The Phonograph: A Love Story

I admit it. I am madly, deeply and irrevocably in love with my 1920 Victor Victrola phonograph that I restored last year. I’d always wanted a Victor Victrola phonograph, because as I’ve discovered, the history of the phonograph is the social history of the early twentieth century.

My Victor Victrola, model VVX, with a manufacture date of 1920, fully restored.

There was always something about phonographs that fascinated me. Fire breathing dragons with explosive diarrhea could inhabit the same room as a phonograph, and the phonograph would still be the first thing to catch my eye. My hobby of antique technology repair had seen me fix antique cameras, radios, and televisions, but phonographs were always like a long-admired relic that I couldn’t quite attain due to a combination of limited finances and limited experience with phonographs.

But when I found a clean, non-working Victrola for sale on Craigslist priced at $100, it beckoned me with its siren song emanating from two fuzzy photographs added to the listing by someone who evidently had no idea how digital cameras worked. It didn’t matter. I was hopelessly ensnared by its beauty. That is my phonograph, I thought to myself instantly upon seeing the pictures. It has been waiting for ninety years just for me to come along – and that is my Victrola.

I scraped up the hundred bucks through a combination of putting off the grocery shopping for a week and turning down the heat. My friend Jude agreed to go with me to pick it up at an antique store about an hour and a half away. Once I got it home, I could hardly wait to open the back and peer inside of whatever remained of its internal mechanisms. Using my iPod as a flashlight – the irony not lost on me that Victrolas were very much the iPods of their age – I studied its interior as excitedly as an archaeologist exploring a newly-opened tomb.

There’s something beautiful and essentially human in the thought that things can be fixed, and I have a deep affinity for broken things. It isn’t a deep-seated internal commentary on a wasteful society or anything of that nature – it’s that the act of fixing is a life-affirming practice. Fixing affirms control over one’s space in the universe. Fixing affirms that not all is lost to time, at least not yet. Fixing allows the fixer to touch another place and time in human history, to see something old with new eyes, to see the possibilities that lay in a beat-up piece of junk discarded decades ago without a second thought.

I hold the philosophy that technology, in all its forms, tells the story of humankind not only through its media but through the piece of technology itself as a placeholder of history. When you restore a piece of early technology, you’re interacting with the past in a very direct way, often working off of only a hunch or a faded diagram. In the meantime, however, you begin to look at the piece as a whole, and see it not only for what it was, but what it meant.

Victor Victrola advertisement, 1920. The absence of a band playing live music, instead having been replaced by the phonograph, was the central message of this and many advertisements like it.

 

The front of a "locking" phonograph with keyhole.

When you find a phonograph with a key hole in the front, it means that it was a high-end model purchased by the upper class or the upper middle class. This is because wealthy people of the day normally had servants, and back in those days, servants were culturally thought of as untrustworthy and shiftless. By having the ability to lock the phonograph when not in use, the employer sent a strong signal to their servants – namely, that the employer didn’t trust a servant not to use the phonograph when the employer wasn’t home, because servants were of a lower class and therefore inherently dishonest.

The newfound wealth of the 1920s also played a role in the history of the phonograph. Sales of the recordings of operas and works of classical music dropped significantly when jazz and ragtime began to find popularity with the newly-rich jet set of the roaring 20s, until recording companies only really pitched classical works to older people in magazines and catalogs aimed at that particular demographic. For the younger people, they were listening to songs like this one below by Nora Banes, recorded in 1919, entitled “How Ya Gonna Keep Them Down on the Farm?” referring to the WWI soldiers returning to their rural homes after seeing the wonders of the world, the wanderlust sentiment that seemed to permeate the cultural attitudes of the 1920s.

 

Of course, records and phonographs were not only for the well-off; in fact, phonographs served as a social equalizer of sorts. The popularity of vaudeville saw thousands of recordings made by comedians, comedy musicians, and burlesque singers flood the market; performers who had only ever been well-known in their own cities now began to find what we would now call international fame because they were reaching larger audiences than they could ever realistically perform in front of. One of the most famous vaudeville singers was Bessie Smith (whose music I could listen to all day) and she was a prolific recording artist back in the days when the phrase “recording artist” didn’t exist. Most of her music is now in the public domain and can be downloaded for free here, but here is what jazz fans in 1927 were listening to:

 

Politicians of the day recorded their speeches so that people could hear a candidate’s ideas and philosophy straight from the politician himself, without having to discern from newspaper text things like tone, inflection and the kinds of regional accents that parlayed trust or distrust to citizens who thought such things important. Below is what most believe to be the first audio recording of an American president, Benjamin Harrison, recorded sometime in 1889. Imagine having been a voter your entire life, but due to where you lived, you’d never heard your president’s voice. Now imagine walking into a store that sold wax recordings and hearing this:

 

People with vision problems could listen to short snippets of plays, literature and religious works. Small town musicians who had never seen the bright lights of a city were suddenly the toast of the nation when their recordings on small record labels hit it big. Ethnological recordings of exotic bird calls or ceremonial chants of indigenous tribes from foreign continents brought the world to a person’s living room in a way that photographs, text or etchings in printed media never could. Phonographs changed the way people viewed their world.

Frances Densmore at the Smithsonian Institution in 1916 during a recording session with Blackfoot chief Mountain Chief for the Bureau of American Ethnology.

By 1920, the public wanted their phonographs and radios to blend into the background and to look like pieces of furniture, which is why you’ll sometimes see radios that double as end tables or wet bars, phonographs that double as coffee tables, and early televisions that resemble armoires. After WWI, people wanted form over function, and it is no coincidence that the rise of the Art Deco movement, with emphasis placed on clean lines, simplicity, and functionality coincided with the rise in technology looking more like decorative furniture than ostentatious displays of the newest technology.

No, seriously, this will be worth something someday.

And, like any new technology struggling to emerge into the mainstream, companies popped up seemingly overnight to compete for the title of having the best product. Most of them failed miserably, but left behind odd phonographs that are now rare enough to be hotly-pursued collector’s items. I see the same thing happening with today’s technology – although there may be a hundred companies making the same gizmo, only one or two will emerge to the forefront, leaving thousands of orphaned off-brand items that in fifty years or so will become museum pieces simply because so few people think to keep knock-offs and experimental models. We are exactly the same as our ancestors in that respect; if nothing else, this hobby teaches you that there is truly nothing new under the sun. Same idea – different medium.

Here’s the thing: my first iPod cost $300. Not adjusting for inflation, a decent phonograph sold for about the same price when they were new. Like an iPod, a phonograph can play most every recording, the user can quickly change what song is being played, and the user can even adjust the volume. The size of a phonograph needle determined volume (instead of a separate volume knob like we have today), so that a “soft tone” needle will produce a quieter sound than medium and loud tone needles. But anyone who has brought a phonograph back to life knows one thing that might not be in any schematic or diagram – phonographs are loud. Even the soft tone needles, designed to give the softest tone possible at the time, produce a thundering volume to the ears of someone from the twenty-first century. You realize one thing almost immediately that no book or diagram will ever tell you: phonographs were for parties. They were for dancing. The music had to reach everyone in the room, and as such, they had to be able to be heard over the din of talking, drinking and merriment. You invited your friends over for dinner, and afterwards, you’d spin some 78s and dance to the newest music.

The recording sessions for the records themselves were no less unique to their time. Here’s what would basically happen during a recording session for pressed 78s and wax cylinders: a room would be arranged for the band. A huge hole in the wall would be connected to a receiving horn-shaped piece that would then be connected to recording equipment (and back then, the bigger the horn, the better the recording sounded). Later recordings still used large horns, just not entire walls. The band would stand as close to it as they could, and then play as loud as they could.

Crowd around, everyone. That's right, get in close. NOW PLAY THE HELL OUTTA THAT THING.

There’s a reason that recordings of musicians of that day sound like they are screaming into the recording device – they were screaming. Singing and playing at the tops of their lungs was the only way to ensure that even a modicum of the sounds they were making were transcribed onto a master recording. Even then, a master recording – usually a wax cylinder or wax record – were only good for about a hundred copies, meaning that if a record company needed, say, eight thousand records, then a band would have to perform eighty times at full volume in front of a giant hole in the wall in a hotel room. That’s why so many of the earliest recordings are of opera singers – an opera singer’s voice is trained to project as loudly as possible, which is exactly what the recording companies needed. 

Recording labels like Victor often rented entire floors of hotels simply because the other guests complained so fervently (and after eighty repetitions at full volume of the same song within the span of a couple of days, who the hell could blame them?). This was also the beginning of what we now know as recording studios – eventually, the record companies had no choice but to build separate buildings just for recording, a practice that continues today.

After eight months, my restoration of the Victrola was complete. Nervously, I added a new needle to the reproducer, cranked the hand crank until the resistance was taut, released the brake, and gently laid the needle on the old 78 record that had begun to spin.

I nearly cried from joy as the sounds of a fox trot from 1928 blasted triumphantly from the Victrola. That one moment – that one instant when you give back an antique’s purpose as it roars back to life – makes every headache, every scratch, every smear of grime on your sleeve more than worth it. Here is that moment captured for posterity:

 

I love watching people’s reactions on warm nights when they walk by my house and hear music coming from the open windows as I spin a few records on the Victrola. It’s an arresting sound, and unlike anything heard today; it sounds old. Not just the music, but the sound itself is old. It’s the sound that changed the world by allowing people to hear their politicians, the music of their favorite performers without sitting in a theater, to hear the sounds of nature from the other side of the globe, to listen to the newest songs on Broadway while sitting in their living rooms in the Midwest. It was how people partied, how they learned, how they helped make sense of a broader world they might never see firsthand in their own lifetimes.

My Victrola – and the thousands of other makes and models like it – helped to create the world we live in today, and for that, it forever has a place of honor in my home and in my heart.

Further Reading Sources and Public Domain Recording Downloads:

Old Time Jazz Online – Literally tens of thousands of early jazz recordings available for free download in the public domain.

National Parks Service Archive of Edison Sound Recordings –  Many different genres of music, speeches, Vaudeville sketches, actor auditions, and much more from Edison Sound Recordings, available for free download in the public domain.

A Brief History of Sound Recording to ca. 1950 –  The AHRC Research Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music.

Library of Congress Sound Recordings Selections – Fascinating array of recorded sounds. Prepare to spend an afternoon going through its archives.

Internet Archive 78 RPMs & Cylinder Recordings Archive –  Another great resource, another consumer of time – but well worth it.

5 thoughts on “The Phonograph: A Love Story”

  1. This makes me want to get up and dance! Kudos on fixing up your Victrola–@Trulybst said it, it’s an amazing sound! I would love to hear this pouring out of someone’s window as I walked down the street. Thanks for providing all the historic info, links to recordings, etc. And thank you for giving me hope that one day my Zen Microphoto (by Creative) will be a collectible. Maybe it’ll put my grandkids through college. ;)

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