Avid collectors seek to revive interest in old phonographs
Story and photos by Deborah Young
This year, the Edison phonograph turns 140, and the early machines still have a dedicated if small, following of collectors. Simultaneously, some antique phonograph collectors fear that their beloved hobby may be dying out.
Vogue Art Kassel – This 10-inch vinyl 78 rpm Vogue Picture Record, released in 1946, features Art Kassel and His Orchestra performing "Doodle Doo Doo/All I do is Wantcha."
Here, three collectors share their passion for antique phonographs in general, their views about why the hobby desperately needs some new blood, and their ideas about what beginning collectors can gain by joining their tribe.
Randy Donley, co-owner of Donley Auctions, poses with his family's award from Antique Phonograph Society.
Randy Donley, an antique appraiser and co-owner of Donley Auctions of Union, IL, estimates that there are only 600 to 1,000 phonograph collectors in the world. Of that number, he figures only about 50 are in their teens and 20s.
Phonograph collecting was never as popular as stamp collecting or collecting automobiles, Donley says, and collecting in general seems to be going out of style. He has seen some of the younger crowd migrate to the phonograph shows and auctions, but he fears it is not happening fast enough to save the hobby; something that has been his passion and business for more than 40 years.
"Young people in their 20s and 30s just are not collectors," he generalizes. "Collecting was a generational thing. Collectors that you meet today are all pretty much 70 and up. It certainly hurts the value of antiques."
Attendees at a recent Donley Auctions phonograph show
That doesn't mean that Donley has given up on attracting younger people to the hobby. Donley Auctions hosts sales and auctions every year, and he has discovered that pairing phonographs with vintage guitars and other items of interest to a younger crowd is a good way to open the door for them to see the phonographs.
"My father was a member of the Chicago Antique Phonograph Society," Donley said. "It was a small club of, I think, 17 members.
"We used to meet once a month or every other month at individuals' houses. That's why they never expanded the club too big, because they didn't want to roll it out of the size of meeting at someone's house."
But when Donley suggested that the group hold an annual sale at his father's Seven Acres Museum in Union, IL, it was the start of what Donley says was the first and now the largest antique phonograph show and sale.
He recalls that first show having only eight dealers. They advertised the show in the Antiques Trader newspaper, and more dealers attended each year.
"Keep in mind, this was pre-computer," Donley explains. "We really didn't know how to meet people in California or New York or anything. So the show became a meeting point where everybody came twice a year and would meet face-to-face and actually get to know each other, instead of just (having) a phone conversation. It just kept growing. It became the world's largest (phonograph) show," he said. "There are a lot of them now, but this is still the largest."
Donley Auctions has hosted the Phonograph Show and Sale annually in June for about 43 years. Now, Donley says, the show has become a mecca for antique phonograph collectors, with people flying in from places as far away as Japan, Korea, Holland, and England.
After more than 40 years as an antique phonograph collector, Charlie Tyler says he could talk about the machines for hours.
Shows and auctions can be a good place to fall in love with these machines, these sometimes awkward-looking, sometimes grand apparatuses of sound.
Charlie Tyler, a passionate 92-year-old collector from Kansas City who still bowls weekly, attended his first auction in his late 40s.
"I worked for General Motors in Leeds," Charlie recalls. "One day at work there was an auction sheet on the bulletin board, and (it) had a picture of one of these machines on it, and I thought it would be really nice to own one."
Tyler saw a phonograph he liked, but it didn't work. Fortunately, about two weeks later the auctioneer, who worked at the GM plant, visited Charlie with a phonograph.
"He said, 'It's out in the truck. Tonight take it home. If you decide you want it, just bring me the money. If you don't, bring the machine back.'
"So I ended up buying that one, and we got going to auctions. We picked up two or three machines," Tyler says. "One of the fellas I met called me one day. He said, 'There's an auction in Ohio with a hundred machines in it.' My wife and I decided to go up there, and we met a lot of collectors. I bought a few machines but I should have bought a lot more."
Tyler and his first wife, who died about 27 years ago, became co-collectors. She knew all about the machines, he says, although she never learned to repair them. Charlie, though, is mechanically inclined, a metal worker by trade. He first worked as a welder for General Motors, then as a millwright, and later as a tinsmith and held each position for 10 years.
The Victor 6 phonograph was referred to as simply 'the six," Charlie Tyler said. Similar machines are fetching $900 to $3,500 on eBay.
He says he was able to acquire a large phonograph collection because he learned to repair the machines. He would buy machines that didn't work and repair them.
"At one time I had 150 phonographs, record cabinets and music boxes – the whole works," Tyler reminisces. "I had 6,000 cylinder records. I had 20,000 disc records, 78s."
Tyler enjoys listening to late country singer Vernon Dalhart, and says that he once owned 550 different Dalhart songs. Tyler plays a four-minute cylinder of Dalhart singing on one of the many phonographs in his upstairs phonograph room. It is difficult to tell whether the singer is male or female on this early recording, but the antiquated sound holds the same kind of charm as an old gold pocket watch, the charm of a past gone but not forgotten.
Regina Hexaphone – Charlie Tyler refers to this machine as the original jukebox. It is coin-operated and plays six cylinder records.
Nearly 80 records adorned with colorful illustrations - Vogue Picture Records hang on the wall of Tyler's phonograph room, as do prints of "His Master's Voice," the iconic painting of Nipper the dog staring into the horn of an Edison cylinder phonograph. A statue of Nipper also graces the room.
Tyler's phonograph room celebrates the history of recorded sound and Tyler's history as a collector; a history of learning the background and mechanics of early phonographs, repairing machines, attending shows and auctions, and meeting new friends.
He reminisces about the Donley phonograph show: "You rent out a space. It's like flea markets," Tyler says, "It's kind of strange because one year you'll have a lot of one kind of machine, and the next year there'll be a bunch of a different kind of machines. You get a good idea of what things are really worth, there and at the auctions."
Most of Tyler's collection feature external horns, painted, unpainted, wooden, and metal.
By contrast, Roger Merenkov, a Chicago-area collector, enjoys collecting phonographs with internal horns.
"My passion has always been high grade and exotic cabinet style machines," Merenkov says.
Merenkov's first experience with an old phonograph was as a child in the late 1950s. After his grandmother died, Merenkov's father took her Victrola home.
"It was broken, and my father proceeded to really butcher the thing up to repurpose it," Merenkov says. "Parts of it were kind of scattered all over the garage, and I discovered it. I dedicated one summer to try and figure out how this thing worked, to try to put it back together.
"As kids back in the 1960s, riding through the alleys on our bikes, every now and then we'd encounter a Victrola, and I was always fascinated with the mechanisms on them, how they operated. That's the bug that bit me early on."
Victrola XVIII – One of Roger Merenkov's favorite items in his collection, the Victrola XVIII in Circassian walnut retailed for $400 in 1915-1916. Similar models are selling now for $400 to $1000 on eBay.
When Merenkov was about 19 he got a machine from a junk man that he met while working at an auto repair shop. He repaired that machine. He says it was probably the first phonograph he owned.
"Then I just started acquiring (phonographs)," Merenkov says. "I'd see them at estate sales and so on." Merenkov says the machines fascinated him and he enjoyed the period music. "I've been collecting for probably 40 years," He said. "Never had a lot of money, just a resourceful, energetic young man who loved antiques."
Merenkov shared his love of antique phonographs with his wife of the time. "We discovered the 1920s dance and society music and jazz orchestras and jazz bands," he said. "We just really took to it. So as (phonographs) came along, we repaired them, kept them or helped finance the collecting by doing repairs and buying and selling." He says his current collection consists of about 60 hand crank phonographs.
"My advice to young collectors is don't get bogged down with a lot of common stuff. Be selective," Merenkov says. "Buy condition and quality. Find out what it is that you like, what could become your passion, and focus on (the) condition and quality of those items that you find appealing.
"Edison made several million of Edison Standard and Home phonographs. They are very sturdily built, overbuilt in some ways," says Merenkov. "A new collector could buy a nice one for a reasonable price. Standard or Home is not a bad choice for a beginning collector. Common pieces become exceptional when you find one that's in a pristine, sublime condition, which you don't often, but on occasion you do." He also recommends that collectors avoid repainted and refinished items.
There are traits common among collectors, and being mechanically inclined is high on the list for Tyler and Merenkov. The ability to repair the machines lowers the costs of collecting them. Unfortunately, the need to be mechanically savvy may deter some potential collectors.
Still collecting antique phonograph has its lures.
"One motivation could be the music," says Merenkov. "The mechanics of (the phonographs), how they operate, (learning about) the competition between the early makers and some of the early patents, the cabinet work."
Tyler's advice to prospective collectors?
"It's a good idea to get an Edison then a Victor," Tyler says. "I don't recommend Columbias because they have a lot of pot metal in them. Some people get mad at me when I tell them that.
"Pot metal is a lead-based metal, you can form things real easy with it and it's a lot cheaper than using brass or steel, (but) pot metal swells up with age and then it crumbles."
Resources for beginning and potential collectors:
- Antique Phonograph Society: www.antiquephono.org
- The Talking Machine Forum:
- Edison Cylinder Phonograph Companion, by George L. Frow
- A Guide to the Edison Cylinder Phonograph: A Handbook for Collectors Containing Details of the Spring-driven Models Produced from 1895-1929, by George L Frow
- Edison Cylinder Records, 1889-1912: with an Illustrated History of the Phonograph, by Allen Koenigsberg
- Look for the Dog: Illustrated Guide to Victor Talking Machines, by Bob Baumbach
The 42nd Annual Phonograph & Music Show, June 10-11, 2017, Wild West Town, Union, IL. For additional information contact Donley Auctions at 815-923-7000 or www.donleyauctions.com.
Leigh Elmore can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Feature Stories Archive past articles