We’ve all asked ourselves the same question: “What attracts a person to a particular hobby?” Whether it’s Aunt Matilda’s shelves lined with thimbles, friend Roy’s garage lined with dirty old oil cans, a local woman’s painstakingly-crafted (and quickly sold) quilts, or an acquaintance’s bag of antique gold coins kept in a safe-deposit box (seen perhaps every year or two), one must sometimes wonder. Hobbies are as diverse as the psyches in which they flourish. Some might contend that a person’s hobby is a window to their mind. I’d say with certainty only that a hobby suggests what a particular person finds appealing. I’m still puzzled with the “why”.
A large and varied category of hobbies is “collecting.” Many of us (myself included) were afflicted with the collecting bug at an early age. By the time I was 13, after collecting milk bottle caps (remember those?), 10-cent Rat Fink figurines, fossils, and (briefly) old radios, I found an outlet for my energies that satisfied my love of history, mechanical contrivances, music of the early 20th century, and restoration. Wind-up phonographs (or “talking machines”) provided it all for me. In the mid-1960s, such a hobby was unusual enough that a girl from a neighboring town approached me during our church youth group: “Aren’t you the guy who collects old Victrolas?” A few years later, when this girl and I were briefly dating, she reminded me of the incident and recalled my straight-faced response that I collected not old phonographs, but old doorknobs; mounted to pieces of plywood displayed all around my room. It appears that, even at age 14, I suspected my hobby wouldn’t enhance my attractiveness to the opposite sex, so a joke would be the best response. I hope she wasn’t disappointed when she learned the awful truth.
Today, collectors of wind-up phonographs (these have acquired the mantle of “antique” in the intervening years) number in the many thousands worldwide. These collectors scour estate sales, online auctions, and antique shops in pursuit of their hobby. Specialty shows and sales take place regularly around the world. Some collectors focus on acquisition; others on restoration. Some play their machines regularly; others rarely. Some keep only enough records to demonstrate their machines; others own only enough machines to play the various types/speeds of records in their collections. (Record collections will often number several thousand records). Some can recite the history of their machines right down to the patent date. Others are hard-pressed to date their machines to the proper decade. People collect the same things for a variety of reasons (which I believe puts to rest the “window to the mind” theory). And, much like my own reaction to Aunt Matilda, Roy, and the rest, people look at my collection of antique phonographs and ask me, “What got you interested in these things?” If you’re a collector, you’ve been asked this question. And you know what it means: “Are you crazy?”
The ABCs of Antique Phonograph Collecting
Those unfamiliar with this hobby will sometimes confuse phonographs or talking machines with music boxes, roller organs, or other early mechanical music devices. Back in the late 1800s, the public – never having heard singing outside the presence of the singer – was often reluctant to believe in a machine that talked. Thus was born the early nomenclature – “Talking Machine” – which meant far more to our great-grandparents than to those of us who have grown up surrounded by recorded sound.
Antique phonographs or talking machines exist in two basic forms: those that play cylinder records (1888–1929), and those that play disc records (1889-present). Within each of those formats are machines with external horns (generally earlier) and those with internal horns hidden in cabinetry. With few exceptions, antique phonographs of the pre-1925 period employ spring-driven (wind up) motors.
Cylinder-Playing Antique Phonographs
One attribute that all cylinder-playing phonographs had in common was a “permanent” stylus (needle) made of sapphire, diamond, or glass. At the turn of the 20th century, this was a major selling point vis-à-vis disc-playing phonographs which used steel needles requiring changing for each record.
The most common cylinder-playing phonographs today were manufactured by Edison, and certain models turn up regularly: Standard, Home, Triumph, Gem, Fireside (all with external horns), and several models of Amberola (with internal horns inside floor-standing or tabletop cabinets). The first three models listed can be found in A, B, C, D, E, and F variations, the Gem in versions A-E, and the Fireside in versions A-B. Thus one can collect 25 basic variations of just these first 5 models – some are quite rare.
Next are Columbia Graphophones, manufactured by the American Graphophone Company and sold by its sales arm, Columbia. Common models include the A, B, BX, Q, AT, AZ, BF, BK, and others. The Q Graphophone was widely sold as a “Busy Bee” with a slightly larger diameter mandrel to accommodate special Busy Bee cylinder records.
Ediphones and Dictaphones were business dictation machines offered by Edison and Columbia respectively, and generally are not pursued by phonograph collectors.
Unlike disc playing-phonographs (discussed below), most cylinder-playing phonographs were originally supplied with small 14” long horns. Customers often bought larger aftermarket horns to make their phonographs sound better. Until 1905 these larger horns were usually trumpet-shaped; either all brass or with a black body and brass bell. After 1905, flower horns (often called “morning-glory” horns) were popular, and available in a variety of colors and with added decorations. Sometimes these horns, if in uncommon colors/decorations and in fine condition, are valued as highly as the machines on which they are mounted. Thus, examples of a particular model cylinder phonograph may be found with a wide variety of legitimate horn equipments.
Disc-Playing Antique Phonographs
Although disc record rpm was not standardized in the industry for many years, the general rule was 78 rpm, and these discs are referred to by many today as “78s.” Virtually all disc records played at or about this speed until 1948 when the vinyl LP was introduced. As noted above, pre-1948 phonographs that play disc records employ steel needles that require changing after each record. This was well known a century ago, but today when these machines are encountered in grandma’s attic, dozens of records may be played with the same needle by unknowing listeners who wonder why the sound continues to deteriorate. As strange as it may seem, early disc records were made with an abrasive mixed into their material, and the purpose of this was to shape the steel needle to conform to the record’s particular groove configuration (record groove dimensions were not standardized until the 1920s). This constant need to change needles was gleefully pointed out by competitors offering cylinder machines. Today, the widespread inclination of the uninformed to re-use a single steel needle has resulted in the damage or destruction of millions of disc records. Fortunately, steel needles continue to be manufactured and are readily available through collectors and dealers.
Disc-playing phonographs of the 1890s and early 20th century were supplied with generally larger horns than their cylinder-playing counterparts, and it was unusual for an owner to purchase a substitute. For that reason, the correct horn equipment on a disc-playing machine can be a greater challenge to a collector simply because fewer options existed at the time than for cylinder-playing machines.
The Victor Talking Machine Company was the largest manufacturer of disc phonographs a century ago, and many of its products are commonly found today. The early line of external horn machines included the commonly-found E, M, R, and the 1-6 series (usually marked in Roman numerals I-VI). After 1906, the internal horn Victrola became available, and these sold in the millions (in dozens of variations). Some mistakenly assume that the advent of the Victrola ended Victor’s production of external horn models, but these continued to be manufactured into the 1920s, although in gradually diminishing numbers. Any external horn Victor or internal horn Victrola that originally varied from the catalog description is today avidly pursued by collectors.
Columbia was the next largest seller of disc playing phonographs, and today a virtual alphabet soup of models can be found, some barely distinguishable from one another. Like Victor, Columbia sometimes sold a machine that varied from the typical example, and today such artifacts send collectors into frenzies.
The Edison Phonograph Works didn’t manufacture a disc phonograph in significant numbers until 1913, and all known examples of Edison Disc Phonographs are internal-horn models. The disc records for these machines are a full quarter-inch thick and commonly found today. These discs, unlike those of Victor, Columbia, and most others, were recorded vertically: meaning the needle vibrated up and down rather than side-to-side. For this reason, Edison records cannot be played on other brands of phonographs without adaptors, and competitors’ records cannot be played on Edison equipment. The Edison Disc Phonograph was available in a variety of models until 1929.
Off-brand disc playing phonographs with external horns can be interesting to a collector, and sometimes quite valuable, but most often not. Such machines are beyond the scope of this article, but when considering such a purchase, it would be best to consult an expert before purchasing. In the case of off-brand internal horn machines, the rule of thumb is: “Unless you want it for yourself, don’t buy it.” In the years 1916-1921, there were hundreds of different small brands surfacing as basic patents expired. This is a case where rarity usually does NOT equate to value. There are so many uncommon internal horn machines that “rarity is common” among these machines.
None of this explains the attraction that these antique music-makers exert upon collectors today. Ask one, and he may talk about the music, the workmanship of the brass gears, the beauty of the oak or mahogany that cannot be duplicated with today’s new-growth harvests, the smell of early wax cylinder records, the soft gleam of nickel plating, or the delicate pinstripes that have survived a century. Others may more objectively cite portability, and a recession-resistant investment. I must fall back on believing it simply involves what a particular person finds appealing. Many find that attraction and enjoy it every day with antique phonographs.
The Antique Phonograph Society sponsors an annual Phonograph, Music Box, Mechanical Music show every August. For details, see the home page of this website.