After more than a century, gramophones, phonographs, and cylinder players are prized as collectibles—and music machines.
George F. Paul has never forgotten the delight he felt when he encountered his first antique phonograph. He was a preteen in the mid-1960s in upstate New York, born to an antiques-loving family, when his 19-year-old brother brought home a Victor Victrola model 100 that an elderly woman gave to him after having owned it for decades. “I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen,” Paul says. To keep Paul’s mitts off his Victrola, Paul’s older brother bought him a second, and less valuable, antique phonograph, an Aeolian Vocalion. But for Paul, it made no difference; he spent hours in his room listening to 78s on the circa-1920 machine, music that was downright Paleozoic compared with the Beatles and other bands of the day. “I was curious about how you didn’t have to plug it into the wall but it did the same thing as the machines I grew up with,” he says.
Paul is now copresident of the Antique Phonograph Society, coauthor of eight books on phonographs, and owner of about 100 machines that he exhibits in his 825-square-foot attic, where he “can display things the way they really should be displayed.” The collection’s crown jewels include a Victor Victrola XVI phonograph that he bought not long after he received the Aeolian Vocalion, and which had belonged to a prominent local family. “What I didn’t know at the time was the wood of the cabinet was a special order—Circassian walnut,” he says. That luxurious option makes the phonograph worth $4,000 to $5,000 instead of the $600 to $800 that a XVI with a more common finish commands. “It was a perfect example of beginner’s luck,” he says. “As a 13-year-old, I paid $20 for it.”
If you ask most people to think of an antique phonograph and then tell you what it looks like, almost without fail they will describe something that resembles a Grammy Award statuette—a machine that plays a flat, grooved disc record and has a large and obvious horn. It is the same sort of device that you see in the famous Victor logo showing Nipper the dog listening to a reproduction of “his master’s voice.” But the disc player equipped with an external horn is just one version of a record-playing machine, the choicest of which began crossing the six-figure threshold in private sales about a decade ago. Collectors dream of rarities such as some of the earliest Edisons, the incunables of the field, which recorded sound onto lead and tinfoil and now change hands for around $100,000. Late-19th-century Edison Class Ms, which played recordings engraved on wax cylinders, sell for $10,000 to $80,000, depending on condition.
Notable phonographs by small concerns can turn heads, too. Lioret, a French manufacturer, produced a charming cylinder-playing device that rested on a tripod and was driven by weights, much like a pendulum clock. Only three such models survive, and one last sold a few years ago for more than $50,000. But it is the big American companies—Edison, Victor, and Columbia—that command the most attention, and the less common the model, the better, as Paul’s Circassian Victrola demonstrates. Phonograph collectors might limit themselves to specific brands or eras, but virtually none restrict themselves to cylinder players or disc players. “It’s a rare collector who turns up his nose at a historically interesting machine just because of the format,” says Paul.
Coin-operated record players, designed for use in public spaces, attract high bids because so few escaped destruction once they were obsolete. Two years ago, Stanton’s Auctioneers in Vermontville, Mich., sold two Multiphones six months apart. Dating to the early 20th century, the Multiphone plays cylinder records and has a gloriously steampunk appearance. The ones at Stanton’s garnered $77,000 (a house record for a phonograph) and $71,000. Both sums are a serious advance over the $38,000 winning bid placed the last time Stanton’s offered a Multiphone about a decade ago. “When I started doing this, I’d see situations where they would spend $2,000, $3,000, and that was a lot of money,” says Steven E. Stanton, whose father founded the company in 1954, and who has been with the firm since 1970. “Now I see them spending $10,000, $20,000, and $30,000.”
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Thomas Edison invented sound-recording technology in 1877 and dubbed it the “phonograph,” a Greek concoction that means “sound writer.” Yet the highest award bestowed by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences does not bear Edison’s name and does not resemble aproduct that sprung from his laboratory. Although Edison was a technological genius, his genius did not extend to fully grasping the economic and cultural value of his creations. In an 1878 article, he made 10 predictions for how the phonograph would be used. “Reproduction of music” came fourth on Edison’s list, behind dictation, phonographic books, and “the teaching of elocution.” This lack of vision, coupled with a penchant for clinging to his own ideas, left Edison’s entertainment phonograph business vulnerable. It closed in 1929, right about the time the phonograph was forever wedded to Edison’s other great invention, electricity. “Past that point, you’ve got to plug it in,” says Stanton. And to collectors, “once you’ve got to plug it in, there’s not that much interest in it.”
The Grammy-like device that has come to symbolize the antique phonograph traces its lineage to the gramophone, patented by the German-American inventor Emil Berliner in 1887. Early commercial versions of the Berliner, which now sell for five figures, are clearly kin to the device that enchants Nipper the dog. Savvy marketing by the Victor Talking Machine Co. ultimately allowed Berliner’s disc technology to overtake Edison’s cylinder format, much to the consternation of those who preferred the cylinder (yes, audio snobs are almost as old as recorded music itself). By 1910, the external horn seemed as archaic as an 8-track. “We think of it as a static technology, but it was not,” says Jeff Oliphant, treasurer of the Antique Phonograph Society as well as cofounder of a restoration business and co-owner of more than 50 machines. “It was as rapidly changing as technology is today. There were lots of lawsuits, and lots of pirating. There was a lot of money made and lost. The lawyers made a fortune.”
Regardless of how common or scarce a phonograph is, the experience of listening to an expertly maintained one playing an equally excellent period record is refreshing in its simplicity and freedom from auto-tuning. “You hear exactly what was recorded a century ago,” says Paul. “It is a pure recording. No double tracking, no postproduction, all the warts and wrinkles that the original performance would have had. It’s as close to a time machine as you can get.”
Outside of the earliest antique machines, which are too valuable or fragile to be played, silence is not golden in the realm of phonographs. The primary reasons to own a nonfunctional machine from 1900 or later is to either bring it back to life or plunder it for parts. Fortunately, these record players are not terribly onerous to maintain. Supplies of needles are not an issue, the machines are fairly durable, and repairs are relatively straightforward. When individual parts succumb, it is often because they were originally made from cheap materials such as pot metal.
Standardization in appearance among the various phonograph brands began around 1912, once it was clear that the public cared more about the look of the cabinets than the details of what was inside them. That makes it easier to drop the mechanical guts of a common machine of that era into a scarcer one. Paul still laments missing out on an exceedingly rare Victrola XX that survived as an empty cabinet in a back room of an antiques shop about an hour from his home. What he might have had for $200 was purchased by an Oregon collector over eBay for $10,000 in 2000. “All it took to complete it was to find a Victrola XVI in a common mahogany cabinet, pull the motor out, and drop it in,” Paul says.
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Marketing wizards found ways to sell Edisons, Victrolas, and Columbias decades before the invention of radio. Today, phonograph purveyors face a public that, mostly, has only seen photos of phonographs, or Grammy Awards, or the Victor logo, rather than an actual working phonograph. While most machines change hands through word of mouth, online, or at auction houses such as Stanton’s and Donley Auction Services in Union, Ill., a Frenchman, Jalal Aro, has deliberately taken a more visible route. The former Jean Paul Gaultier boutique manager opened Phonogalerie, a store full of antique phonographs as well as disc and cylinder records, in Paris in 2004. And last year, he opened the Phono Museum Paris next door, a space that allows anyone willing to pay the €5 to €10 admission fee to witness the evolution of record players. “Many others don’t care to have a place with windows on the street; they don’t want to bother with people passing by, but to me, that’s interesting,” Aro says. “The younger generation cannot be involved if they don’t see it. Whether they buy or don’t buy, it’s important to pass the knowledge and show the importance of this industry and its evolution.”
Aro is not alone in believing that the reason that phonographs still speak to us is precisely that—they literally speak to us, and sing to us, and read stories to us, and tell jokes to us, preserving the voices of legends long dead and the sounds of times long past. “In the 1920s, everybody had a sewing machine at home,” he says. “Almost no one has one today. But we still like old music. We keep listening to music.”
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Play On: 130 Years of Recorded Music
Thomas Edison patented the tinfoil cylinder phonograph in 1877—as an office dictation machine. In 1890, Columbia Records began using it for commercial recordings and seven years later, two music companies—Edison and Columbia—were selling 500,000 wax cylinders a year, including songs, comedy, and vaudeville performances. About a million cylinders are believed to still exist. One of today’s largest collections—topping 10,000— belongs to the University of California, Santa Barbara, whose Cylinder Preservation and Digi-tization Project (cylinders.library.ucsb.edu) allows free downloads of thousands of the recordings.
Single-sided phonograph records, pioneered by Emil Berliner, were introduced in 1901. A year later, Columbia and the Victor Talking Machine Co. standardized the 7- and 10-inch sizes, and in 1904 they began producing two-sided 78 rpm discs. The Victrola, the most popular device to play 78s, hit the market in 1915. Today, Willie Weber’s shop in Pittsburgh, Whistlin’ Willie’s 78s, is a premier outlet for the discs, which were phased out in the late 1950s.
LPs and 45s
The long-playing album and 45 rpm single were introduced within a year of each other—1948 and ’49. At first, record labels would issue songs as 78s and then, if they were hits, as 45s. The rock ’n’ roll era took hold of the singles marketplace in the 1950s, making 45s the format of choice. Stereo recordings for both LPs and 45s debuted in 1958. Today the king of the LP collectors is Bra-zilian millionaire Zero Freitas, who has amassed the world’s largest record collection—5 million and counting.
Reel-to-Reels and Cassettes
Commercial reel-to-reel tapes came to market in 1954 and were largely discontinued by 1973, when the cassette, invented in 1962, offered convenience and comparable sound. The Sony Walkman phenomenon of the 1980s caused a boom in cassettes; 500 million units were sold annually by 1990. Nearly obsolete by 2000, when mix CDs could be made on computers, cassettes have lately been reinvigorated on the indie music scene. A group of U.K. record labels started Cassette Store Day in 2013 and held their second edition in September.
In between the reel-to-reel and cassette eras, 8-tracks briefly dominated the automobile market after Ford offered players in its 1966 models. Inferior as an audio product, the 8-track was extinct by the early ’80s. While a collectible marketplace exists for classic rock artists on reel-to-reel, 8-tracks are simply oddities.
The compact disc and player was introduced in October 1982 in Japan; in 1988, CDs outsold LPs and, in 1992, topped cassette sales. Among the most collectible are promotion-only titles from Japan: The Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels Japan Tour 1990, Bruce Springsteen’s The Future of Rock and Roll (1988), and Prince’s My Name Was Prince (1993).
The Fraunhofer Institute in Germany first patented MP3 digital file storage in 1989. MP3s got their U.S. start in 1998, when Winamp, a Microsoft Windows app that could play the files, was introduced. In 1999, portable players came on the scene and Seattle’s Sub Pop Records became the first label to commercially distribute digital files—developments that crippled the CD, which peaked in 2000 with 730 million sold.
Neil Young’s PonoMusic made a splash in 2014, when its high-end digital audio player raised $6.2 million through Kickstarter. But news is still being made on the vinyl side, too. By November, sales of new LPs in 2014 were up 48 percent from the year before, reaching 7.6 million. Last year saw the release of the Beatles albums in mono and the rerelease of Led Zeppelin’s first three albums. Record Store Day—its eighth edition is scheduled for April 18—will bring more exclusive new releases. Vinyl’s resurgence is reflected in the audio world as well, with more than a dozen manufacturers offering precision turntables for more than $100,000. Several phonograph-cartridge manufacturers make mono-only units, and one Japanese company, Miyajima Laboratory, even specializes in 78 rpm mono cartridges.