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The "Very Basics" of Antique Phonographs


If you are totally new to this hobby, are less than 50 years old, or have never dealt much with the history of "recorded sound", WELCOME! Unlike some hobbies and collector-cliques, the Antique Phonograph Hobby has one of the friendliest and most laid-back group of collectors you are likely to find. The peer-pressure and parochial attitude that is often exerted on new collectors at car shows, coin and stamp gatherings or antique gun events, does not commonly exist in this hobby, and we always enjoy hearing from people who are interested learning about antique phonographs. Even if you aren't that intersted in collecting phonographs, and simply want to unload an old Victrola that you found in Uncle Fred's basement, this page will get you started, and will help you understand the basics (and limitations) of this website, and about antique phonographs in general.

The term "Victrola" has confusing connotations. To someone who is 20 years old and finds an old radio/phonograph/TV console (like the one on the right) in their parents' basement, they may find the words "RCA Victor" or "Victrola" inscribed on it. They then assume that they have a rare antique phonograph that has a lot of collector value. It's fully understandable, as these old consoles appear as ancient as the pyramids to someone who was born in the 1990's. That's the difficult part of this explanation. Most common radio/phono consoles that you come across in basements or yard sales date from the 1950's or 1960's, and have nothing to do with this hobby or this website. Unfortunately, RCA used the word "Victrola" as a marketing catch-word on some of their products up until the late 1970's, but those machines are not true "Victrolas" in the antique phonograph sense.

First and foremost, most antique phonograph collectors are primarily interested in the machines and recordings made between 1880 and 1930. Most of us involved in the "antique phonograph hobby" don't collect, or have much knowledge, about phonographs or records made during the 1940's and beyond. This would include any vinyl LPs (made from 1948 until present), 45 RPM records (made from 1948 until the early 1980's), CD's (made from 1984 until present) or tape recordings (reels, cassettes, 8-tracks, etc.). The records we collect and play are either in a cylinder format or a flat disc format, and date from approximately 100 years ago. The cylinders are usually made of wax, and the flat records from shellac (which was made from a number of compounds, including the juice from ground-up beetles). These old records share very little in common with the CD format of today, and vastly pre-date the vinyl LP's that were popular in the 1950's through early 1980's. The cylinder record (left) was the original invention of Thomas Edison back in 1877, and pre-dates the flat record (below right) by almost 15 years. The history and technology of cylinder records goes way beyond the scope of this website, but plenty of good reading material is available online. Edison marketed and sold his phonograph cylinders and players for many years. Since Edison's designs and concepts was strongly protected by patents, and his cylinders were relatively expensive to produce in large volumes at low cost, the concept of the "flat" record was developed by Emile Berliner beginning in 1892. Unlike the cylinder, the flat record could be inexpensively duplicated by "pressing" them from a master disc, similar to a printing press, and it offered the advantage of having music available on both sides. Quality wasn't the greatest in early years, but over time, the lower cost, greater durability, ease of storage, and improved fidelity resulted in the Berliner disc becoming the dominant music reproduction medium. Many entrepreneurs jumped onto the phonograph manufacturing bandwagon in the early 1900's, with every company making a slightly different product trying to avoid patent infringement with each other. In those early years, different record brands were recorded at various speeds, but eventually 78 RPM became the standard speed for shellac disc records. Legal battles between phonograph companies were ongoing for several decades, as each design feature was challenged and defended by competitors, all vying to sell more phonographs. The Victor Talking Machine Company (who made the "Victrola") was one of those early competitors in the industry, and eventually became the dominant force in the marketplace, using the Berliner record design as their product. Ergo, millions of Victor and Victrola phonographs were made from 1900 through the late 1920's, so even today, most of these old phonographs are not considered "rare" in the context of having high value, as there are simply too many still around. Of course, there are some low-production models that can be quite valuable, depending on current demand and condition. This website only deals with products from Victor, and thus, you will not find any info here for any other brands.

With the advent of advanced technology and electronics (much of it developed during World War One), both phonographs and recordings improved greatly. To decrease wear and improve fidelity, shellac material was phased-out by the late 1930's, being replaced by other compounds that were easier to press and resulted in less surface noise. In turn, phonograph tonearms became much lighter to reduce record wear. The 78 RPM record format remained prominent through the 1940's, but by the early 50's the long-playing 33-1/3 RPM "LP" record came to dominate the industry. In 1958 the 78 RPM record was permanently discountinued. These recording systems are not compatible with one another. If you attempt to play a vinyl LP on an early wind-up Victrola, not only will the heavy arm and needle crush the grooves, the motor is not designed to play the much-slower 33-1/3 RPM format of the LP records. Take a look on EBay! Many of the Victrolas shown for sale have LP records sitting on the turntable. They may look okay, but they sure won't play. If you play a 1940's or 1950's 78 RPM record on a Victrola, it will sound a little distorted, and the record will wear out very quickly. Those later-vintage 78's weren't designed for the heavy tonearm used on the early-vintage phonographs. Not a good choice.

Many people come to this site via Google or Yahoo looking for general phonograph information on some old phonograph they have come across at a yard or estate sale. Unfortunately, you aren't going to find any information on this website if you wish to learn about a 1949 Philco phonograph, a 1958 RCA Radio-Phono console, or your parent's 1960's Mantovani records. Don't get us wrong. There are many collectors interested in these items; but that isn't our purpose. We only cover machines made by "The Victor Talking Machine Company" from 1900-1929.

So here are the "Top Ten" commonly misunderstood issues we come across on this site:

  1. "Victrola" does not mean any old phonograph. It is a specific brand, initially owned and marketed by The Victor Talking Machine Company, and later by RCA. This website is devoted to pre-1929 Victor Talking Machine products only.

  2. There were hundreds of different brands of phonographs made from the late 1800's up until the 1980's. Victrola is only one of those brands, and is the only brand covered on this website

  3. The terms "vinyl", LP", "High Fidelity", "microgroove", and "stereo" come from phonographs made from the late 1940's onward and are not covered by this website.

  4. Antique 78 records aren't made of vinyl. Vinyl records date from the late 1949 onward.

  5. If your phonograph has a TV, an AM/FM radio, or a multi-speed changer, this website won't be of any help. It isn't truly considered an "antique phonograph", although it may be well over 50 years old.

  6. You can't play anything but 78 RPM records on a Victrola; to be safe, they should be pre-1935 recordings to avoid premature wear

  7. You can't adapt your Victrola to play anything but 78 RPM records

  8. Most Victrolas are not "highly valuable", even though they may be over 100 years old. They made many millions of them for over 25 years, and hundreds of thousands are still around. There are rare and valuable models, to be sure, but they are few and far between.

  9. Most 78 RPM records have a nominal value from 25 to 50 cents, if they are in good shape. They made many hundreds of millions of them, and they still show-up by the boatload. It's hard to sell them unless you are willing to do a lot of legwork finding buyers, and you won't become rich. Sorry for the bad news.

  10. We have lots of information here about Victor Phonographs and Victrolas, and this site can answer most of your questions if you are willing to take the time to do some reading.  With over 100 emails coming in daily, we can't answer all questions, especially if the information is already covered on this site.

 

Please close this page to return to the website. If you are new to the hobby, take a few minutes to step through the "GETTING STARTED" pages to guide you through the process of learning about your Victor Phonograph!

Thanks for visiting!