Collecting and Phonographia


One Collector's Perspective

By Doug Boilesen 2018

My phonographia collection began when I purchased a Victrola at age twelve with money from my paper route. Auctions and antique stores were early sources for adding to the collection but I didn't pursue many machines and certainly not rare ones.

Through the years my collecting interests took some turns but collecting always revolved around phonographs and its related ephemera.

Why this fascination with talking machines, 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 almost magical. It was revolutionary because it changed human's perception of sound. It was a wonder and magical because it was initially an early 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, however, it became part of everyday life and lost its magic.


Victor Advertising Brochure 1906 - "Does daily experience yield anything more wonderful than this?"


Second, the phonograph is an interesting 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 by the vinyl enthusiasts of the 21st century. The phonograph's advertising themes likewise have been repeated each decade up to the present. Descendent home entertainment devices continued the phonograph's advertised promise of offering personal entertainment to anyone, anytime and as often as you wanted.

And third, early phonographs such as morning-glory horn machines and stately Victrolas are icons of recorded sound and home entertainment with its story told by museums, social and cultural historians, and collectors. (5A)

As part of consumerism promoting the home is your castle the phonograph uniquely offered everyone in the family the "best seat in the house." That theme has been in home entertainment ads since the mid-1890's and has never stopped.

Every new home entertainment device using recorded sound has promoted that "best seat" message: 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" -- entertainment experiences of the world were available to you as if you were a king, or a millionaire or the possessor of Aladdin's Lamp.

"Seventh row, center. Forever."





And what about collecting?

Lorenz Tomerius wrote that some objects become different or more interesting based on use and ownership:

"This refutes 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)

Finding Marie Antoinette's knitting needle in the haystack would exemplify one aspect of collecting. But there is also the more general practice of collecting where the goal is to have all or subsets of the whatever, such as stamps, coins, beanie babies, baseball cards, etc.

My collecting has never been about owning all the models of phonographs made by Edison or acquiring objects with a 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 Live, October 11, 1975. (3)

Andy Kaufman's phonograph playing the Mighty Mouse theme song. (Courtesy NBC and Saturday Night Live, 1975).

Instead, each object is a "rose is a rose is a rose" in my collection of phonographia.

But how many roses does a collector need and what is to be done with them after they are acquired?

Regardless of that number the constant for me has consistently been the relationship each 'rose' has to popular culture. Phonograph connected advertisements, postcards, greeting cards, Valentine's cards, jokes, cartoons, art and record album cover art each show how the phonograph's revolution was seen in popular culture and daily life.

My collecting of objects and ephemera has been like cutting out newspaper clippings or saving ephemera to go into a personal scrapbook. Each selection has its own identity and its own meaning. Ownership of phonographia is not required to find and follow phonograph connections but collecting has been the catalyst to see the connections and create as an on-line scrapbook.


Caruso standing next to his Victrola Queen Anne XIV


I believe phonographia bridge time allowing us to glimpse and hear fragments of other eras 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)

Although historical phonographs cannot be encountered by us in their own time period, collected objects and stories and sounds related to the phonograph can still transport us to a time that we personally didn't experience.

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 traveling can be triggered. Watching a movie set in 1903 and seeing a gramophone with its open horn sitting on the parlor room table is a time period encounter and that experience can become part of your memory. You associate a gramophone with 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)

French parlor circa 1903 in the 2018 movie Colette (Courtesy of Bleeker Street, Lionsgate &


There are many examples of collectors becoming obsessed in their pursuit of objects. A prominent collector of postcards was once asked how many postcards she had. She didn't give a number but replied “It’s never enough. Otherwise it wouldn’t be called collecting.” (3D).

Collecting can take control of our attention and as Ralph Waldo Emerson warned, "Things are in the saddle, And ride mankind."(4)

Consumerism and its associated advertising are about marketing products which often includes attaching status to them by the branding of the product or with its design such as the period piece phonographs created in the teens and 1920's. A 1923 Victor ad stated "people express themselves in their possessions."


The Ladies' Home Journal, March 1923


There is also the risk that objects can create illusions that things are more than they are and "that we can forever embrace, and be embraced by, what is forever fading away." (5)

But as the poet Shelley wrote in Ozymandias those things will inevitably disappear:


"Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away."


For better or for worse I have been a life-long collector of 'things' connected with the phonograph which can include multiple degrees of separation connections. As an example my small collection of children's talking clocks features pop culture characters from the 1960's to the 1980's. Inside these clocks is their miniature 'record player' which could provide a wake-up message in the character's voice. These talking clocks were primarily made of plastic, used batteries, and were popular for a few decades with their life-span basically matching the child's interest in that character.

Were talking clocks something anyone ever really needed?

Needed or not, from the popular culture perspective those talking clocks still tell time because they can be collected and displayed as examples of what some children in the 1960's and 1970's found interesting and had in their bedrooms for telling them it was time to get up.

The interest in talking clocks, however, still begs the question: What resources and how much attention do we give something because it is interesting? (8)

It depends.

In Marilynne Robinson's "Gilead," her narrator says in a letter to his son, "This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it."

And as Robinson's words make clear "All the attention you can give" contains the key word: "All."

I believe we must repeatedly ask, like a broken record, if what we are doing is harmful to ourselves and our planet. It begins with a re-examination of our needs and our relationships with the earth. The pursuit of a sustainable planet for every sentient being and life-form is what the "all the attention you can give" requires if the human experiment is going to survive.

I also believe what Emily St. John Mandel wrote in her novel Station Eleven that "survival is not sufficient."

"Objects" will continue to be made, collected, conserved and preserved because they are part of the human story and can themselves be useful, interesting and important.

Collecting at its best is the acquisition and preservation of "things" for their stories. One of those stories shows that consumerism and unsustainable acquisition have created problems for our survival. Collected objects and ephemera are evidence of some of those excesses. More of that story is more profoundly understood by visiting landfills.

Conservation and preservation of 'things' can be reminders of our relationship with planet Earth, and perhaps can lead us to a refocus on the conservation and preservation of the world.

"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).




Perhaps it's that simple.


Earthrise, December 24, 1968

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 of NASA


"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).



A corner of my collection in my parent's basement 1965.


My first display case purchased from a Montgomery Ward's going-out-business inventory (1965).

See the Legacy Exhibit for the phonograph display post 2004.


My parents were always very supportive of my collecting, but I love this cartoon from Mad magazine,1982.


Trade Notes, The Phonoscope, December 1898

1987 Magazine ad for USPS



For additional thoughts about popular culture and phonograph connections see Connections and the Creation of an Industry.