Good Excuses For Collecting Victrolas, 78s, and Cylinders

By Tim Gracyk

Victrola and 78 Journal Issue 5

It is easy to understand why someone would invest in a crank phonograph, and it is easy to understand why that person would want to own a handful of old records to play on that machine. But why do some people overdo it? I'm talking about people known as "collectors," the people who seem to own "too many" machines and "too many" 78s. Why so many? Why own so many machines that homes resemble museums? Why acquire so many heavy 78s that the floors begin to sag? Why acquire so much "stuff" that reinforcements are needed for the house?

I am one of those phonograph fanatics. When guests visit me, they cannot sit in the living room since Victrolas stand where chairs should be. I can never hang their coats since every closet is filled with 78s or wax cylinders.

What started out as a simple hobby for me became an obsession. I think I can cite good reasons why some people (like me!) are plain nuts--crazy!--for vintage machines and old recordings.

Justifying to a loved one an investment in a phonograph is simple work. To own one of the better phonographs is to own a work of American craftsmanship at its best. I marvel at machines made by companies like the Victor Talking Machine Company and Thomas A. Edison's phonograph company! They manufactured very sophisticated products for the home. A well-maintained or restored machine can produce a full-bodied, rich sound. You could be surprised by the tone of Victor's Credenza model or even an ordinary Edison machine--let's say a Standard or Home model--equipped with an "S" reproducer for playing two-minute or four-minute cylinders.

Some cabinet machines are worth owning just for the elegance of the woodwork. Victor machines with external horns not only add class to the home but can be great investments. Outside horn machines keep going up in value. (Avoid those horn machines sold through mail order catalogs, some of which end up in shops. These are hastily-assembled outside of the United States from very cheap parts.)

Phonographs help us visit the past better than most antiques, letting us duplicate the listening pleasures of previous generations. I know a few people who purchased their first phonograph because it reminded them of their childhood. They have memories of younger days when they visited someone--grandparents, an uncle, an aunt--who played a Victrola as a treat if the kids had behaved. People can usually buy one phonograph and be satisfied.

Others get infected with a collecting bug and seek all models of one manufacturer, or one model from all the manufacturers, or oddball machines. I cannot really explain the obsession some have, but I am grateful such passion is aroused. Along with machines, fanatics have knowledge. They are the experts we need for information on repairing or replacing parts, on maintaining motors, on restoring what we find at garage sales. Phonographs will be around for coming generations because some people today love and restore these old machines.

Portable

There is another kind of collector, perhaps one in every decent-sized town in America and a few in our big cities. I refer to those who own thousands of 78s, perhaps also hundreds or thousands of cylinders. What motivates these collectors? Don't they know the old music is reissued on wonderfully convenient compact discs? Old 78s are fragile, heavy, a nuisance to play--or so non-collectors say. Cylinders are even more fragile and are susceptible to mold. Many cylinders offer only two minutes of music whereas some compact discs hold over seventy minutes.

Why collect old recordings? Collectors insist performances recorded long ago can sound best in their original format. Much is lost in the transfer of original 78s to compact disc, especially when sound engineers rush their work or "improve" the sound by using a NoNoise or similar system, which some music lovers say robs the music of brightness or brilliance. Digital processing can eliminate surface noise--pops, ticks, rumble--but too often leaves a muddy sound. Even patient sound engineers doing straight transfers can lose a little sound.

Clean 78s played on a Victrola with a new steel needle--or on a modern turntable equipped with varying speeds and a special 78 stylus--can deliver an incredibly rich sound. I have watched friends play favorite opera 78s and exclaim that Luisa Tetrazzini seems to be in the room!

Another reason collectors turn to original recordings is to hear great performances from the past that have not been reissued. Although great artists of the past are on compact disc--tenor Enrico Caruso, trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke, pianist Fats Waller, blues empress Bessie Smith--I can name a hundred ignored by today's compact disc companies. They include Nat Shilkret, Ada Jones, Earl Fuller, Van and Schenck, Frank C. Stanley, Lucy Isabelle Marsh, Vesta Victoria, Arthur Fields, Jim Reese Europe, Franklyn Baur, Wilbur Sweatman.

Billy Murray was the most popular singer to make recordings from around 1905 to 1925, but no Murray compact disc is available. Arthur Collins was famous for singing "The Preacher and the Bear"--you won't find it on CD.

Some collectors say that owning original recordings helps them understand America's musical past in a special way. I hear them joke about how popular Alma Gluck's "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny" once was (did everyone in America buy this 78?), and they know firsthand how incredibly rare certain jazz and blues performances are (did nobody buy those great Paramount or Black Patti discs in the 1920s?).

A non-collecting friend was astonished when I reported that Charlie Parker 78s are hard to find. He assumed from the many Bird performances in reissued formats that the saxophonist was a popular recording artist, but collectors know from experience that this bebop giant was a musician's musician. His 78s aren't found in stacks of popular selling discs.

From the experience of sorting through boxes of 78s for sale, collectors also know that for a long period nobody's records sold as well as Bing Crosby's, especially on Decca. Collectors make distinctions between Crosby on Columbia label (his first 78 was made for Columbia--in 1926 with Al Rinker), on Brunswick (his best period), and on Decca (too common to excite anyone). They make further distinctions based on their knowledge of original labels.

Collectors who have gone through literally tons of 78s can name the one Billie Holiday 78 that was close to a hit. It was not issued by a major label. "Fine and Mellow" coupled with "Strange Fruit" appeared on Commodore, a small jazz label. Billie turned to it in 1939 because no big company would release "Strange Fruit," a song about lynchings (the other side, "Fine and Mellow," was the hit). Knowing about different 78 RPM labels helps one understand the careers of specific artists. Collectors say owning certain rare 78s is like owning a piece of history.

A final reason some people collect old 78s and cylinders is that they view money spent on rare items as a "sound" investment--the pun is intended. I cannot explore here what old recordings are likely to increase in value since that is a rich topic for a future article. But I will say that investing in 78s and cylinders only pays for those who know what they are doing. Not everything will go up in value, and much junk is out there! Research is needed. Certain books are essential.

Listening to old music gives collectors great pleasure, so even if their records don't prove to be good investments in 20 years--let's say too much money was spent on Hawaiian cylinders or Jesse Crawford's organ 78s--buying old recordings will not have been a total waste.