Collecting and Phonographia


One Collector's Perspective

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, lithographs, etc.

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 this?"


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 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 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 objects.

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 or moment."

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.

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


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 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 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 and conserve?

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 future.

We must urgently consider the impact of everything that we are doing and whether are not it is harmful to ourselves and our planet.

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 (9)



I think it really is that simple.





A corner of my collection in my parent's basement 1967


First Display Case (from Montgomery Ward's closing)



DBB 1-2019