Often when I get into a conversation with a non-phonograph collector about my hobby, many ask, “If I stumble across something should I buy it for you?” Any collector of antiques knows that, despite good intentions, this is dangerous ground. In the case of antique phonographs, I politely demur – sadly shaking my head and lamenting that there are scores of different models, and condition is all-important. Plus, there are many, many phony phonographs out there, put together by basement handymen or by Asian factories. Unless one knows what he or she is doing, it’s easy to be taken in by a fake.
What then can someone expect to find when searching for real antique phonographs? Here is sampling of common and rare machines that collectors look for.
1) Among the most common talking machines encountered is the Victrola IV (Four). This machine cost $15.00 in 1911 when it was introduced, and was offered until the mid-1920s. This is an early version with a flat crank. Later versions used a rod-type crank. The Victrola VI, a slightly larger version, cost $25.00 when new.
2) The Victrola XII (Twelve) was the first table-model Victrola, introduced in 1909. Original price was a whopping $125.00 and sales were sluggish. The Victrola XII is therefore a rare and sought after machine. Similar models such as the Victrola VIII and IX sold in large numbers in both mahogany and oak finish.
3) There were a number of floor model Victrolas that to the untrained eye look nearly identical. The Victrola XI (Eleven) was the largest seller and is commonly found today. The X (Ten) and XIV (Fourteen) were also popular models. Pictured here is a Victrola XVI (Sixteen) dating from 1917-18. Victrolas are usually found in mahogany finish; occasionally in oak. A larger model such as this XVI is rarely seen with an oak finish.
4) Edison offered Disc Phonographs in upright cabinets as well. Pictured here is a 1917 C-250 in rather uncommon oak. Like Victrolas, Edison Disc Phonographs were usually ordered in mahogany. Edison Disc Phonographs play only Edison records, which in turn are generally not playable on machines of other makes.
5) Edison didn’t abandon the cylinder record until 1929. After 1915, all Edison Phonographs designed to play cylinders were called Amberolas, a name with the “-ola” ending obviously meant to capitalize on the popularity of Victor’s Victrola. Shown here is a 1913-14 Amberola V (Five) – Edison’s first table model Amberola. After 1915, the 3 principal Amberola models would be the 30, 50, and 75 – all commonly found today.
6) Edison’s first Amberola model is known as the 1A. This one dates from 1909-10, and is rarely found. Three grille designs are known, of which this is the earliest.
7) The mechanism of the Edison Amberola 1A was painted maroon. Unlike other Edison cylinder-playing Phonographs, these early Amberolas (including the 1B and III) moved the cylinder record laterally beneath a stationary reproducer.
8) Besides Victor and Edison, the other member of the “Big Three” talking machine companies was Columbia, whose machines were known as Graphophones. Shown here is one of the prettiest Graphophones: a 1903 AO, which cost $30.00 new. The horn is aluminum, easily damaged, and adds considerably to today’s value of early Graphophones.
9) The most common early cylinder-playing Graphophone is the Model Q. Shown here are the 1899 version (on the left) and the 1904 version (right). Both used a variety of horns, but most often the 10” cone horn shown.
10) Another easily found Columbia Graphophone is the 1897 Model B. Using a 10” cone horn, these machines were offered until 1907.
11) Before the Victrola, the Victor Talking Machine Company sold machines called Victors. In 1902, the company introduced the Royal for $15.00. Shown is an early example whose data plate does not feature the dog which became part of company’s famous trademark. Other commonly found Victors using this early “front mount” configuration are the E, M, and MS.
12) Speaking of the Victor trademark… Non-collectors are often surprised to learn that the machine to which Nipper the dog is listening is not a Victor product. Before Victor was incorporated in 1901, its founder, Eldridge Johnson, manufactured Gramophones for the Berliner Gramophone Company. Shown is an 1898 Berliner Improved Gramophone, which sold for $25.00 at the time. Today these machines are highly valued.
13) In 1902, Victor introduced a tone arm that moved independently from the horn. This design is called a “rear mount” by collectors today. (In the previous “front mount” design, some of the horn’s weight was pushing directly on the needle.) A range of Victors with “Tapering Arms” was offered for many years. Shown is a 1905 Victor I (One) with an adapter and oversized horn.
14) Next in line and the most commonly found Victor is the II (Two). This example was sold with a wooden horn, an option that added $8.00 to its original price ($32.50).
15) There were other talking machine brands besides Victor, Columbia, and Edison. Most of these appeared in the late teens, have horns hidden in their cabinets, and have relatively low value among collectors (see the article on “Off Brand Talking Machines” elsewhere on this web site) . Shown is an early exception to the rule. This 1900 Zonophone Model A featured beveled glass panels in its cabinet to view the motor. Originally selling for $25.00, these machines today command several thousand dollars.
16) Among early cylinder playing talking machines, the Edison Standard is probably the most commonly found. This machine was manufactured in 6 versions from 1898 until 1913. Shown is the most popular and most commonly found today – the Model B. The 14” black body/brass bell horn was standard equipment.
17) The next most commonly found Edison cylinder Phonograph with an external horn is the Home. Built from 1896 to 1913, the Home was also built in several variations. Shown is a very early example with a brass mandrel (the part that holds the cylinder record) and the decal on the lid. Although very early specimens command a premium, most Homes can be purchased for a few hundred dollars today.
18) The baby of the Edison cylinder Phonograph line was the Gem. Built in 5 basic models from 1899 to 1913, this is the earliest, which was not supplied with a wooden case. Known to collectors today as the “drip pan” model (because of a metal pan inside that prevented oil marring the furniture), these early Gems are valued more highly than most later examples. Maroon colored Gems appeared in 1909 and today are highly valued if the maroon paint on their horns remains in good condition.
19) By 1907, Edison was supplying larger “morning glory” horns with its Phonographs, and by 1909 the “Cygnet” horn had appeared. This Edison Fireside was equipped with a Cygnet horn grain-painted to resemble oak – a rare option. Most cygnet horns were offered in basic black.
20) These two Edison Phonographs were equipped by their original owners with larger morning glory horns supplied by aftermarket firms. These horns not only dressed up the Phonographs, but significantly improved the sound.
21) Another group of morning glory, or flower horns. The colors and available decorations were almost unlimited.
22) The Edison Business Phonograph is seldom encountered today in its early form as seen here. Later Ediphones in metal cabinets are plentiful and of little interest to collectors.
23) Arguably the best sound reproduction from an American-made talking machine was achieved in the 1925 Victrola Credenza (later called the 8-30). Despite the high original price of $275.00, many thousands of these machines were sold. Collectors today admire them not so much for their rarity (they are commonly found), but for their amazing fidelity.