Collecting and Phonographia

 

One Collector's Perspective

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 machines.

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 than this?"

 

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. Forever."

 

 

 

 

And what about collected objects themselves?

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' (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 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 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)

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

 

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.” (3D).

I know that feeling. I also know the limitations of things and consumerism. As Ralph Waldo Emerson warned, "Things are in the saddle, And ride mankind."(4)

And there is always the risk that ownership creates illusions "that we can forever embrace, and be embraced by, what is forever fading away." (5)

The poet Shelley addressed that illusion of embracing what inevitably will fade in Ozymandias when he wrote

 

"Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away."

 

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. (5A)

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 matter. (7)

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)

Prioritize.

Preserve.

Conserve.

I think it really is 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 Montgomery Ward's going-out-business inventory) 1965

 

 

 

Radio and Phonograph Display March 1968




 

Phonograph Display March 1968

 

 

 

Phonograph Display 2000 (prior to moving to Legacy Exhibit)

 

 

 

Toy Phonograph Display 2002 in North Carolina

 

 

 

 

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






1987 Magazine ad for USPS

 

 

 

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