Mail order mysteries

Or the case of the missing department store machines

September 1995

This article is part of the Noteworthy News Archives

Everyone loves a mystery--here's one for the phonographic sleuth.

Beginning around 1905 mail order houses, department stores, jewelry supply outlets and others flooded the market with inexpensive, anonymous machines in seeming competition with the Big Three manufacturers.

Who were the perpetrators?

The best clues can be found in the pages of the surviving catalogues of Sears Roebuck Co. and other firms such as Ward's, Spiegel and Babson Brothers. Forthwith, a peek at some mugshots of the later mail order mysteries, as revealed in the Sears files.

Harvard talking machine
Type: Harvard
Introduced: Spring, 1905. Discontinued: Fall, 1906
Price: $8.75, 1905.

Comments: Despite the apparent attempt of a creative copywriter to lend prestige to these machines by association with leading universities of the United States and England, the names Harvard and Oxford were probably suggested by the names of two streets adjacent a complex that the Sears company moved to in 1905. A variety of Columbia models, sometimes with Graphophone decals, were sold over the years as Harvards.

Oxford talking machine
Type: Oxford
Introduced:Fall, 1906. Discontinued: Spring, 1909.
Price: $15.95 with 50 records, 1906. Reduced to $6.95 in 1909 when it was sold as a Harvard.

Comments: This machine with black support arm is identified as a Columbia BL in a Spiegel catalogue (where it was sold as an "Empire.") Machines like the Standard X, designed to be  given away for free, were known as "scheme" machines; machines like the BL, desined to be sold at a low price, were known as "specials."

Harvard talking machine type 3a
Type: 3A Harvard
Introduced: Spring, 1906. Discontinued: Fall 1908.
Price: $14.90

Comments: This beautiful, ornate front mount featured a single spring Columbia motor. The 3A and its companion the No. 4 Harvard are sofmetimes found with a version of a Columbia elbow that terminates in a rubber fitting and with a long, skinny Columbia type horn.

Harvard talking machine model 4
Type: 4 Harvard
Introduced: Spring, 1906. Discontinued: Fall, 1908.
Price: $17.40

Comments: Even more ornate than the 3A, this machine featured a double spring Columbia motor and a mahogany cabinet. Judging from surviving numbers, few of the No.3A and No.4 Harvards must have been sold.

Harvard talking machine number 5
Type: No. 5 Harvard
Introduced: Spring, 1907. Discontinued: Spring, 1908.
Price: $9.90

Comments: With petalled horn, the machine was sold as the type FH Harvard for $15.90 in fall, 1907.

Oxford tone arm phonograph
Type: Oxford tone arm cylinder machine, type GH
Introduced: Spring, 1909. Discontinued: Fall, 1914.
Price: $18.

Comments: Essentially a Columbia BKT in a slightly smaller, plain square oak case, at $18 the Oxford sold for almost half the price of the name branded Graphophone. A version with four minute gearing was designated the WM.

Oxford flexible arm phonograph
Type: Flexible arm Oxford
Introduced: Spring, 1908. Discontinued: Spring, 1912.
Price: $14.95

Comments: A version of the Columbia BVT. Unlike other rear mount cylinder Columbias, the Oxford's back bracket did not screw into the rear of the case. The bracket was secured by a bar which extended across the bedplate and which clipped into the lid latch slots, thereby making it impossible to place the lid on the machine. The flexible arm Oxford was sold with and without Graphophone decal.

Oxford tapering arm phonograph
Type: Tapering arm Oxfords
Introduced: Spring, 1909. Discontinued: Fall, 1912.
Prices: $9.45--$18.85.

Comments: In 1906 Victor management made a decision to eschew the premium market and to not manufacture machines for other concerns, so as to not dilute the value of the Victor name. Ten thousand remaining scheme machines, Victor Ps, were sold to Harger and Bliss of Dubuque, Iowa.

Nonetheless, this series of tapering arm Oxfords is of Victor origin, manufactured in Newark, New Jersey by the American Zonophone Company, at the time a wholly Victor owned subsidiary. The discontinuance of the machines in 1912 coincides with the demise of the Zonophone company, forced to disband by court decision after losing a lawsuit to Columbia.

Four tapering arm Oxfords--the LE, OD, JF, and RW--were offered in plain square oak cases with single and double spring motors and 8" and 10" turntables. A supplemental catalogue shows mahogany cases. The same machines were sold by Montgomery Ward as Lakesides and have appeared with Zonophone decals.

The one piece back bracket and elbow was probably created by Louis Valiquet, Zonophone's in-house inventor. A two section tone arm with Exhibition type reproducer was affixed to a socket in the bracket.

AW Oxford talking machine
Type: AW, tapering arm Oxford
Introduced: Fall, 1910. Discontinued: Fall 1912.
Price: $27.50

Comments: Oak case, double spring motor, wooden Music Master horn standard. This machine and the BW Oxford, both manufactured by Zonophone (Victor), employ a large version of the one piece Zonophone bracket and arm. The AW was probably never sold with Zonophone decals.

BW Oxford talking machine)
Type: BW, tapering arm Oxford
Introduced: Fall, 1910. Discontinued: Fall, 1913.
Price: $39.95

Comments: Triple spring motor, mahogany case (actually stained birch), wooden Music Master horn standard. Examples have appeared with Zonophone decals.

Copyright 2015 Lynn Bilton

Lynn Bilton
Box 435
Randolph,OH 44265
330 325-7866


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