Phonograph Cylinders: A Beginner's Guide

Cylinder Lists

Cylinders sound impressive if played on restored machines. Early ones--let's say from 1895 to 1903--generally sound better than discs of the same early date and of comparable condition. Of course, cylinders were made before 1895, but these are generally in archives and you will not get many chances to hear one except on compact discs. In fact, it is difficult today to find any cylinders from the 1890s!

Cylinders are so interesting that I wish I could refer readers to a definitive book on the subject, but books about cylinders are out of print.

I'll give some background information about cylinders. Although the Edison company (it was the National Phonograph Company until renamed Thomas A. Edison, Inc., around 1910) was not the only company to make cylinders. Thomas A. Edison started it all and dominated the cylinder market, so I will refer to Edison cylinders often.

Movie aficionados may recall Spencer Tracy portraying America's greatest inventor in the 1940 film Edison the Man. Edison the inventor experienced more setbacks than the film shows, but the movie realistically shows the first cylinder machine as being crude and unreliable. Early machines consisted of a mouthpiece and a mandrel or drum around which one wrapped a sheet of tin-foil. The mouthpiece used for recording also served as a playback speaker. A tinfoil recording is a fragile thing and may not be played more than once. It may not be removed from a machine without damage.

The earliest commercial cylinders are so scarce that nobody reading this is likely to find many. They include white wax and brown wax cylinders, made from ceresin, stearic acid, sodium and aluminum stearate.

Edison Blue Amberols Complete Index

A few collectors today shave brown wax cylinders (their moldy ones, anyway) and then make fresh recordings of their own voices. Decades ago people could buy recording kits--a recorder, shaver, recording blanks--and then make home recordings, which means the cylinder phonograph was the cassette machine of its day. Early machines have handles so people could carry them around and record anywhere. I hope someone discovers from a New Orleans home a cylinder from circa 1910 featuring early jazz but I also realize authenticating any such discovery would be difficult.

Anything from the brown wax era is collectible. Since I'm on the topic of collectible cylinders, I should say a little about Bettini cylinders, Pink Lamberts, Bacigalupi products, and large-diameter items.

The large items are Edison Concert and Columbia Grand cylinders, which are an imposing five inches in diameter (Lambert also made some). Even if lucky enough to find one, I would not be able to play it since the machines are too rare. Also unusual are Columbia 20th Century cylinders, which are six inches in length instead of the normal four.

Bettinis are legendary. From around 1898 to 1901, Lieutenant Gianni Bettini (1860-1938) worked at reproducing with fullness and brilliance some important operatic voices of the time, and even some Bettinis are five inches in diameter. Watch out for fakes!

Bright pink cylinders were made by Thomas Lambert (1862-1928), whose control over Celluloid patents vexed Thomas Edison. Lambert himself used the term "cellulose." I say "pink" but some well-preserved specimens are closer to purple than pink. Advanced collectors also know about the other colors--white, brown, and black. These cylinders are incredibly lightweight! They were made around 1900 to 1902. You'll find patents information on rims, such as "Pat'd March 20, 1900" (this is on #589, "The Jolly Coppersmith") and "Pat. July 29, 1902" (this is on black #1036, "In Dear Old Illinois"). You'll find the catalog numbers on the rim of cylinders, but at the factory, numbers were also written (by hand in pencil) on the inside of most cylinders--that is, for the pink ones, which are white inside, where the fingers go. Often these pencil markings are easier to read than what we find typed on rims.

Bacigalupi products are named after San Francisco businessman Peter Bacigalupi, who ran a shop at 941 Market and elsewhere in the city. He recorded some turn-of-the-century artists who never recorded on the East Coast, making these recordings very special. Also, a young Billy Murray made his first recordings for Bacigalupi. No Murray item from the late 1890s is known to have survived.

From January 1902 until 1912--that is, between the manufacture of the rare brown wax cylinders and common blue ones--the Edison Company employed a "Gold Moulded" process resulting in Standard Records. Don't melt them down. You won't find gold! Master metal molds, then spelt "moulds," were formed from the original recording, and melted wax was fed into the working mold whose grooving was in negative.

We call these "two-minute" cylinders though performances may not last exactly two minutes. The proper speed is 160 revolutions per minute, with exceptions including slow-playing cylinders that teach foreign languages or stenography--boring! Writer Allen Koenigsberg estimates 8000 different titles were issued on black wax, with total production running into the tens of millions. If not so fragile and prone to fungus, they would be more common today.

Columbia cylinders are two-minute black wax records, as are many Indestructibles, a brand easily identified by metal rings on the inside. When Edison introduced in October 1908 the four-minute wax Amberol (named for the smooth, regal-sounding "amber"), others followed with longer-playing products. They include Albany's Indestructible Company, which made Oxford cylinders for Sears, and Cleveland's U. S. Phonograph Company, which made U-S Everlasting and Lakeside cylinders.

When I began collecting, I had trouble distinguishing an Edison from a Columbia or Indestructible. Among other things, I now look for an engraved Edison signature on a rim, and most Edisons have spiraling "ribs" on the inside. When handling a cylinder, insert fingers into the cylinder's bore. Don't touch wax grooves since that promotes fungus growth. But feel free to touch Celluloid surfaces.


Edison four-minute wax Amberols have the notation "4M" to indicate they are four-minute products. They played longer because twice as many grooves were squeezed onto the surface, 200 per inch instead of 100. These longer-playing cylinders required an adjustment to an old machine and a thinner sapphire stylus.

Edison's wax Amberols wore out too quickly and were replaced in 1912 by a better product--Blue Amberols, issued from November 1912 until mid-1929. Edison at last paid for rights to the Celluloid molding process, soon making bright azure blue Amberols made of Celluloid backed with a plaster of Paris core. Celluloid resists both fungus and wear, but a drawback today is that plaster of Paris sometimes swells--or, as I've been told by Allen Koenigsberg, the Celluloid shrinks (Edison's Blue Amberol cylinders are rugged, having the least Celluloid problems of any manufacturer, but if you put a Blue Amberol cylinder in a freezer, the Celluloid will shrink and split). Anyway, around 1912 machine owners again had to upgrade their equipment, this time needing a heavier diamond-stylus reproducer for the best sound.

Non-collectors assume that if a cylinder fits on a mandrel, the machine can play it, but you need to learn which machines and reproducers play which cylinders. Crudely put, early machines play early cylinders, later machines play later cylinders, and early machines can play later cylinders if adjustments have been made to the machine. A two-minute Standard Record plays at a different feed rate than the four-minute Amberols and needs a wider sapphire stylus. The heavy diamond-stylus reproducer designed for Blue Amberols delivers a great sound but only when Blue Amberols are played (except the Edison company began to "dub" the sound onto cylinders around 1915--I'll soon cover that). That diamond will destroy earlier wax cylinders, including the Blue Amberol's immediate predecessor, the wax Amberol.

Blue Amberols were a genuine improvement over wax Amberols, but from January 1915 onwards, the Edison Company compromised quality by issuing "dubbed" cylinders, forsaking a more direct recording process. This saved money since the company no longer paid artists double fees for recording in both cylinder and disc mediums. Dubbing was done from a disc to the master cylinder, making sound on most Blue Amberols second generation. Collectors use the term "live" for Blue Amberols released from November 1912 through December 1914.

Edison and Columbia dominated the early cylinder industry in America. The latter left the cylinder market in 1909, by which time the public preferred discs, though Columbia distributed Indestructible cylinders until 1912. Indestructibles stayed available into the early 1920s. They are worth collecting since the material issued by the company was recorded specially for that company, and some interesting performances can be found. Sadly, a factory fire on October 11, 1922, put an end to this brand (one wonders if the company could have stayed afloat for much longer anyway--America suffered from a depression at the time). Don't date Indestructibles by the "July 29, '02" notation on rims. It is merely a patents date.

The Edison Company made money on cylinders into the 1920s though from 1914 onwards it also pushed thick Diamond Discs, which had superior sound. If someone tells you that Thomas Edison was a bad businessman if only because he continued to issue cylinders into the 1920s, don't believe it! He still made money on them since they were cheap to produce. The last commercial Blue Amberols were issued in 1929, by which time there was little demand. Some special educational Blue Amberols were still pressed, into the 1960s, for dictation instruction into the 1960s.

One needs the right reproducer to play a cylinder. I should mention some sapphire reproducers since the alphabet of them bewilders beginners. Letters for sapphire reproducers, from B to S, have no connection with letters on machines. The Model C is commonly used for two-minute cylinders--it won't play Amberols. The Model H is often used for wax Amberols--it won't play two-minute records and is too light for Blue Amberols though it won't harm one, and you can try it. Various Models--K, O, Q, R, S--let one select either a two- or four-minute stylus. The L and M are for some Amberola machines. The R and S, which have larger diaphragms, sound better than the K, all three of which fit machines with small carrier arms. The Model O fits only machines with large carrier arms.

Edison Opera

Whereas not all 78s have value (junk 78s are just that--junk), every clean cylinder has value since somebody will prize it if only as a curiosity piece, especially if it is in an original box with lid. Dealers can ask a few bucks even for dreary Blue Amberols featuring waltzes, flute solos, hymns, Hawaiian tunes, whistling solos, and bird imitations (these six musical categories are the worst ones, from an average collector's point of view).

An original container adds value. Edison products came in round cardboard with the inventor's face prominently displayed. Tiny lyric sheets or slips were provided for Blue Amberols from December 1912 until September 1914. Mice have stolen many of the these, taking them to line their nests. See Ron Dethlefson's superb book on these tiny sheets.

Over the decades, many cylinders have been placed in the wrong boxes. Matching a specific cylinder with the right kind of box is an art, requiring knowledge of container changes.

Some Blue Amberols are not a true blue. These are very light blue in color, which is striking. The color comes from a water-based dye instead of the acetone dye (the Edison engineers were always experimenting). The problem with the light blue records is that they wear out quickly. You may want to avoid playing them often.

Specially colored Amberols called Royal Purple Amberol Records were issued from 1918 to 1921 to replace an earlier Concert series. These feature mostly classical selections.


Many collectors seek any Blue Amberols numbered 5000 or above, but some distinctions should be made. The most desired are the cylinders numbered 5400 and above. Most were dubbed from electrically recorded Diamond Discs, so the sound is fuller. Blue Amberols numbered above 5650 are especially desired because they were electronically dubbed from electrically recorded Diamond Discs, which is a different process altogether. The tonal quality of these last electrically dubbed Blue Amberols is nearly as good as the best directly-recorded cylinders of the 1912-1914 period.

Collectors prize the last Edison cylinders, seeking items in the 5,000 series since the company issued upbeat, even "hot," performances from 1924 to 1929. There are some jazz titles and fewer "dogs" in this series--fewer parlor songs, waltzes, bird imitations.

Non-Edison Cylinders

Now I'll summarize what is known about the maker U-S Everlasting products (I use a hyphen in the name since the company did). The corporate name United States Phonograph Company was adopted on July 14, 1909, for a Cleveland company run by president Kirk D. Bishop, vice president G. H. Worthington, treasurer Thomas H. Towell (he also owned Cleveland's Eclipse Musical Company, a shop that sold mostly Victor products), and secretary F. W. Treadway. The pressing plant was at 1390 East 30th Street in Cleveland. The first cylinders were marketed in May 1910.

The recording studio was in New York City at 662 6th Avenue, former location of the Norcross Phonograph Company. Albert W. Benzler left the Edison company in 1909 to serve as the new company's musical director (he had wanted to be Edison's musical director--instead, Victor Herbert was appointed musical consultant effective June 1, 1909). Charles L. Hibbard also left Edison to serve the new cylinder company as sound engineer (he later did superb work on Okeh discs). John Kaiser, who had managed in the 1890s the New York brown wax cylinder firm Harms, Kaiser and Hagen (he also made recordings, notably "Casey" monologues), helped manage the New York City studio. Kaiser wrote a letter on behalf of the U. S. Phonograph Company on December 17, 1910, to the widow of Frank C. Stanley soon after that singer died. The letter is duplicated in my book titled Companion to the Encyclopedia of Popular American Recording Pioneers, 1895-1925.

Due to Benzler's recruiting efforts, some Edison artists made Everlasting cylinders. From mid-1910 through 1913, slightly over a thousand U-S Everlasting Records titles were issued. Those distributed by Montgomery Ward and Company were called Lakeside cylinders. One high number is 1645, "You Made Me Love You," sung by Helen Clark and Walter Van Brunt. Other companies recorded this in June 1913. Soon afterwards the U. S. Phonograph Company ceased production.

Unusual performances are on U-S Everlasting cylinders (all are celluloid). Elsie Baker sings "Till The Sands of the Desert Grow Cold" on U-S Everlasting 1591. The song was otherwise cut by bass singers only. This is also on Indestructible 3308--the two cylinder companies were separate but after the U. S. Phonograph Company folded, some of its U-S Everlasting molds went to the Indestructible company in Albany, which pressed records from the molds and sold them as their own.