By Doug Boilesen 2018
My phonographia collection officially
began when I bought a Victrola at age twelve with money from
my paper route. Auctions and garage sales were early sources for growing
the collection but with budget constraints I didn't pursue rare machines.
Through the years my collecting
interests took some turns but they always revolved around phonographs
and related ephemera such as phonograph related postcards, advertisements,
But why collect?
And why this fascination with
talking machines and recorded sound and phonograph ephemera?
I would suggest three possibilities.
First, the phonograph is based
on a very simple technology yet what it did was both magical and revolutionary.
It was called a "wonder" but it would be so popular that
it became part of the home and everyday life.
Victor Advertising Brochure 1906
- "Does daily experience yield anything more wonderful than
Second, the phonograph is a great
example of how one invention can produce so many pop culture ripples
and connections...and not just for one generation as its advertising
themes repeated through the decades as new, descendent home entertainment
devices were offered to the consumer.
And third, phonographs, whether
morning-glory horn machines or stately Victrolas, are icons of recorded
sound and home entertainment.
As part of the "home is your
castle" advertising theme, the Phonograph offered everyone in
the family the "best seat in the house."
That message resonated with consumers
in 1900 and never stopped. Each new home entertainment device has
been based on this perfect seat promise: the Phonograph with all its
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
promise that your home could be your own "Stage of the World"
-- all entertainment experiences were available as if you were a king,
or a millionaire or the possessor of Aladdin's Lamp.
"Seventh row, center. Forever."
And what about the collected objects
Lorenz Tomerius wrote that some
objects become different 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'
My primary collecting pursuits, however, have
never been about any special provenance related to ownership or use.
Caruso didn't previously own my Victrola 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 mass marketed objects and ephemera my
collection is a "rose is a rose is a rose" collection of
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 found ways to be part of the pop culture conversation
and have an impact on 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 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
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
didn't experience. (3A)
Seeing a phonograph in a period piece movie is
an example of how this type of time travelling 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.
In the history of collecting there are many examples
of collectors becoming obsessed in their pursuit and possession 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.” (3B).
I know that feeling. And there is also always
the risk that ownership of things can create illusions "that
we can forever embrace, and be embraced by, what is forever fading
The poet Shelley addressed that illusion of embracing
what inevitably will fade in Ozymandias
when he wrote
"Nothing beside remains. Round
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."
Nevertheless, objects should be collected and
made available. It's part of who we are. Objects and their stories
can help us learn about ourselves and diverse cultures, past and present.
How important are these collected objects?
It depends. (7)
Should there be prioritization in what we preserve
I think so. But how to choose?
As a collector and as a human on planet Earth
I will say this about prioritization in the 21st century: I believe
the number one priority must be the preservation and conservation
of Earth because without that nothing else will matter.
Collecting is interesting.
Understanding our social history and culture is
interesting. And "interesting"
is not a term I use lightly. (8)
But planet Earth is our home and our children's
We must urgently consider the impact of everything
that we are doing and whether are not it is harmful to ourselves and
We must make personal changes and support policy
changes to help heal the earth, not exploit for personal gain.
We also must think about the stories we want to
be told about us.
"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
I think it really is that simple.
A corner of my
collection in my parent's basement 1966