I don’t mean the Edison Talking Doll produced for a short time in the 1880s, although this blog will focus on “Edison” phonographs and all things early phonograph related. I refer to talking machines as well.
What makes them creepy? Even though the ‘Euphonia’ is far from being a phonograph. For starters talking machines very misunderstood mechanical contraptions to a younger generation nowadays. Secondly, talking machines give off an almost supernatural quality about them probably because they don’t use electricity to operate. And third, they were built to stand the test of time and show off their elegance, carved moldings, spindly legs and wood finishes. Talking machines are mainspring driven, hand crank phonographs, although Victrola didn’t call them ‘phonographs’. There was also a huge debate when Edison created the first tin foil phonograph in 1887. Both Victrola and Edison were rivals when it came to producing sound recordings. And some of the more obscure and hard to find cylinder records were made by companies such as Lakeside Cylinder company, Oxford, Columbia, Sears and Roebuck (later known as ‘Silvertone’ once disc records came into production), Brunswick, etc.
How much did I know about a Victrola talking machine back when I first listened to one play when I was a teenager? Nothing. I thought my great grandmother was trying to scare the daylights out of me and she succeeded in doing so. I loved old music! That was evident as we got to talking. There was enjoyment hearing old music that pre-dated anything I was aware of back then. My [then] young ears were introduced to a late vaudeville/ comedian Cal Stewart ‘Uncle Josh’ as he recited having troubles with a newfangled contraption he called a ‘bicycle’. [Uncle Josh on a Bicycle]. Flip side: Uncle Josh in a Chinese laundromat.
I had no idea why this comedian would laugh when falling off a bicycle. I had a very serious attitude back then it seemed and didn’t get this late comedian’s humor until years later. While I glared at this ‘talking machine’ with a studious, somewhat worried expression, I was curious to know how it was possible this 78 record was playing by itself. I carefully looked behind the machine and the hairs on my nape stood on end. I backed off immediately, turning a shade of white. There was no electrical chord. This Victrola didn’t plug into a wall socket. It certainly didn’t run on batteries.
My cassette tapes and LP’s played on electronic equipment. Even my cassette ‘walkman’ ran on two double ‘A’ batteries. But this ornate spindly-legged wooden ‘box’ with a coffin-shaped lid, laughed, sang, cried, played a snappy Fox Trot without any glitches. The only two unpleasant things I heard were the mainsprings caused a loud annoying thump, thump, thump as they wound down. This was due to dry, hardened grease on the gears I would later discover thus taking away some of the Victrola’s supernatural allure.
Also, the volume level and how harsh it was on my ears. But wait… don’t all teenagers crank up their stereos and drive their parents nuts at home with loud, obnoxious music? I was a headphone potato 90 percent of the time. I remember before my great grandma even wound the Victrola, she asked me if I knew what I was staring at that was caddy-cornered in the ‘parlor’ of her house And yes, she had the exact period furnishings to match which I found a little out of place for being modern times. I had no idea what I was gawking at, but I sincerely expected to see something frightening when she raised the lid.
I replied, “Well grandma, it looks like a record player,” I carefully approached the Victrola like discovering a new life form. “It talks.” She said happily. I very carefully flicked the wooden louvers (where the horn is located internally) with my finger.
I said “hello” to the Victrola, then a crease of worry formed on my young face. I turned back to my great grandmother and said on a sigh, “It doesn’t like me. It’s not talking.”
“What’s that logo say under the lid?” she asked, all spry and curious.
“… oh, talking machine—hey, is that the same thing as a “talking board” [Ouija]?” Oops! I just told on myself and spilled the jelly beans admitting that! I was also in serious trouble for messing with those.
I suspect but won’t ever be able to prove this wasn’t a ‘visit’ I was having with my great grandmother more of a lecture that lasted the whole day. My great grandmother answered, “Not really, but it will play 78s.”
“They’re called records,” I kindly correct her. “It’ll play LPs—long play records, right?” In my [then] young uninformed mind I thought every phonograph was created equal and the Victrola would have no problem playing a plastic record of mine. Then my great grandma placed a 78 in my hands.
“It’s heavy.” I stated, now awed by the Victor logo (not so much the band or song title). I flipped the record over gently. On the back it was embossed “V-I-C-T-O-R”.
“It’s made of shellac. That’s how records were made.” She was herself, a well spring of information and quite the historian.
“Where’s the rest of the songs?”
My grandmother pointed to a stack of 78 record album books in the lower part of the Victrola. She let me pick out another song, an early jazz or foxtrot. It was instrumental, but it certainly didn’t sound like the devil’s music that great grandma told me about from her days. I didn’t see why it was called the devil’s music back then but there was a correlation between the music of her generation and mine, sadly enough.
“What happens if I play one of my LP’s on this?” I pointed to the Victrola.
“The steel needle will destroy your records.” Yep, I heard right. The needles are steel and very sharp like a sewing needle! I wouldn’t really say that I warmed up to the Victrola at all. I was intimidated by it back then. The room she had it in also didn’t have a light fixture and it was kept semi-dark. My great grandmother had a lot of tall standing floor lamps with delicate fringe shades likely from the Roaring Twenties. And she had several Gone with the Wind glass globe antique kerosene lamps dotting the room on dollie-covered pie crust end tables.
My great grandmother ran her house like a museum and kept all the lights off during the day. She would brighten the interior by pulling back the heavy drapes and pinning them back to allow sunlight through the sheer cream-colored curtains. Her motto: “you break it, you pay for it.” And she would work you very hard and take it out of your weekly allowance money to make up for the damage.
What began as an incredibly long lecture actually turned out to be fun time spent with her. Oh and she was an original flapper so I learned a lot about Roaring Twenties makeup from her (thanks, grandma 🙂 ).
It was too hot to mow her lawn and my great grandfather told her not to work me in the heat. So we stayed in the air-conditioned comfort of her museum… err, I mean house and I helped her wash the dishes. She showed me her doll collection (not the creepy one I displayed in my antique doll blog though). I did see a couple of rubber Kewpie dolls with crocheted dresses displayed on her bed. I also noticed her half-doll bed light and the current sewing project she was putting the finishing touches on: her Hungarian cultural dress with green and red trim against the brightest white I’d ever seen. It was such a beautiful handmade dress. If only I had a camera, what memories we could have captured that day! Years went by and we became steady pen-pals though I’d never stop by and see my grandma again and I truly regret not doing so as the day is long.
The day she passed away in 2004 I cried nonstop, ate very little (if anything) for a week or more thereafter and felt another piece of my heart wither and die. I lost a true friend who I connected with on many levels not just musically. It felt like we had solidified a strong bond that traveled through the passages of time, and I’d like to believe quite inseparable even though we lived miles apart. We had a closer relationship when I grew up until the day she passed away at 92 years young. Great grandma never liked using the word ‘old’ when it came to age.
Well, the talking machines didn’t happen overnight for me. It was full of ‘almost’ had it and ‘the one that got away’. Before I invested anything at all, I wanted to arm myself with knowledge and know what the best windup phonographs were ever created in the history of music. I also based my decision on how are parts restored/ re-built and maintained. And are they easy to locate? Yes and no. I went at it alone because antique windup phonographs are a man’s hobby and women aren’t taken seriously, if at all and certainly they aren’t supposed to fall in love and preserve these phonographs, that’s absurd. This is what I was faced with.
Don’t worry, I don’t plan to take over the world, Seesh! I got zero help on my search and did what any sensible woman in my situation would do— I blazed my own trail. I do that quite often whenever I’m sent on a wild goose chase.
Does a Victrola and/or Edison really sound like ‘tin’? No, thank goodness! If ever they duplicate one in a movie they make the sound projecting from it ‘tin-like’, soft and scratchy. This, I feel is a bad representation of how either a Victrola or Edison sounds and it’s larger than life to hear them play in person, especially when they are meticulously cared for and kept up well for their age. Edison disc phonographs have a baritone sound that’s very easy on the ears. The Victrola Talking Machines can have different pitch and tone depending on the needles: soft, medium, and loud. Even the reproducers on a Victrola can make a world of difference such as the “Orthophonic” sound box, for example on a Credenza model.
What about those morning glory horns? The only time you’ll see those is if they go to a wax cylinder phonograph (often supported by a floor crane in some cases). Other times you might see a morning glory horn mounted on a bracket of a Victor Monarch II, Columbia table top phonograph, etc. The most sought after external horn would be wood. And these sell for an insane price that are unattainable and difficult to locate.
I never did know whether or not my great grandmother approved of me buying an Edison phonograph. I later discovered she was suffering from the onset of dementia a year before she passed away and shortly after her husband died a year before that and she was never the same without him. She had her good days and bad. One thing she never stopped asking about was me even though I did write her letters regularly and never received a reply. I have no clue if her caregiver (a terribly abusive one at that from what I was told) ever gave my letters to my great grandmother or just tossed them in the trash. I was never more excited to let great grandma know that her old 78 music had bridged that generation gap in the early 2000’s.
I’m now left wondering if she was angry with my choice since her parents went with Victrola in 1907. I erroneously thought they loved Victrola and hated Edison phonographs. I later found out that Edison phonograph dealers were few and far in-between back in the day depending on your geographical location and where you lived, be it in the city or rural you may not have even seen one. Also, the later made Victrolas were dubbed, “Electrolas” and some of them could plug in and play and some had the option of hand cranks as well.
As for Edison, I believe he got into the radio market a little too soon too late just before the stock market crashed in 1929 as for making phonographs, not too many were produced post- 1920s and the company ceased by the Thirties. Sadly, RCA (Radio Corp. of America) bought out the Victrola Talking Machine company within the same time frame and changed the record company and dropped the familiar ‘bat wing’ logo design.
Did you know trivia: JVC (Japanese Victor Company is a subsidiary of the Victrola Talking Machine company?) 😉
Hint of the supernatural: Edison touted his phonographs, “The phonograph with a soul!” While Victor Victrola had their mascot “Nipper”, a fox terrier listening to a phonograph (actually it was a Berliner depending on variations of the Victrola company story) and the slogan: “His Master’s Voice.” The original depiction of Nipper was actually viewing his master’s deceased body in a coffin, but it was way too morbid to be advertised so, as the legend goes, it was changed to a Berliner phonograph instead.
On an eerie note: a year before my great grandmother passed away I began to buy a lot of old 78s. Some of the songs are ‘new old stock’ which means they were never played and most were overstock. I stumbled across a few new old stock 78s and noticed some original dealer stickers. Little was I aware at the time I was duplicating nearly every song title/artist my great grandmother had in her 78 collection sight unseen. I only discovered this by happenstance when comparing the two lists recently (hers and mine) and a slight chill ran down my spine (not in a creepy way though). Thanks for reading!