Paul Edie talks about collecting antique Victor Victrola phonographs, including inside and outside horn models, the history of the company, and the evolution of the phonograph machines in general. Paul can be reached via his website, The Victor-Victrola Page, which is a member of our Hall of Fame.
When I was around 10, my grandfather passed away, and my dad brought home his Victrola and stuck it under the stairs in the basement. He didn’t want it or care about it. It was a 1917 – my grandfather bought it right before World War I. One day I was messing around and opened it up and started playing with it. I’d always been into music from the 1930s and ’40s, because my parents played it at home so much, but then I got this thing working. It intrigued me. It just was fascinating to get music out of such a crude, mechanical-type system.
I’ve gone through different phases in life where I didn’t do much with phonographs; in college and when I got married and started a family. I also used to collect old radios, but lost interest in that because what you play on them isn’t old stuff. When you turn on the radio, you get punk and everything else now.
I’d say I have a hundred phonographs, plus or minus 10 percent. I’ve lost count. A few weeks ago, I was in my storage area with a friend and saw some stuff that I had completely forgotten about. I don’t keep too many phonographs in the main living areas of my house because of pets and kids and the potential for damage. Most of them are pretty nicely restored. I do have quite a few at my parents’ house and in my basement. When I purchase a phonograph at an auction or in a sale, I’ll typically take it home and restore it to as best a condition as I can.
Collectors Weekly: Have you always specialized in the Victor Talking Machine Company?
Edie: Yes. No specific reason; that was just what I got started with. There are a lot of other very fine brands out there – the Edisons and Columbias and so on – and there are a lot of collectors that use those. I just never really got into that.
The Victor Talking Machine Company was the largest and most successful manufacturer, which is good from a restoration standpoint because parts are still readily available, there were so many made. The company later became RCA. It was rich in entrepreneurial ideas and was always successful, unlike a lot of other brands. The quality of their materials and hardware was heads and tails above most. Victor really was a prime, quality company.
Victor was founded around 1900 after some fits and starts. Eldridge Johnson was the founder of the company, and he puttered around with different ideas and designs. RCA bought them in October 1929, right before the crash.
Victor made at least a hundred different phonograph model variations and probably lots more. I used to go buy anything. I would snap up anything if the price was right, but now I want things that are either rare or unusual or in exceptional, original condition. Those I still buy.
Prices have really softened in the last couple years, so there’s some good deals out there. The economy is certainly a factor. And secondly eBay has put a lot of machines in front of millions of people that were previously not seen often. Some of the premium machines that would bring $10,000 in the early ‘90s, you can now get for a couple grand or less.
Collectors Weekly: Do you restore all of your phonographs?
Edie: No. I try to buy phonographs that don’t need restoration, just some cleanup. If I find one that’s exceptionally rare or uncommon, then I’ll restore it. Most of the restorations I do now are for others.
Normally the motors get seized up because they’re filled with a grease that gets hard and dries out over time, so the springs gum up. Sometimes you replace bearings and bushings and little things in the motor that are worn. Normally the motors are pretty good, and I would say that nine out of 10 times, all you need to do is clean and lubricate them.
The big work is the woodwork, the veneer restoration of the woods. It’s difficult to do a quality job that simulates how they looked when they were new. When you strip them down and refill them with grain filler and repair veneers, you don’t want it to look like an amateur job. You want it to look like it did when it came off the line. It takes a years of experience and a lot of equipment to do it right.
Collectors Weekly: What types of materials are the phonographs made out of?
Edie: Victor used a whole slew of different finishes. You could get woods, but they weren’t solid wood. A lot of people assume that if they’re walnut, they’re solid walnut, but they’re not. Solid woods warp, so they used a particleboard core for the actual body of the phonograph, and then covered that with a thin sheet of veneer of the type of wood finish you ordered – walnut or mahogany or oak. But the veneer is good enough that you can usually repair them or sand them out and clean them up and get them looking good.
They made around seven million Victrolas and we estimate about six to eight percent survived.
Because they used varnish as the finish coat, a lot of times the varnish becomes alligatored (crackly and rough) if the phonograph was stuck up in an attic where it could get real hot or cold. That needs to be stripped off completely in most cases and then the wood needs to be cleaned up and reshot with lacquer or varnish.
The vast majority of Victrolas were made of mahogany, 70 or 80 percent of them. The oaks would be second, and they made some high-end finishes in circassian walnut and other special woods that are very collectible. A mahogany Victrola would sell for $500, but circassian walnut might sell for $10,000.
Collectors Weekly: Besides the wood and the finish, what else makes a phonograph rare?
Edie: It’s pretty much the model and the finish. When they started making early electric phonographs around 1925, it was the first time they used electronic amplifiers, and Victor was very involved in that product line. There are some rare ones there that use special early amplifiers and designs, but those are a later generation than the older ones we’re talking about. Victor was very involved in the transition to electric, which made a huge difference in the sound quality.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the major models?
Edie: They used Roman numerals in the early years – e.g. the Victrola XI. The outside horn machines – the ones that you see on the dog logo with the horn sticking out – are not Victrolas; those are Victors. When the horn went inside, those are Victrolas. Those are all Victor products, but they’re just different designs.
In 1906, Victor invented the inside horn machine. The outside horn machines were considered clunky because they took up a lot of space. And they got dusty. For the inside horn machine, they just put the horn going down instead of coming out, down near the cabinet. You could control the volume with the doors in the front and you had storage for all your records right in the cabinet. So that was a real convenience, and it was huge hit. The first generation of them cost $200 new.
After 1906 when the Victrola was introduced, Victor only made one model, the XVI. It was very expensive, but as it grew in popularity, they came out with scores of different models for different markets, everything from 15-dollar cheap ones to really high-end deluxe gold-trim ones. The most popular model over all the years was the Victrola XI and they made almost a million of those up through the 1920s. It sold for $100, starting around 1910 or 1911. It was a floor model that looked nice, wasn’t lavish or extravagant, and was priced right.
There were also Victrola models they only made a few hundred of, because either they were very expensive or just didn’t sell well. The XVIII for example, which sold for around $300, was extremely ornate. It was hand-carved and had inlaid wood veneers. It was for wealthier people. They also made variations inlaid with silver and ebony, special-order ones. One of those nowadays would bring at least $50,000 or $60,000 or probably a lot more because there were only about 12 made.
The outside horn machines faded out when the Victrolas came, but they overlapped. They still made them, but in much lower volumes, and they didn’t make any variations, they only made maybe 20 different models. The outside horn phonographs were a novelty. And a lot of people didn’t like the big horn sticking out in their room. If you could get something that looked like a piece of furniture that fit in with your cupboards and tables, you wouldn’t have to have a table with a big horn sticking out.
So the inside horn models were more accessible and user friendly for people, easier to maintain, easier to keep. Also, quite frankly, people were getting more affluent. As we got into the 1910s in this country, the economy was doing a lot better.
Collectors Weekly: Why is there a dog in the Victor logo?
Edie: That’s a long story that predates the Victor Company. The painting was commissioned by one of the people who developed the flat disc record. It started in England, I believe. Some entrepreneurs were trying to come up with logos that were clever for the phonograph brands and a painter in England actually painted the dog listening to a cylinder record, an Edison-type record originally, and some executive liked it.
The company liked the concept, but they asked the artist to change it to a disc machine, so he did and sold it to them for a hundred pounds, and that became their logo. It was considered a very humanistic logo. It was a warm, fuzzy feeling as opposed to just having an emblem of a name. It’s one of the best recognized trademarks in the world, along with Ford and Coca-Cola. RCA bought Victor and became RCA-Victor, which grew into a huge company. The logo was later licensed by a variety of companies globally, so although RCA Victor no longer exists, the logo is still in use. Everybody recognizes it.
Collectors Weekly: Do most phonograph collectors specialize in one company?
Edie: No, most of the people I know in the hobby have quite a diverse collection of different brands. But everybody’s different in how they look at it and what they want to collect. It varies greatly.
There are a lot of collectors out there. And a lot of societies; there’s one in Michigan, one in California, one in Wisconsin. There’s a Canadian club in Toronto. So it’s quite a diverse group. Retired people seem to be more into it than younger people, although there certainly are some younger people coming into it. There are some very wealthy collectors, billionaires, and they keep the prices up. They buy whatever they want without batting an eye.
They made around seven million Victrolas and we estimate about six to eight percent survived. So if you believe that, there are 700,000 or so still remaining. Some are just junk. If you go on eBay, there’s always of slew of them. eBay has really has made it a common commodity because people can see them and buy what they want just by going online. Craigslist is another one. There are always tons on Craigslist.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of the big clubs and events?
Edie: The Michigan Antique Phonograph Society (MAPS) is based in Battle Creek, Michigan, and it’s probably one of the biggest in the country. There’s a California Antique Phonograph Organization. There’s a Canadian Antique Phonograph Association. Those are the biggest ones. A lot of them will charter organizations in other states, which basically are subsidiaries of the home organization.
The big show is in Union, Illinois the second weekend of every June. That’s the national get-together. There are swap meets and shows and all kinds of things going on. It’s a three-day event. There are also a number of smaller shows throughout the country, including some in Ohio and New Jersey. Each one of these clubs organizations holds a meet of their own at different times of the year.
There are a number of companies that specialize in auctions for phonographs and music machines. There are lots of events. Some of them are social, and some are purely business. There are a number of people that make their livings on phonographs, buying and selling and fixing up, and I know quite a few people where it’s their whole life. For me, it’s a side thing.
Collectors Weekly: What are some key things you look for when collecting phonographs?
Edie: You have to know what you’re looking at, that’s the hardest thing. I know a number of people who have gotten started, get all excited when they see something at an antique store, dive into it and spend a lot of money on something that’s not authentic. There are a lot of forgeries coming from India and China. They look okay from a distance, but they’re worth $30 at the end of the day. So knowledge is key.
From a condition standpoint, if I’m buying a machine that’s not particularly rare, I look for originality. I want the original shine. I want no damage on the veneer. I want the thing to look good. If it’s a rare machine, a lot of times they’re not in good shape, so the question is, is this restorable? If it’s rare, odds are you’re going to pay a lot for it. I’ve passed on some that were just too far gone. You need to know what it takes to restore it correctly, so you know if it’s going to be a two-month project or two-year project.
Every Victor/Victrola has a serial number identification on it, and that’s the basis for understanding how old and rare it is. The factory records were saved when RCA closed the Camden plant, where Victors were made, in the late ’80s/early ’90s. When they shut it down, they threw all the old archive data in the dumpsters in the back. A few guys who worked there went dumpster diving and pulled it all out and were able to piece a lot together about how many were made and when they were made.
Now you can cross-reference that data with the serial number you find on the machine, which I do on my website. I simplified it on my website so that if you click on a model, you can look at the serial number and go and see what year it was made and what features came with it and so forth. Had those records not been saved, we’d have no idea.
Collectors Weekly: Did Victor make anything besides phonographs?
Edie: No, just some accessories. Except in a few rare instances, they didn’t even make the base cabinets for the machine; they let other companies do that. There were a number of smaller furniture companies that made special custom cabinets the machines could sit on. Victor’s peak year was 1917, and they employed around 5,000 or 6,000 people in Camden. It was a big operation, and they were the largest single consumer of wood for a long time.
Collectors Weekly: You said that you listen to records on the phonographs. Do you also collect records?
Edie: No. I just have them on the phonographs as a means to use the phonograph. And in fact, most phonograph collectors don’t collect records. There are also record collectors who don’t collect phonographs. It’s a separate thing, although there are some that do both. Most people with phonographs will just go get a handful of whatever records they can find to play. Don’t forget, those records were made in the hundreds of millions. Phonograph records were pumping out of the factories like crazy, and of course Victor also made the records. So today you can buy a box of them for a couple of bucks.
Once in a great while, somebody will come across the rare record, somebody who knows what they’re doing. But people have the perception that because the records are old, they have a ton of value, and the reality is they have very little in most cases. Everybody stuck records in their basement.
Phonograph collectors like the beauty and rarity of the phonograph. They’re not necessarily music lovers, whereas the record collectors tend to be music lovers. The phonograph guys are in it for the wood and the beauty and the rarity of a certain finish. I’m a little of both, but I just don’t have the time to get into the record hobby. I go down to the swap meet and I load up the back of my car with records for a couple dollars, come home, sift out the ones I’d like, and throw the rest away.
Collectors Weekly: How is the sound quality on the antique phonographs?
Edie: The very earliest ones are pretty rough. The early disc records from around 1900 that play on the outside horn machines have a pretty raspy, tin type of sound. They did a lot of development over the years to improve the technology. In 1925, the electric playback came into popularity, but it was too expensive for a lot of people. But they still made horn-type machines, which had become so advanced that it sounds like an FM radio. They’re really good and people are amazed there’s no electronics in them.
People are surprised that most Victrolas sound as good as they do. That’s because what they heard in the past were probably worn-out, old, beat-up records. That’s a key thing. The records I keep are the ones in really good shape. New or like new, and they sound a lot better than something that’s been laying in a pile of dirt for years and is all scratchy. So the key is to have good records.
Collectors Weekly: What are some good reference books for people interested in antique phonographs?
Edie: I put a number of books on my website that I recommend strongly for the Victor collector. Look for the Dog is the Handbook. It’s written by Bob Baumbach, a good friend of mine out in L.A. who’s got a tremendous collection. He and I have done a ton of research together. There are also several good books on antique phonographs written by Tim Fabrizio and George Paul. And there’s another book, From Tin Foil To Stereo, Evolution of the Phonograph, that’s highly regarded.
There’s a Victrola museum maintained by the state of Delaware, because Eldridge Johnson, the Victor founder, was born in Delaware. Even though his company was based out of Camden, New Jersey, the family funded the museum and the state got involved. Bob and I have spent hours in their archives, going through factory records and information prototype designs, it’s very worthwhile. It’s right in Dover.
There’s a specialist book called the Victor Data Book, which goes into infinite detail on serial numbers and how many were made of each version and so forth, but that’s usually a little too much for the beginner. Look for the Dog is easy to read, and gives you the history of the company.
Collectors Weekly: Any other advice for someone just starting to collect phonographs?
Edie: Talk to somebody who knows the hobby. Get to know what you’re looking at, because most people get burned a few times before they really understand. People buy something at a swap meet for $50 or $100, and then it costs $5,000 to fix it.
To get into a hobby seriously, you need a starting point, and usually that’s a knowledgeable person. Then go buy an inexpensive common model and have it for a while. Whether you want to fix it yourself or send it to somebody for restoration, it doesn’t matter. Once you become familiar with how they work and all the little nuances, the hobby can grow into whatever you want it to be.
It’s a fun hobby, and unusual. I like it because not everybody is into it, and it’s easier to become a big fish in a small pond than having to be a small fish in the big pond. The people in this hobby are really good, and it’s not big enough to have a lot of fraud and goofy stuff going on. It just is a very close-knit group of people.
But how the future will handle this, I don’t know. That’s one of the things we’ve talked about. Kids in kindergarten now hardly know what a CD is because there are MP3 players. You talk about LPs and they don’t know what that is, and nobody has a clue what a 78 is. So is this going to die out as people just forget about this? I don’t know. Who knows what will happen. A friend of mine is a teacher, and she said the kids don’t bother putting anything in a player; they’ve got their MP3s and they’re happy.
I get a lot of calls from people who want to convert their Victrolas to play their iPod through it, people who have no clue. I patiently go through it, and I console them. I have that on my website, commonly asked questions I get, and it’s amazing some of the questions I’ve gotten. They’re pretty hilarious.
(All images in this article courtesy Paul Edie of The Victor-Victrola Page)