Antique Phonograph Buyer's Guide
- Dating a phonograph
- Other makes
- Practical Advice on Selecting a Phonograph
- Case or Cabinet
- Reproduction Phonographs
- Bedplate and mechanical components
Are you thinking of starting a phonograph collection? Did you just find one at a shop, online, or in your garage, and are trying to make sense of what it is? Have you had one in your home for some time and trying to learn more about it? Where to begin?
This guide is intended as advice to those building a collection and looking for straightforward tips on how to judge the quality of an antique musical machine for the most value and enjoyment. My suggestions are focused on phonographs from the acoustic era: that is, machines produced from the 1890s to the 1920s, spring-operated (not electric) and playing either cylinder records or 78 rpm disc records. Electric phonographs and modern wind-up reproduction phonographs are beyond the scope of this advice.
Many individuals wish to acquire a phonograph in order to use it, meaning for playing actual vintage records. Others collect one or more phonographs as vintage decorative items. Still others are particularly interested in the historical and technological aspects, and attempt to amass a variety of phonographs to represent the progression of the talking machine through different eras and styles. This guide is useful for all the above cases.
This is an Edison Standard Phonograph, playing cylinder records.
This is a Victor P phonograph, a premium model used primarily as an incentive to customers buying many 78 rpm discs.
The Victrola Orthophonic Credenza disc phonograph was built very late in the acoustic period and is prized by collectors today.
The original Edison patent for the process of recording and playing back sound was issued in 1877, and although a small number of phonographs for exhibition and home use were made during the late 1870s and 1880s, it wasn't until the late 1880s that Edison turned his attention to perfecting the phonograph. By this time, Alexander Graham Bell helped to patent a competing sound recording technique, leading to a diverse marketplace for those wishing to purchase this new technology. By 1900, most of the major players, or their precursors, were established: the biggest manufacturers were Edison, Victor, and Columbia.
In principle, all phonographs work similarly: a groove on a spinning record causes a needle or stylus to vibrate. The vibrating needle causes a diaphragm in a reproducer to vibrate, where the vibrations become sound. As the sound is channeled through an outward-tapering horn, the volume of the sound is amplified and heard. However, due to feverish patenting of new advances on the part of the manufacturers, and the stylistic changes occurring over time, wind-up acoustic phonographs changed immensely over their approximately 40 year reign as most popular entertainment device. Although most phonographs from this era are spring-operated, the motors and winding cranks are not interchangeable between models, and even between many machines from a single maker. Other important differences are noted in the method of sound reproduction: cylinder records and Edison Diamond Disc records (and some other disc records made by other manufacturers) are considered "vertical cut" records because the rounded jewel point (stylus) of the reproducer vibrates up and down as the groove passes under it. The common 78 rpm flat disc records are ?lateral cut? records because the steel needle of the reproducer moves side-to-side as it sits in the record's groove.
Although this is far from a comprehensive view of an industry that offered a huge and always changing complement of products at the time, similar to today's computer industry, it does indicate that significant differences could exist between any two vintage phonographs, even they if are from the same producer or year. Indeed, many phonographs look very much alike unless you pay great attention to the minutia... just like computers today, often it's the small differences that make one model very special and other model not-so-much. Therefore, when examining an item for possible purchase, try to notice as many details as possible, in order to help in describing the item to a dealer or checking it with this on-line guide.
Often people come to me and say, "I have a phonograph that has a platter, a crank on the side, and is really, really old. It is wooden and takes needles. What brand is it, and what year was it made?"
This is akin to me trying to ask your advice on the car in my garage: It is red and has four wheels. It is very old and the gas tank is on the right side. I think it was made in Detroit.
What can you tell me about the above car? Not a whole lot! In order for me to help you identify your phonograph, which I am happy to do, please read down the guide so you know what to look for, and then email me 1) a description of everything you have gleaned from looking at it and 2) some photos of the item in question. Then we have something to go from!
Dating a phonograph
Beware: The identification plate of many phonographs lists patent dates, however, these dates have no specific relevance to the year of manufacture!
The best way to date a phonograph is to place it in its technological context and consult period literature sources for information on release date and factory serial number information, if available. It is not accurate to date a phonograph by the dates listed on the patent plate or decal. The dates on the patent plate show the dates which patents for certain components were issued. Of course, if a phonograph?s patent plate lists a patent date in 1906, it is unlikely the machine was made in 1901, but since patents, then as now, lasted for many years, a manufacturer would advertise its claim to a patent for many, many years after the issue date. Serial numbers as well can be misleading. For example, the Victor Talking Machine Co. factory records show that many models had serial numbers that were arbitrary and re-set to the number 501 from time to time. Other companies set aside blocks of serial numbers for particular models, and used some of the numbers, but not all.
In broad strokes, cylinder and disc phonographs coexisted for many years, so it is false to assume that a cylinder machine predates a disc player. In fact, cylinder phonographs remained popular during the 1900s and 1910s, and were sold into the 1920s. Disc phonographs grew in impact throughout the 1900s and 1910s, and by the 1920s were very common and produced in large quantities.
The following section describes the major types of phonographs offered by the Big Three manufacturers during the 1890s ? 1920s period.
This Edison cylinder phonograph has a swan-neck horn that was offered initially as a special order option, and later as a standard feature.
This is an Edison Diamond Disc phonograph from the 1915-1925 era.
The most common Edison cylinder phonographs seen date from the period when Edison began marketing his machines for domestic use, rather than purely business or commercial use. From 1896-1901 onward, he made portable (?suitcase design?) phonographs with the model names Triumph, Home, Standard, and Gem. These phonographs are characterized as playing 2-minute black ?wax? cylinders and having a cover that protects the mechanism and having a carrying handle on top. (Note: Don?t carry an antique phonograph by its handle.) The front of the case is, except in some uncommon examples, decorated with a decal saying ?Edison [Model Name] Phonograph? or, simple ?Edison? in a neat script. Cases were usually oak, and the cast iron parts enameled black with gold or gold-and-blue pinstriping or decals. These cylinder models with horns were made until 1913. Standard issue horns were either 14? long and all-brass (early), or 14? steel with brass bell.
An aftermarket trade existed for owners who replaced the small horns with larger petal or morning glory style horns, often colorful or painted with flowers. Such horns were not self-supporting but needed a steel support crane to suspend them in front of the phonograph. In addition to metal, horns were available in fiber, wood, and papier mache. By 1907, Edison himself began producing larger morning glory style horns; these are usually painted all black, with gold seams, and have a decal with Edison?s name and the intended phonograph model. Later still, in the 1911 period, Edison produced a swan-neck horn (called Cygnet) that suspended vertically by a steel crane mounted to the rear of the phonograph.
Originally, Edison only produced 2-minute playing records of a brown or black metallic soap known as wax among collectors. All these records, including those made by Edison's competition, were cut at 100 grooves to the inch. As technology progressed, Edison was able to double playing time to four-minutes in 1908 by decreasing the thread width by half. A record playing 2 minutes versus 4 minutes spins at exactly the same speed ? the increase in playing time is made by reducing the lateral speed of the needle across the surface of the cylinder. Although all machines he made after this era were capable of playing the newer, longer records, he also offered conversion kits to retrofit earlier models. Therefore it is not uncommon to find an Edison phonograph from the 1900 era geared to play both 2-minute and the later 4-minute records. Four minute records were made of a brittle black ?wax? until superseded by a blue celluloid material in 1912.
Although Edison ceased making phonographs with external horns in 1913, he continued to make cylinder-playing phonographs through the 1920s by disguising the horn within a cabinet. This style gave Edison a new boost in the marketplace, as customers appreciated the modern design and excellent tonal qualities offered by these types of phonographs. Moreover, the celluloid Blue Amberol four-minute records these machines played competed favorably with the three-to-three-and-a-half-minute playback provided in a ten inch disc record.
Despite the advantages and historical connection to the cylinder record at the Edison factory, the disc record was a much more convenient form of media. The disc record could be more cheaply stamped, easily stored, and offered two sides to a single record, meaning a sales advantage and more profit per record. Edison began making a series of disc phonographs, which are frequently seen today. Usually these are named with a letter and a number designation, such as H-19, C-250, LU-37, etc. These Edison Diamond Disc playing machines were built during the ?teens and ?twenties. They play special, ?? thick Diamond Discs. The Diamond Disc players used vertically cut records and could not play thin 78 rpm records without a special reproducer attachment. They were made in table top, console and upright formats and often had storage areas for discs.
Certain models bear a plaque stating they are an ?Official Laboratory Model?: a highly successful sales technique to help impart the allure of Edison's research successes to such a modern musical device.
This Columbia Cylinder Graphophone plays standard and Grand records. It was known by the model AB; today, collectors know this model by the name of the illustriuous engineer who designed its motor, MacDonald.
Columbia produced both cylinder- and lateral-cut-disc-playing machines beginning in the 1890s. Most Columbia models do not have obvious model names on them, except (sometimes) on the patent plate, where they are known simply as Model A, Model BK, Model AB, etc. In some instances, a decal may give a hint to the common model name. Columbia models also went by nicknames, which are still in use today among collectors. Therefore, a Columbia B is also known as the ?Eagle,? the BI is also called a ?Sterling,? and other models have names such as ?Favorite? and ?Regent? that derive from period sales literature and model designations.
Columbia's sales approach was to produce a variety of very cheap phonographs that would compete favorably with the other makers, and thereby boost sales of their more profitable sector: the records. In addition to a huge line of very cheap phonographs, Columbia also made some more expensive and sophisticated models, which are widely sought by collectors. Columbia cylinder machines were often open-works, although many were encased in a finished wood box. (Sometimes, the wooden case was extra-cost-optional, such as in the case of the cheapest of models, the Columbia Q and B.) Most had covers with carrying handles. Most cabinets were oak, and nearly all had a banner decoration on the front of the cabinet indicating Columbia as the manufacturer. Additional decals sometimes alluded to awards at international expositions. There was a variety of different mechanical styles, including various levels of floral decoration and machined aesthetic components to the motor parts and bedplate.
The disc players began as simple mechanisms playing from a very small turntable, although in time, the turntable size increased. Both cylinder and disc phonographs were offered with horns mounted directly to the reproducer in the front of the machine (early) and later, were usually mounted to the rear of the machine and connected to the reproducer via a tone-arm.
Horns for the cylinder machines were usually brass, aluminum or steel. Disc phonographs often had steel or steel-and-brass horns when smaller and front-mounted. Later, Columbia horns screwed into a receptacle at the rear of the tone-arm, and these horns were usually nickel-plated steel, painted steel, or wood. Later still, during ?teens, many models had internal horns and were table-top, upright, or console in design. Such models were sold as Grafonolas. Columbia cylinder phonographs were probably discontinued in the late 1900s or early ?teens; acoustic Columbia disc machines were made well into the 1920s and later.
The early Victor Talking Machines were enormously popular marvels of modern technology.
This Victor V sports a prominent "spear-tip" oak horn.
The Victor Talking Machine company made machines playing 78 rpm discs. Beginning in the 1901-2 era, all Victor machines were made with a small horn connected directly to the reproducer and supported by a horizontal post and wood or metal arm. By 1902, technology improved to the point of being able to mount a horn support bracket at the rear of the machine and keep the weight of the horn off the record. All Victor talking machines use reproducers requiring a disposable steel needle. Earlier front-mounted horns were typically steel and brass, and later, rear-mounted horns were conical steel and brass bells, brass or painted steel morning-glory petal style, or wood. Most horns had a decal of the Victor ?His Master?s Voice? trademark. In 1906, Victor began to phase in the internal horn design, calling such machines Victrolas. Although some external horn machines were made into the 1920s, the majority of phonographs from the 1913-era onward were internal horned.
Victor machines are identified by a model letter or number stamped on a patent plate affixed to the side of the case, or on the horizontal surface under the lid of a Victrola. Initially the various models were given names such a ?Monarch? (labeled ?M?), Royal (labeled ?R?), etc. Soon, the company changed its system and began using model numbers instead of letters. During the first decade of the 1900s, most Victors were one of seven models numbered 0 ? 6 in Roman numerals in order of increasing price. For example, the Victor I has a very cheap motor, simple oak construction, and was inexpensive. The Victor VI was an expensive machine, with a powerful motor and made of solid mahogany, with gilded case features and hardware. Upon the introduction of the inside-horn design style, the numbering system tied to price gave way to a less orderly system. For example, the Victrolas XVI, XVII, and XVIII were high-end items, whereas the Victrola 110 was marketed toward the middle class.
Just as dozens of manufacturers produce televisions today (some selling the same product under a number of different trade names), the field of audio home entertainment was no less complex one hundred years ago. If you require information about a make not of the above ?big three? or more complete information, please contact me and I can recommend some good sources.
Practical Advice on Selecting a Phonograph
The following is advice on how to assess a phonograph, broken down into major categories of importance for the modern collector.
1.Case or Cabinet
4.Bedplate and Mechanical Components
Case or Cabinet
This Edison decal and cabinet is in excellent original condition. Note the depth of color and contrast of the original oak finish.
This is a reproduction Edison decal that was adhered unevenly by an inexperienced restorer.
This Edison cabinet has been refinished to an inappropriate mud brown color. A reproduction decal was improperly applied and has since flaked off.
This Edison has not only been refinished to an inappropriate color, a past "restorer" has painted on the Edison logo.
Most antique phonographs are housed in a wood box, decorated by moldings, columns, carvings, etc., to a lesser or greater extent. The woods used are almost exclusively oak or mahogany, either solid or as a veneer over other wood. The best situation is to encounter a completely original stain and finish on a cabinet that was lightly used and has been kept in a dark, temperature-controlled place for a hundred years. Usually, this is not what we see out there! Such phonographs are not often seen since the original and subsequent owners used and abused these functional items, and since finishes deteriorate over time. Unfortunately, over the years, would-be restorers often have tried and continue to try to remedy the situation improperly. The goal in preserving or restoring a deteriorated finish is to achieve as closely as possible the original appearance when the cabinet left the factory. There is no clear-cut formula for addressing whether a cabinet should be refinished, however, if unsure, do not do anything irreversible!
Until the ?twenties, most wood cases received a finish of shellac. After that period, lacquer was used. Oak is most commonly seen for phonograph cases, although mahogany and walnut were also used on certain models. Interestingly, there is no correct color of oak finish for any given manufacturer. The reason is because styles changed often and, in order to keep the look fresh, makers changed the oak case color frequently. Edison, for example, made lightly golden oak cases from 1896-1901, then made cases in a greenish oak color in the 1901-3 era, then chocolately-brown antique oak, and later still, in a light yellowish oak color. Victor and Columbia similarly changed colors. Additionally, some phonograph owners applied additionally coats of varnish to cases, which darkens over time. Additional coats of varnish can be removed carefully with certain wood care products.
Most phonograph cases were factory decorated with decals advertising the manufacturer, and sometimes the model style, of the machine. Although some of these decals are available as reproductions, replaced decals are easily distinguished from originals because original transfers were embedded in the varnish solvent during finishing. Most modern decals are applied using water, and such decals show a ghost outline of the decal material in light. Sometimes a refinisher tries to retain an original decal by stripping and refinishing all the wood except around the decal. Usually a slight (or sometimes strong) color difference is noted where the refinishing took place.
The best refinished cases look old and are of a color appropriate for the type of phonograph. Refinished cases with an orange tinge or shiny from a polyurethane spray are easily distinguished and are usually not as desirable as original finish or quality restored finishes.
Morning-glory horns came in various shapes, sizes, and colors.
Most Victor horns had a decal with the trademark.
Nearly all original metal horns bear stampings or decals indicating patent data.
Horns are a distinguishing feature of many phonographs and the part that often draws the eye. Their condition can contribute a lot toward the value of the total phonograph.
Small (ten-inch to fifteen-inch) horns were used attached directly to and supported by the reproducer of the Edison and Columbia cylinder phonographs. For Edison, earlier horns were generally all-brass, and later, steel body with brass bell. For Columbia, such horns were sometimes aluminum. As such common horn styles have been reproduced for many years, the identification of an original horn of this type is important. Original horns are usually stamped by their makers, while reproductions are not. Also, reproductions are often distinguished by their generally coarse seams and heavier weight. Although an old-looking original horn has some value to collectors, an old-looking old reproduction has very little.
Larger brass, brass and steel, and steel petal horns (?morning glory?) were offered by original manufacturers and aftermarket suppliers for the home market beginning in the early 1900s. Such horns were usually suspended by an iron or steel crane attached to the wooden case, fitted into a bedplate casting, or free standing on the floor. Since they were made by a large number of different manufacturers, they come in a huge variety of shapes, colors, and sizes. Sometimes decorated with flowers or starburst patterns, sometimes in all-black or solid colors, many types were made. Original paint is generally desirable, restoration of paint should be done in such a way as to look appropriate and to avoid obliterating manufacturers? decals. Some Edison decals are being reproduced; however these are usually obvious and most manufacturer decals are not being made. Because horns add so much interest to a phonograph, they can contribute significantly to the value of the complete set-up. Items that are often replaced are: horn cranes, horn connector chains, and horn connector rubber tubes. These parts are readily available.
Wood horns were made to mount to Columbia, Victor, and Edison phonographs. Wood horns are particularly susceptible to damage over time due to moisture and temperature changes that many original horns today are warped, cracking, and very rough. Many horns have been refinished and repaired, some better than others. A proper restoration ought to return the horn as closely to new condition as possible, which means that the color should be uniform, the surface smooth and joint gaps filled and stained to match the color of the wood veneer. Victor and Edison wood horns were typically decorated with decals. Many of these decals are being reproduced, but again, are considered less desirable than original.
The reproducer is in a sense the musical heart of the phonograph since it is where the sound is created. All reproducers, whether for disc or cylinder players, comprise of four basic components: the needle or stylus, the diaphragm, the needle to diaphragm linkage, and the neck where the sound is released for amplification by a horn.
All 78 rpm disc phonographs transmit vibrations to the reproducer using a steel needle that rides in the record?s groove. These needles should be replaced with every record played. They are currently being manufactured and there are still huge stocks of old needles in the market. Cylinder players, by contrast, used permanent styli of polished and shaped glass or precious stone.
Between the needle or stylus and the reproducer is a connecting rod or linkage allowing the needle to flex and vibrate and transfer those vibrations to the diaphragm. The diaphragm is made of glass, mica, or thin metal and is designed to be isolated on the outside and inside of the reproducer by rubber gaskets, making the inside air vibrate without letting the sound escape except through the horn.
Reproducers are being reproduced for Victor and Edison phonographs. Some reproductions are devoid of stampings and easily detected; some are made so accurately that they are difficult to distinguish from original at first glance. Some detailed reproductions are even stamped with serial numbers. Since the reproducer is so important to a working phonograph, it is not uncommon to find a replaced stylus, replaced gaskets, etc. Rebuilding a reproducer typically does not negatively affect value since the result is a properly, and better, working machine.
Here is just one of the many forms that reproduction phonographs take. These round style cabinets were never made during the era of the acoustic talking machine.
Some budget collectors seeking an external horn disc phonograph are taken by a genre of modern phonographs built from old and new components and designed to look like vintage ?Victor? phonographs. Many reproduction phonographs are on the market today and sell in the $50 - $300 range. Although they have wind-up motors and play using needles, they are not collectors' pieces. They will never have the monetary or historical value of authentic phonographs.
There are no strict rules for the identification of reproduction, low-value, disc phonographs. The presence of a sticker with the His Master's Voice logo with dog and gramophone is no guarantee of originality! Nor is the presence of a brass horn, as the brass horns of these phony phonographs are usually of poor construction and sloppily soldered together. Please be careful when shopping at the frugal end of the phonograph spectrum.
Bedplate and mechanical components
This Victor motor demonstrates the important components of a vintage phonograph mechanism: spring-driven gear train and centrifugal ball governor with speed control yoke.
A cast iron (usually) bedplate forms the framework on which all the mechanical components are mounted on cylinder and disc phonographs.
Edison bedplates were coated with thick black enamel and painted with gilded decorations, and later in production, decorated with decals. The gold striping on Edison bedplates has a tendency to become worn, often on the front right corner and around the on/off lever. Usually the wear occurs where people would normally be expected to touch the bedplate. Gold striping can be restored with an appropriate gold paint pen, although generally restored pinstriping is not of the correct color and sometimes the lines are not straight, being done by inexperienced hands.
Columbia phonographs had a variety of levels of decoration, including black enameling, nickel-plating and machined designs.
Phonograph motors of this era were usually spring-driven, and the most common problem with them is one or more broken springs. A broken spring results from overwinding and is a laborious repair. However, it can be done. Replacement springs are available at considerable cost, but it is an essential repair to have a working phonograph! Some repairmen in the past used less-than-optimal ?fix-it? techniques, such as repairing a broken spring by shortening it significantly. Sometimes parts from other makes were fitted inappropriately into motors in an attempt to make them work right, often unsuccessfully. The mechanism in an antique phonograph should be as original as possible, and if not working correctly, should be looked at by a very experienced restorer before the owner turns a single screw.