Old, dusty but neat phonographs
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    Auction Finds

    A baker who loves and repairs old phonographs

    I’ve never met Anthony but I’ve listened to his music. Well, it’s not exactly his music, but the tunes emanating from one of the lovely early phonographs he fixes and collects as a hobby.

    It’s not the smooth, clear, sophisticated sound we hear on today’s technological wonders, but the music of a century ago delivered on old-style music cylinders. The phonographs give us a glimpse – by ear not by sight – into the musical innovations of their day, allowing us to experience recordings as they sounded to those Americans who could afford these machines 100 years or so ago.

    An Edison Standard Phonograph, circa 1898. Anthony made the wooden horn on the machine.

    Anthony owns several Edison phonographs. I first learned that the man who improved on the light bulb was just as proficient in making phonographs after coming across a bevy of floor models of Edisons, RCA Victors and Brunswicks at auction a couple months ago.

    Most of them were lovely, but were caked in dust and in great need of repair. They, too, appeared to be part of someone’s collection, as the lot included pamphlets, letters and other documents about the phonograph records and players.

    Thomas Edison is credited with inventing the phonograph in 1877, but a man named Eldridge Johnson popularized it. Johnson formed his Victor Talking Machine Company around 1901, and his trademark of a dog listening to his master’s voice became ubiquitous.

    I found the old phonographs intriguing both for their historical value and their beauty. So, I was delighted when I came across Anthony and his collection of Edisons and Victrolas. Anthony, 41, is a native of Schenectady, NY, or “The Electric City.”

    (Thomas Edison arrived in Schenectady in 1886 to open a manufacturing plant to efficiently make his light bulbs and phonographs. He formed the Edison General Electric Co. three years later and then merged with another company under the name General Electric Co.)

    Anthony works with the disabled, but he’s a baker by trade, having owned a shop for nine years.

    “I’ve since closed the bakery but I occasionally make wedding cakes by word of mouth,” he said. “I still enjoy the art of creating them.”

    Two wedding cakes made by Anthony the baker.

    I asked him to tell me about his collection. Here’s what he had to say:

    How did you get started collecting phonographs? What’s the allure? How did you learn to repair them?

    I really liked the appearance of the cabinet to the floor-model Victrolas but never appreciated the function of one. Once I bought my first Victrola, I realized how amazing they are.

    I found my first Victor Victrola Model VV-100 at an antique shop about three years ago. I always wanted one but really could not afford the price of one in a good working condition. This particular Victrola caught my heart as its cabinet was in good original condition but needed to be serviced as it did not work. I paid $165 for it and transported it home.

    I then went to various antique shops and asked around if anyone knew where I could get it serviced. Once I found a man who had experience reconditioning Victrola motors, he was nice enough to clue me in on the ins and outs of getting Victrolas back into working condition. That was the start of a wonderful, rewarding hobby that has led into Edison phonographs and probably will not stop there.

    A floor-model Victrola that Anthony adapted with a horn. The sounds would have normally come out of the top two doors.

    How many phonographs do you have in your collection?

    I have:

    6 table-top Victors
    4 Victor floor models
    1 front-mount external horn Victor Model P
    1 Frankenvictrola that I’ve pieced together with Victor components. I handmade the wood base and wood horn.
    2 Edison cylinder phonographs

    Do you make your own horns? How did you get into that?

    I’ve made two wood horns. One for my custom-made Victrola and one for my standard phonograph. A few reasons why I’ve made my own wood horns are because I like the challenge. I like to have unique machines and I can’t afford a beautiful original or professionally made wooden horn. Both horns are temporary and are interchangeable with original horns. I would never adapt a machine to take one of my unique handmade horns.

    Where do you store your collection?

    I display my collection throughout the house.

    The back side of the Edison Standard Phonograph, circa 1898.

    What’s the best or oldest phonograph you have & how did you get it? 

    The oldest one I own is my latest addition to my collection. It is an Edison Standard Phonograph with the last patent date of May 31, 1898. I would have to say my favorite and most valuable is my Victor Model P external front mount horn, which was purchased on eBay.

    How do these compare to how we listen to music today? Do you prefer the sound of phonographs?

    It seems the louder music is playable, the louder we turn it up to the point where loud is not loud enough. I guess that’s just human nature. Over the years we have taken advantage of technology and lost appreciation for what life hands us. This will never happen with a phonograph. What you hear is what you get, as there is no volume control. Cabinet-style Victrolas have a slight variation of volume by opening and closing the speaker doors, but only max out when the doors are all the way open.

    Edison phonographs have smaller and larger horns but there’s only so large you can go. I can’t explain why but I enjoy the sound of a Victrola/phonograph. The sound is so real.

    A phonograph that Anthony assembled from Victor components. He made the wooden base and horn.

    What type of music do you normally buy to play on the phonograph?

    For phonograph rolls, I would buy anything I can get regardless of the style of music or condition. For 78 speed records, I prefer classical and big-band music.

    Do you ever repair the phonographs and give them as gifts? Have you sold any of them?

    I’ve repaired various models of Victrolas for friends and family, and only charge for the cost of parts. My profit is getting the experience and the chance to work on them. I’ve sold two Victrolas to downsize my collection and received just the amount of money I put into them.

    Since I had never heard an old phonograph played before, Anthony made two videos for me.  You can see and listen to one below and the other here.

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