjoy salvaging their finds from a pile of rusted metal into working examples, while others purchase only fully-restored phonographs. Whether your interest is mechanical, historical, or musical, collecting antique phonographs and records offers broad appeal and fits all budgets.
Phonographs can range from the ubiquitous Edison cylinder machines and Victor tabletop Victrolas to the more exotic machines such as this 24 Cylinder Multiphone “Jukebox”.