Antique phonograph and Victrola FAQ
Who is this FAQ intended for?
It's intended for beginners, newcomers, and the simply curious. If you're already a collector skip to the Noteworthy News archives.
What's my antique phonograph worth?
I'm not usually comfortable answering this question ( even after over 30 years of dealing phonographs, I don't truly know), but I'm going to make an exception of my usual policy of evading this question: Your machine is worth whatever someone will pay for it. However, if you want to understand why
one machine is worth more than another you should read our companion article, Collecting Antique Phonographs and Victrolas.
Can I get parts for my antique phonograph?
You can get many standard parts such as governors, mainsprings, mica diaphrams, grills and cranks. Many parts have been reproduced. Some people still offer original parts. If your machine is rare, or obscure, you may have a tough time getting parts and the cost of machining replacement parts may far exceed the value of your machine.
Where can I get parts?
The man who was making and supplying many parts died suddenly in early 2021, and until that estate is settled many parts may not be readily available.
How many 78rpm records can I play with each steel needle?
One. Then change the needle.
I want to replace the stylus on my cylinder Edison reproducer -- it looks broken.
Are you sure? Edison used jeweled styli (saphire and diamond), smaller than a grain of sand. If you really need a stylus and have never repaired a reproducer before you might consider sending it to one of the professional repairmen. The entire usually reproducer needs to be taken apart.
I have a Model C Edison.
There were certainly Model C versions of many famous Edison models such as the Standard and the Home, but it's more likely that you are looking at the fishtail of your reproducer. You have a Model C reproducer.
My machine doesn't work because the spring is wound too tight.
There's no such thing. The spring was designed to be wound. Either you have a broken spring, or something like a bad gear is preventing the mainspring from unleashing its motive power.
Where can I get my antique phonograph repaired?
We offer reasonably priced Edison and Victrola repair. Please contact us for shipping instructions and an estimate.
What's a good book on antique phonographs?
The book everybody started from is From Tinfoil To Stereo
by Read and Welch (first edition only, don't waste your money on the revised edition). It was reprinted in paperback in 1977, on the 100th anniversary of recorded sound, and will be available is most large libraries. George Paul and Tim Fabrizio did a great job and a lot of new research with The Phonograph, An Illustrated Compendium
(Schiffer Publishing). There's a new edition out this year (2005). Allen Koenigsberg sells a lot of books on his website
, you might take a look.
What's the difference between a phonograph, a gramophone, a Graphophone, and a Victrola?
Phonograph was Edison's word. As far as Edison was concerned, only a genuine Edison machine was a phonograph.
Gram-o-phone was the trade name of a disc playing machine invented by Emile Berliner. The Gram-o-Phone eventually morphed into the Victor Talking Machine Company. The Victor company used the word gramophone in England, so gramophone became an English term meaning phonograph.
Graphophone (and later, Grafonola) was a word employed by Columbia and its myriad of successor companies.
Victrola always referred to a machine with the horn built into the cabinet, as made by the Victor Talking Machine Company. Victor introduced the Victrola in 1906. Prior to this, machines made by the Victor Talking Machine Company were known as --you guessed it -- talking machines.
So Edison, Victor and Columbia were the only ones who made phonographs?
No, they were just the major players. They held the best patents and wielded power to try to squeeze out smaller competitors.
What's the difference between a cylinder and a disc?
A cylinder is like a tube. A disc is flat, like a frisbee.
The old Edison cylinders came first, right?
For all practical purposes cylinders and discs were contemporaneous developments. Edison was a little quicker to get his machine to market than Victor, but by around 1904 discs were outselling cylinders. Cylinders were made until 1929, when the Depression hit.
Are the cylinders made of wax?
As a rule of thumb the earlier ones were made of wax, although a few celluloid records were present. So setting aside the celluloid question for a moment, we can generalize that the earliest cylinders were made of brown wax, and the later, gold-molded cylinder records were made of a black wax. Four minute Blue Amberol records were made of celluloid. This means, of course, that your wax records are susceptible to mildew and breakage.
Can I clean a wax cylinder record?
You can clean it, but unless you have just the slightest dusting of mildew your record is probably toast. The mildew eats into the composition of the record, and all you will hear will be static. Some people clean with a fungicide such as Lysol or baking soda.
How can I tell the difference between a two minute record and a four minute record?
Keep in mind that until around late 1909 there was no such thing as a four minute record, so that no record would have been marked two minute. Therefore,
Records marked 4M on the rim are four minute records.
Records not marked on the rim are two minute records -- unless they have plaster of Paris interior.
Celluloid records with a plaster of Paris interior (typically Blue Amberols) are four minute records.
Why can't I play a four minute record on a two minute machine, or vice versa?
Because the pitch of the feed is different, and the cut of the stylus is different. Your record will sound like gibberish, to say nothing of the chance of damaging it.
How do I tell if my outside horn Edison phonograph is a two or four minute machine?
You need to look at two things: the reproducer and the gearing. The bulk of Edison and Columbia outside horn cylinder production was two minute . Transitional machines that played both two and four minute had extra gearing. There is a sun and planet gear on the left of the mandrel shaft in the Edison Home and Triumph, and a knurled pull-out screw to the left of the gear cover on the Edison Standard. Columbia usually had a tiny lever. The most common Edison reproducers are Model C (two minute), Model H (four minute), and Model K (two and four minute). Some very late Edison outside horn cylinder machines were engineered to play four minute records only. One complication: reproducers can be switched.
What are the old thick 78s for?
They are Diamond Disc records that play on the Edison Disc Phonograph.
What's the difference between lateral cut and vertical cut?
Lateral cut wiggles in the side of the groove. Vertical cut bounces up and down.
Why is the difference between lateral cut and vertical cut important?
Because of patents. Victor and Columbia shared a lot of lateral cut patents. Competitors had to go to vertical cut records, at least until the controlling patents started to expire around 1917, and these records wouldn't play well on Victor machines without special adaptors. All cylinders and Edison flat disc used vertical cut . Although the latecoming Edison disc records offered beautiful, lifelike tonal quality, I think it's fair to say that 78rpm records offered more volume and far greater fidelity than the cylinders.
What kind of horn did my machine take? Didn't the horn have flowers on it?
Some machines were equipped with special horns appropriate to that model, and some machines could be equipped with aftermarket horns sold by mail order houses or the dealership. The conception that most of these horns were decorated in hand-painted flowers is a fantasy propagated by the motion picture industry. In fact, only one very late Edison model had this kind of morning glory horn as factory equipment, and most of these horns were aftermarket horns.
My antique phonograph has been refinished, and it has a number of reproduction parts, but the new parts are really good and look exactly like the old ones, so my machine is worth almost as much as a perfect original, right?
It may comfort you to believe so.
I have an Obscureola Victrola, made in 1921 by the Obscure Talking Machine Company of Chicago, Illinois, and I can't find any information about it on the web.
Many small businesses in this era pieced together machines with motors, reproducers, and cabinets available from standard suppliers to the trade. There is little interest in these machines.
Is ebay (or some other auction) a good place to buy an antique phonograph?
You'd better know what you're doing. The number of reproduction parts has never been greater, and buying a machine on ebay --even from an honest seller -- is buying a pig in a poke. Auction house prices have been extremely strong. While I must confess my bias as a show promoter, I truly believe that buying at the phonograph shows such as the automated music show
is the best way to purchase a machine. The selection is larger, and believe it or not, the prices are lower.