It’s a long fascinating journey, and it’s very atypical of a young woman taking up as a serious hobby, but somehow things just ‘fell into place’ and took off from there.
It was right before my great grandmother passed away in 2003, I believe and I had been writing back home to her like clockwork about all the new antiques I was slowly, but surely, accumulating, so-to-speak. She was thrilled and wrote back one letter in particular that stated she wanted me to have some coal oil lamps for my antique dresser (at this time it wasn’t Eastlake, but it was from probably the early 1900’s). She went onto say that she wanted me to have her celluloid dresser set with hair brush and comb and corset cover. I have since acquired all those items, plus some cigar boxes that belonged to my great grandfather (her first husband) and his folding metal ruler with worn leather case. Oh, and dad got the Victrola, and in our family that was a big ‘to-do’. Rather it was more of a matter to see that it arrived safely to its new home and it did. In our family you had to help out with chores in order to earn the right to listen to the Victrola. And in 1990 during that one blazing hot summer, I received that same right to listen to the Victrola for the first time after I helped great grandmother wash dishes. At the time I was thirteen and likely had seen the Victrola before at my great grandparent’s, but never took any fascination to it.
In fact, the fascination that surrounded that particular Victrola machine wouldn’t come back to haunt me (pun intended), until I was in my late Twenties. By this time my great grandmother’s health was failing and just how serious it really was was alarming since she’d always had the mind sharp as a tack and at the last we’d became very close pen-pals since I was living in the state over. Most of all she became my biggest ally during a time in my young teenage years when I had none, especially when it came to the topic of old music. She sided with me which I found astonishing when I was thirteen and she naturally shared a lot of my views as well. I later find out that the Flapper era (she was a part of at fifteen and married to her first husband, by the way) centered around pushing the envelope much like every coming up generation did or tried to do after hers. However, a flapper would smoke and drink (when prohibition was enforced and the country was dry), and powder her nose in public which was once considered taboo in my great grandmother’s time. And nowadays we just whip out the powder compacts like its nothing. She told me to wear my makeup because we earned the right and to treat it like gold. And she was right. Makeup is still expensive to this very day, but I found myself weeding out a lot of my old makeup like used mascaras and old eye shadows that wound up in the trash due to potential bacteria concerns. That, and I hardly wear makeup anymore because it irritates my skin.
Shortly before she passed away I wrote letters to her constantly not ever receiving a reply. My suspicion that something wasn’t right didn’t go unfounded for very long. At first I was kept in the dark about how she was being terribly abused by her caregiver. I often wondered after the fact if that’s why she never wrote me back. Perhaps her caregiver tossed my letters in the trash. And I also heard that my great grandmother would have her good days, and bad. Her mind was going and she wouldn’t be able to recognize family members at the very last. I had told my dad’s mother about not getting any replies and how odd I found it, and then told my dad’s mother that she must have been mad at me for buying an Edison phonograph instead of a Victrola (like we have in the family). Shocked over hearing my wrong assumption, my dad’s mother flew out of the house and told me that wasn’t the case at all, and then proceeded to explain to me that great grandmother’s mental health had been in decline since the death of her husband a year or so before and then she eventually suffered heart failure at the very last. And there was a lot of elder abuse by her caregiver as well which was frankly, horrible, shocking and inexcusable.
But for many years after great grandmother’s death I began to have nightmares about that Victrola. And in all these nightmares I see myself glancing at the turntable and not seeing a 78 on it. I must add to that at this point in time I hadn’t received a record list of music in great grandmother’s collection. There were two records I distinctly remember hearing when I was thirteen, “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo” and it was on a black bat wing Victor 78, however, the artist escaped my mind. But Carl Fenton’s Orchestra had did a rendition of that song on a Brunswick 78 that matches the artist I heard that day so long ago.
And that same day in the summer of 1990 we also listened to rural comic, Cal Stewart “Uncle Josh in a Chinese Laundry” and “Uncle Josh on a bicycle”. I remember it fondly because great grandmother asked me what I liked to do for a past time, flashing me a wise all-too-knowing smirk, then happily flipped through those old leather bound record books before selecting a 78. I rattled off, “Skateboarding,” since at this time it was still very much a male-dominated sport and there weren’t too many girl skateboarders that were die-hard serious about skateboarding. When I say die-hard, they had the expensive top-of-the-line skateboards and high end ball-bearing wheels like I had on my beloved Mark Gonzales Vision ‘mini’-skateboard. Due to my pint size I couldn’t ride a regular adult skateboard so for a brief while they made mini-versions of the original sizes. Very cute and highly collectable and I’m kicking myself now for not hanging onto said skateboard and keeping it put up. 😮
Well, Uncle Josh lived long before the invention of skateboards and he passed away in 1919. I had to try another and I said, “Bicycle”. And great grandmother placed a 78 on the turn table, cranked up the machine and released the brake. The record spun around faster than anything I’d seen and she placed the steel needle on the 78. The sound just filled the room. The comic laughed with a now familiar laugh that will forever resonate in my ears and draw me close to a Victrola and/ or Edison. I have some of this same comic’s rural sketches on the Edison Diamond Disc too. And it will always take me back to that first moment I laid eyes and ears on that particular machine. And in my nightmares about that Victrola, no 78 existed. In my waking hours I couldn’t make sense of it. I mean, why now so many years later and after her death was I beginning to have nightmares about the family-owned Victrola?
My ex-boyfriend summed it up: it could actually be a sign that these 78’s no longer existed in her collection since I kept having the nightmare repeatedly for a year and half after her death. When the day came that my dad’s mother mailed me the record list, I held out a glimmer of hope, but wasn’t too disappointed to discover that neither copy of “Uncle Josh on Bicycle” or that of the song “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo’” didn’t make the list. I mean, unless we had a Mandela effect happen back in 1990 that summer, those were the 78s we listened to. I also found out before my dad’s mother passed away that it wasn’t uncommon for great grandmother to throw away broken 78s simply because the sentimental attachment to them wasn’t there. Sure, they may be hard to find 78’s nowadays and eventually I found descent copies from eBay years later and it was well worth the wait. A very eerie twist to this Edison phonograph story is that I have almost duplicated all the copies of all of my great grandmother’s 78s long before I received the record list in hand, minus my collection doesn’t contain any of the Decca 78’s though.
As they say great minds think alike and perhaps there was this certain compulsion that drove me to spend hours in the freezing cold out in a shed of one antique store in particular during the winter of 2004 and in the heat of summer searching and sorting for foxtrots and early jazz with some instrumental and sentimental ballad 78s thrown in as well. I never did get around to itemizing a full list of my own 78s but really should do it sometime soon and then back them up to a jump drive or as like to call a ‘Tom thumb’ drive.
It wasn’t until 2008 amidst another family crisis when I finally did find a sense of closure and the nightmares about the Victrola ended when I visited my great grandmother’s grave for the first time. And on her grave I placed a personally inscribed Edison Diamond Disc that was too worn out to be played, plus I had said song on backup copy.
I didn’t go to great grandma’s funeral which shocked many in my family because we had been close in the beginning and also in the end, and she had been the only grandma with no fear that stepped in and helped my parents care for me when I was a sickly premature baby. I only found out years later I was her favorite out of the fifteen great grandchildren.
After the Edison C-19 came a few more upright antique phonographs and table tops too, but that’s the one that started all and still remains. The Edison C-19 took a major hit when I thought I wanted to ship it off and have it completely and thoroughly cleaned, then had a sudden change of heart. Something just didn’t feel right and I quick as I could made the place where I shipped it to send it back after much back and forth email exchanges where they tried convincing me they’d be more than happy to keep it for as long as needed. Mind you, at this point, there had been no work done on this machine, but boy howdy, did I learn a valuable lesson to never, ever ship off an entire mainboard assembly with the horn attached in a box several states away. Not only did the horn arrive broke from it’s lift rod, but the turntable platter appeared to have been met with a cheese grater and it the green felt was in almost near mint condition before I shipped it off. I did insure the machine for what I paid for it, but never filed a claim with an insurance adjuster because it would have been my word against the place I shipped it to, and it would have been difficult to pin point if it was a simple case of human shipping error on my behalf, or if the damage had been deliberately caused. Either way, I’m sure the place I shipped it too is laughing their butts off, figuring there wouldn’t be a snowball chance in heck that I’d be capable of repairing the whole phonograph to working order, and as luck would have, I did with my ex-boyfriend’s help. We worked hours soldering the horn back onto the lift rod, then spray-painted over the repaired spots with black paint, let it dry and still the biggest test was yet to come…
We’re our efforts all in vain? Or did we just fix the impossible? It wound up okay, and the horn lift knob had a burr in it. The wooden lever was broke and I had to buy a replacement for that plus another screw and believe me, you can’t find either at Ace Hardware. So those had to be special-ordered from an entirely different outfit with much better prices. And the horn still ‘hangs-up’ and won’t set down on the record which is due to the damage the phonograph incurred, that and I never did get around to fixing the lift knob yet.
It wound up alright and by 1: 45 am we heard it play again. At this time I was emailing another repairman who offered to sell me an entire mainboard assembly since trying to solder those old horns back in place were impossible to do. We did it using lead solder and fluxing compound (the old kind that plumber’s used to use) that my ex-boyfriend had lying around. And we also used a hand-held blow torch. So that Edison C-19 oak cabinet had been put through heck and back and I’m now more the wiser since my early days. It still plays and it still gives off that slight haunted vibe from time to time, although it’s faded through the years since I’ve owned it. But in the beginning owning this Edison C-19 was brand new to me. I didn’t always understand the mechanics behind them other than they don’t use electricity to operate. They use a hand crank that winds up the mainsprings, that in turn, play an Edison Diamond Disc.
Some other machines were sold here and there because I either needed the money for some other project or simply ran out of space. Mind you, all nine of these machines stayed in one bedroom along with the cylinder phonographs and table tops. And when I moved, I traded off a few to upgrade to a slightly higher end model of an Edison Amberola 75 and gave away one table top model and one suitcase model Victrola to my friend.
It’s the collecting part that’s half the fun, but its when these antiques are restored to their fullest potential that makes all those searches, all that time and money spent, all that hard, extensive hands-on work truly pay off. And I have the habit of preserving these 78’s on cd and upload them to my MP3 player as well.
And just some slice of wisdom; should you ever turn around and sell these antique phonographs you probably won’t get out of them what you put into getting them fully restored. People will try to price-gouge you as well. So be leery of the ‘want something for nothing’ types that will try to beat you up and walk all over you if the day should ever come you need to part with one of those beautiful wind-ups. I know as a seller of these antique phonographs it’s very much like working in retail. You deal with all sorts of online customers sight unseen, and if they want museum “mint” antique phonographs, why do they buy mine knowing well in advance nothing will be showroom perfect? I clearly state if the phonographs has had any repair work done to it and not to expect factory new results. These machines are very simple and they are what they are. There is no bass boost on a Victrola. If you use a Tungs-tone stylus or a Loud tone needle then you might break the sound barrier when you play John Phillip Sousa. And once the cabinets are refinished, they’ll lose whatever value they had to begin with.
So, my best advice to you: leave the cabinet alone, please and don’t attempt to varnish them. You will get more money out of it if it’s left un-restored. Now rarity and price, I would be more than happy to share at The Victor Victrola page. Note: I don’t own nor operate this website. It is a database reference for makes and models of Victrola only. They do not cover Edison phonographs. There are books (in print) that are collector’s guides, but I’ve noticed nearly all of those are very expensive and don’t contain enough information (specs) about the machines other than showcasing some expensive (out of my attainable reach) museum quality phonographs. Now the best book for restoring these antique phonographs is The Compleat Talking Machine.
Thanks for reading, liking, re-blogging, sharing, commenting, tweeting. I truly appreciate it. There’s more to come but it’ll take me time to add to this blog and will as I can find the time to do so. 🙂