By Doug Boilesen 2018
My phonographia collection
began when I bought a Victrola at age twelve with money from
my paper route. Auctions and garage sales were early sources for adding
to the collection but with budget constraints I didn't pursue rare
Through the years my
collecting interests took some turns but collecting always revolved
around phonographs and related ephemera such as phonograph advertisements,
lithographs, postcards, etc.
But why collect?
And why this fascination
with talking machines and recorded sound and phonograph ephemera?
Here are three possibilities.
First, the phonograph
is based on a very simple technology yet what it did was revolutionary
and magical. It was revolutionary because it changed human perception
of sound. It was magical and initially an example of Arthur
C. Clark's adage known as his Third Law, i.e., "Any sufficiently
advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." As
the phonograph moved into the home it became part of everyday life,
to the point for most of losing its magic.
Victor Advertising Brochure
1906 - "Does daily experience yield anything more wonderful
Second, the phonograph
is a great example of how one invention can produce so many popular
culture ripples and connections -- and not just for one generation.
In fact, the phonograph has played in every decade since its invention
and still plays music from its grooves today as it is enjoyed by its
vinyl enthusiasts in the 21st century. The phonograph's advertising
themes would be repeated each decade up to the present. New, descendent
home entertainment devices that were introduced continued the phonograph's
theme of offering personal entertainment to anyone, anytime and as
often as you wanted.
And third, early phonographs,
such as morning-glory horn machines or stately Victrolas, are icons
of recorded sound and home entertainment.
As part of the "home
is your castle" consumerism, this was a machine that offered
everyone in the family the "best seat in the house." That
theme has been in home entertainment device ads since the mid-1890's
and has never stopped.
Each new home entertainment
device since the phonograph is part of its perfect seat promise: the
phonograph with its multiple record speeds and hundreds of millions
of records; the radio; the television; the tape recorder; VCRs, CDs,
Laserdiscs and CED Video Discs, DVDs, audio books, music streaming
services, etc. -- each of these sound and entertainment providers
continued the phonograph's revolutionary promise that your home could
be your own "Stage of the World" -- all entertainment experiences
were available to you as if you were a king, or a millionaire or the
possessor of Aladdin's Lamp.
"Seventh row, center.
And what about collected
Lorenz Tomerius wrote
that some objects become different based on use and ownership:
Gertrude Stein's claim 'a rose is a rose is a rose': that it has become
a different object if Napoleon wore it on his uniform. A key is no
longer a key if it belonged to the Bastille. A knitting needle is
an object with a special aura if Marie Antoinette made it rattle,
and a shaving kit will evoke horrible associations if it was once
owned by Danton." Lorenze Tomerius, 'Das Glück, zu finden,
Die Lust, zu zeigen' (2)
My primary collecting pursuits, however,
have never been about any special provenance related to ownership
or use. Caruso didn't previously own the Victrola in my collection
and I don't own Andy Kaufman's record player with its Mighty Mouse
record that he used in the premier episode of NBC Saturday
Night, October 11, 1975. (3)
Based on the mass marketed products
of the phonograph industry my collection instead is a "rose is
a rose is a rose" collection of records and machines, and mostly
a collection of ephemera.
Popular culture phonographia such as
phonograph advertisements, phonograph themed postcards, greeting cards,
Valentine's cards, jokes, cartoons, phonograph related art and record
album cover art each tell their story of how the phonograph's revolution
played out in daily life.
Ever since Edison's invention was first
reported in Scientific American on December 22, 1877 the phonograph
and recorded sound have been part of the popular culture conversation
and the social history of its time.
Caruso standing next
to his Victrola Queen Anne XIV
I believe phonographia bridge time
and that we can glimpse and hear pieces of the social history of each
home entertainment era because relevant objects and stories and sounds
have been collected.
Researchers tell us that recognition,
one of the two primary forms of accessing memory "is a simpler
and more reliable process" than recall. "It is the association
of a physical object with something previously encountered or experienced.
This could be because tangible memories utilize all five senses, evoking
emotional triggers and transporting us back to a precise time, place
or moment." (3A)
Even though historical phonographs have not been encountered by us
in their own time period, curated objects and stories and sounds related
to the phonograph can still transport us to a time that we personally
In a 1995 Syracuse University address
about the Belfer Audio Archive, John Harvith said that the Belfer
Archive was important because it
"allows us to feel this sense of history even more vividly,
because we can hear what musicians, artists, authors, actors, statesmen,
politicians, and other historical figures actually sounded like. This
is emotional, visceral communication that goes far beyond the power
of the printed page. (3B)
Seeing a phonograph in a period piece
movie is another example of how time travelling to the past can be
triggered. If you are watching a movie that takes place in 1903 and
you see a gramophone with its open horn sitting on the parlor room
table then that time period is 'encountered' and that experience becomes
part of your memory. You associate a gramophone to a time and place.
Hearing music on that gramophone further enhances that memory and
as Harvith summarized in quoting musicologist James Hepokoski,
"Music of the past tells us what it felt like to live during
the period when it was created." (3C)
Nevertheless, objects exist and have
their stories and in the case of recordings, their sounds. They are
part of our history and can have extended lives because of collectors.
Should there be prioritization in what
we preserve and conserve?
Yes, but as a collector and as a human
on planet Earth I believe the number one priority must be the preservation
and conservation of Earth because without that nothing else will
Collecting is interesting and requires
its own agenda of preservation and conservation.
Understanding our history is interesting
and there are countless stories to tell.
But interesting has limitations
and what we find interesting can change. (8)
Planet Earth, on the other hand, is
foundational, our shared home and our children's future. And it is
being seriously compromised.
We must urgently consider the impact
of everything that we do and consider whether are not it is harmful
to ourselves and our planet.
We must re-examine our 'needs,' re-examine
our relationships with the earth and with all of its 'beings' and
make required changes with the highest priority.
"In wildness is the preservation
of the world" wrote Henry David Thoreau.
"Conservation is not merely a
question of morality, but a question of our own survival" wrote The
Dalai Lama (9)
I think it really is that simple.
Earthrise, December 24,
Taken aboard Apollo 8 by Bill Anders,
this iconic picture shows Earth peeking out from beyond the lunar
surface as the first crewed spacecraft circumnavigated the Moon. Courtesy
"We all travel the Milky Way
together, trees and men....In every work with nature one receives
far more than he seeks. The clearest way into the universe is through
a forest wilderness." -- "Plant-Patty" (Dr. Pat
Westerford) reading John Muir (10)
in The Overstory by Richard Powers (11).
of my collection in my parent's basement 1965