Collecting Antique phonographs and Victrolas - A Beginner's Tutorial.



SEE ALSO: ANTIQUE PHONOGRAPH AND MUSIC BOX BEGINNER'S GUIDES

This is a companion piece to the Antique Phonograph FAQ.

If you're new to the antique phonograph and Victrola hobby then read on. If you're an established collector, then this article isn't for you: stop right here and proceed to the Noteworthy News archives, or some other portion of the site. You already have your own opinion on what to collect, and I'm not interested in challenging it.

First, a very short history of the talking machine industry in the United States:

The antique phonograph industry as we're interested in it was birthed by Thomas A. Edison in 1877 and extended into the mid-twenties until the introduction of acoustical amplification.

Short enough?

Well, you probably don't want to be bothered reading the entire history of the Edison Phonograph Works, or the Victrola, or the Graphophone company, fascinating as that history is, and although there are many fine scholarly books on the subject.

In fact, let's get down to brass tacks. Human nature being what it is, you're reading this article because you want to know what something is worth. Perhaps you're contemplating a purchase. Perhaps you inherited a great old Grafonola. You want an appraisal.

Well, you've definitely come to the right site. Because I'm not going to do it for you.

That's right. I'm not going to tell you what your antique phonograph or Victrola is worth.

What I am going to do is tell you why one antique phonograph or Victrola might be worth more than another. And to do that I have to expose you to a little more talking machine industry history, as well as the history of phonograph collecting in the last 30 years.

Let's break down our very short history of the talking machine industry into three very short segments. There's nothing widely accepted about this breakdown; in fact, I don't think anyonebody else has ever done it, but it makes sense to me.

1. The early years. 1877 until around 1898.

2. The middle years. 1898 until around the mid-teens.

3. The late years. From around the mid-teens until the End of Time.

In a little while I'm going to propose to you that the value of an antique phonograph or Victrola is determined by its scarcity, its popularity, and its condition. Then with the logic of an existential playwright I will explain why this thesis is meaningless.

For the moment, let's return to our very brief but now expanded history of the talking machine industry.

1. The early years. Edison invents the phonograph in 1877. (If he didn't someone else would have done it -- probably Chicester Bell). The phonograph languishes as a novelty while Edison toys with big endeavors, such as the electrification of New York City. In the 1890s experimentation revives in recorded sound.

Machines from this era are historically significant. They are usually beautifully done, often very scarce or one-of-a-kind. We're talking about tin foil machines, Berliner ratchet winds, Amet spring motors, many Edison coin-ops. Early machines are "nice," in the special way that collectors toss off that word.

2, The middle years. Talking machines swing into mass production and are embraced by the masses. Edison beats the company that becomes Victor to market by a few years, but by around 1902 the Big Three of Edison, Victor and Columbia Graphophone dominate . Internal horn Victrolas are introduced by Victor in 1906 and although acoustically inferior to their predecessors begin to inexorably displace the funky outside horn phonographs we all love.

Many models in this era were manufactured in large numbers, around 1 million Edison Standards, just for example. That's the high end. The low end might be, and this is no more than a guess, say around 5000 Columbia AKs. Machines from this era are going to make up the bulk of most collections of antique phonographs and Victrolas.

3. The late years. The controlling patents that allowed Edison, Victor and Columbia Graphophone to control the market begin to expire. A lot of people go into the record business, and everybody and his brother goes into the Victrola business.

A few machines from this era, such as the Orthophonic Victrola, appeal to collectors, but there's a lot of chaff to sort through.

Our little history lesson should give you a few clues about scarcity. But before I continue I have to make a brief, standard boilerplate disclaimer: It's important to collect what you really like. I knew one collector 20 years ago who built a collection of ornate upright Victrolas. Upright Victrolas weren't especially valuable then, but he really, really liked them. (That collection, by the way, would now be worth ten times what he spent.) Another man specializes only in Edison related items. Another collector converted his entire holdings to Zon-o-Phones.

As long as I'm in the mood for disclaimers let me make one more: An antique phonograph is not a stock certificate. Don't ever buy an antique phonograph as an investment. Buy it because you like it. If it appreciates in value so much the better. If it doesn't you'll still be happy, and you would never feel that way if you bought the stock.

Which brings us back to popularity. You remember the jock from high school who was the most popular kid in his class and who is now sweeping floors at the post office?. Or the girl nobody talked to who went on to become a theoretical physicist? It's like that sometimes with antique phonographs. Machines go in and out of popularity. An Edison Gem was a very popular machine in the late 1960s, but I doubt that anybody wants to sink much money in one now.

Okay, enough theory. On to some examples.

Early machines are scarce, and popular. An Edison Spectacle machine sold at an auction a few years ago for around $40,000. To be sure, this is the highest price I've heard of anyone paying for an antique phonograph, but this model was believed to have been as extinct as Tyronnosaurus Rex. Early machines, in my opinion. really distinguish a collection.

Machines from the middle years probably constitute the most active market among antique phonograph and Victrola collectors. Edison Homes and Edison Standards are very common but are reliable and functionally usable and make a great display if you only want one antique phonograph to decorate your dwelling. These machines are bringing around $350 at the phonograph shows. Yes, I said I wasn't going to do appraisals but this figure has become almost a law of nature, something like Avogadro's number. I don't like to generalize, but this is supposed to be a short article, so let me say that in general outside horn Victors, better outside horn Columbias and better Edisons are in the medium price range. What's the medium price range? Well, I don't believe in appraisals.

Some machines from this era with interesting features, and made in limited numbers, can become quite desirable, to use a word that hints a lot and reveals little. Take 5" or Concert machines, introduced around 1901. They have historical significance, but not for the reason most collectors believe. The larger record was issued to create more volume, not a longer playing time. In fact, the whole history of the phonograph industry up to this point could be rewritten as a search for volume. Or take the Edison Opera. Issued in limited numbers, it was an attempt to achieve acoustic airtightness, and has forever been a collector's favorite.

Now, just to prove that rarity doesn't necessarily mean anything, let's take another machine from this era, the Hawthorne and Sheble Star. Nobody has production figures, but it's probably as scarce as the machines made in limited numbers above. It will sit unsold at phonograph shows. Why? Maybe it's like the theoretical physicist. Or maybe it's just boring.

Machines from the later years don't draw a lot of collector's interest, with a few exceptions. Take the Victrola VI, introduced in 1911. Yes, I know we said the later years started in the mid-teens, but this machine was still being spewed out of the Victor factory as late as 1926. According to Robert Baumbach's book Look for the Dog (a recommended reference, by the way) there were over 600,000 progeny of this model that issued from Victor. It's an inexpensive device to play your 78rpm records on, but it's not a collectable Victrola.

I mentioned the Orthophonic Victrola, introduced in 1925, earlier. Baumbach's book reveals that over 60,000 were sold and the machine is so big and heavy that I doubt anyone but the local piano mover ever had the strength to dispose of one once it had entered the household. This antique Victrola isn't scarce, but it's famously popular with record collectors, due to the fact that Victor extended the range of the reproducer two octaves and that this machine with its deep bass is uncontestably the best way to play the records of the 20s.

We've talked about, and around, scarcity and price. Now it's time for some practical advice. You need to learn how to be a tire kicker, or perhaps more accurately you need to learn how to read the wear on your tires. At long last, we're going to talk about condition.

Oops, did I say at long last? One more digression, this one involving the science of psychology. There's a principle in psychology of which I have misplaced the correct scientific description , but it's called something like Task Completion. It goes like this: you give a child a large set of building blocks and tell him to build a house, or you give him a coloring book and instruct him to color in a picture. He is compelled to finish the task. He keeps working, ignoring all else until the task is completed.

What's this got to do with condition? Well, I believe collectors are compelled to complete their antique phonographs. Say you receive a box with no arms, horn or reproducer. It pains you to look at the machine. You'd like to get the original horn, but everyone else is missing it too. You'd like to get the original tone arm but it's even scarcer than hens' teeth. Then you discover that there a lot of high quality reproductions around. You learn that someone is reproducing the horn. You pop the horn on the machine. Then you put the reproduction hens' teeth on the machine. Task completion.

In my opinion this does not add to the value of your machine, at least not beyond what you paid for the reproduction parts. There are those who disagree, who contend that this machine should be worth almost as much as a good original example. I think these people are dealers who cannot find a good original example to sell you. It's supposed to be an antique, fergodsake.

Mind you, I have no problem with necessities such as reproduction cranks or rubber flanges for reproducers. But the hobby has reached the point where almost entire machines can be assembled from reproduction parts. Look very carefully at what you're buying; if something looks too new it probably is.

There's one other kind of reproduction I need to warn you about: the machines coming out of reproduction antique Victrola factories in the near east. These machines have one purpose and that is to deceive. They are made of aged or old wood and typically have motors transplanted from cloth-covered portables. One clue is that they almost always have petalled horns of hand-hammered brass.

Okay, you've been warned about reproductions. Time to look at some other stuff. Look for extra crankholes in the case, or for extra mounting holes in the bedplate indicating the motor has been changed. This can be especially useful if you don't know what motor was supposed to go on the machine. (I mention this blatantly obvious advice here because on occasions I may have forgotten it and have been punished.) Most collectors don't see a broken spring as a major detriment, just a nuisance.

Look at the finish. It was most commonly some combination of varnish and old bug excretions. That's what shellac is made of, old bug shells. Collectors love this dirty old stuff! Machines with original finish are better than refinished machines. Machines with original finish and original decals trump refinished machines with reproduction decals.

One last thought: pot metal. (You expected the wisdom of the ages?) Pot metal is a soft, non-ferous, brittle compound. That made it ideal for castings not only in antique phonographs and Victrolas but also things like statues and engine bearings. Pot metal was used in reproducers, tone arms, and perhaps most notoriously, certain Columbia carriage assemblies. Once the pot metal swells and cracks there isn't any way to repair it.

That covers scarcity, popularity, and condition. If you came here for an appraisal you'll have to do it yourself. If on the other hand you're serious about collecting antique phonographs it's time to get some hands-on experience. Don't be afraid to make a mistake. Remember, the journey of a thousand Victrolas begins with a single machine.



SEE ALSO: The Victor Victrola