The Christmas of the Phonograph Records by Mari Sandoz

Illustrated by James W. Brown, University of Nebraska Press - Lincoln Copyright © 1966 by the Estate of Mari Sandoz

 

By Doug Boilesen

The Christmas of the Phonograph Records - A Recollection is one of my favorite books and as much a part of our family Holiday Season as A Visit from St. Nicholas by Clement Clarke Moore and A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

Mari grew up on a western Nebraska government claim where life at the beginning of the twentieth century could be harsh and isolated, particularly in the winter. In this story Mari's father Jules purchases a Phonograph with inheritance money and neighbors come from miles away during the Christmas holiday to listen to the wonderous machine. Mari's mother is distressed over the extravagance of the purchase since the children need overshoes and there is a mortgage to be paid. But Mari observed that her mother's eyes shined when she listened to the music of the phonograph with "excitement I had never seen in them."

The following is the opening page from Mari Sandoz's recollection The Christmas of the Phonograph Records:
It seems to me that I remember it all quite clearly. The night was very cold, footsteps squeaking in the frozen snow that had lain on for over two weeks, the roads in our region practically unbroken. But now the holidays were coming and wagons had pushed out on the long miles to the railroad, with men enough to scoop a trail for each other through the deeper drifts.

My small brother and I had been asleep in our attic bed long enough to frost the cover of the feather tick at our faces when there was a shouting in the road before the house, running steps, and then the sound of the broom handle thumping against the ceiling below us, and father booming out, "Get up! The phonograph is here!" (p.3)

 

Illustration by James W. Brown (Courtesy of the Estate of Mari Sandoz)

 

 

The phonograph was varnished oak, with a shining cylinder for playing the records, and a horn, "a great black, gilt-ribbed morning glory, and the crazy angled rod arm and chain to hold it in place." After the machine was unpacked and set up in the kitchen-living room a brown wax cylinder was removed from its round paper container and slipped onto the cylinder. The machine's handle was carefully cranked, and the needle set down.

"Everybody waited, leaning forward. There was a rhythmic frying in the silence, and then a whispering of sound, soft and very, very far away.

It brought a murmur of disappointment and an escaping laugh, but gradually the whispers loudened into the sextet from Lucia, into what still seems to me the most beautiful singing in the world." (p. 5)

Other records then followed with many titles remembered and named by Mari years later when she wrote her story.

What did Mari's younger brothers think about that Christmas and the phonograph? "None of them missed the presents that we never expected on Christmas; besides, what could be finer than the phonograph?" (p.13)

 

Better Than Toys. The Edison Phonograph. December 1903 (PM-0882)

 

"The Phonograph is the best present" stated the December 1903 Edison magazine ad. Although this Christmas scene couldn't be further away from Mari's own reality, the happy home made possible by the phonograph was a common theme in phonograph advertising along with its explanation that the phonograph is "the best present, because of its inexhaustible variety and its educational value."

For the Christmas holiday week of 1908 outside Hay Springs, Nebraska at the house of Jules and Mary Sandoz the new phonograph did bring together family, friends and neighbors. Even one of Jules' enemies was allowed under his roof (which was no minor event as Jules was known for his violent temper and for being "a crack shot"). Likewise remarkable was the variety of recordings everyone heard.

Mari would also see something that week in her mother's face that she hadn't realized before:

"We all clustered around, the visitors, fourteen, fifteen by now, and mother too, caught while pouring hot chocolate into cups, her long-handled pan still tilted in the air. Looking back I realize something of the meaning of the light in her face: the hunger for music she must have felt, coming from Switzerland, the country of music, to a western Nebraska government claim. True, we sang old country songs in the evenings, she leading, teaching us all she knew, but plainly it had not been enough, really nothing." (pp. 5-6)

The story closes some time later on a warmish day with Mari going out to the well to fill the water pail but leaving the door to the house open. Their big old sow pushed her way into the house, knocked down the record cabinet, scattered the cylinders over the floor and chomped down the wax records, boxes and all.

For Friends of the Phonograph it's a sad ending for the cylinder records. But sadder still was the last line of the story and the reality of Old Jules's "physical and emotional abuse"(1) of his family as Mari received what she said was "the worst whipping in my life for my carelessness, but the loss of the records hurt more, and much, much longer." (p. 27)

 

Illustration by James W. Brown (Courtesy of the Estate of Mari Sandoz)

 

 

 

See Phonographia's Referenced Records for a listing of the cylinder records identified in The Christmas of the Phonograph by Mari Sandoz.

 

 

Speculation about when this story took place

Christmas Eve, 1908 - New Year's Day, 1909

Establishing the year of this Holiday story and the model of the Edison phonograph purchased by Mari's father Jules Sandoz, a.k.a. "Old Jules," requires some speculation while also remembering that this was a "recollection" written decades later.

I think this story took place from December 24, 1908 to New Year's Day, 1909. There are some inconsistencies in selecting 1908 as the year. For instance, Mari's reference to her "German-accented fifth-grade country school English" when she is reading the instructions for the phonograph and the fact that Mari doesn't mention her sister Caroline, who was born on May 12, 1906 and who would have been one and a half years old if it was Christmas 1908. See Endnote (1) for more details regarding 1908 as being a somewhat less than definitive year for when the Christmas of the Phonograph Records took place.

But does the exact year even matter?

No, not from a story perspective. This gallery, however, is part of Phonographia.com which is all about phonograph connections so the year is important to determine which phonograph Old Jules might have bought.

The year also adds context in the timeline of consumerism and the phonograph's social and cultural revolution but for popular culture it doesn't need to be an exact date. In the small communities in the Sand Hills of Nebraska people could have read about the phonograph in the late 1880's and 1890's and that curiosity and interest would also continue into the new century.

Local newspapers like the Hay Springs Leader, and Rushville Standard, and the Gordon Journal in the early 1900's reported on the phonograph's growing presence in communities as a public entertainer. Later articles wrote how the phonograph was moving into homes with recent local purchases of a phonograph even being identified in newspapers as part of its promotion.

 

“phonograph entertainments,” Rushville Standard, February 14, 1901

 

 

“Senior Class Reception welcomed by the phonograph,” The Rushville Recorder, May 18, 1906

 

 

J. H. Dixon Johnson purchased a Phonograph. The Gordon Journal, April 5, 1907

 

 

Stories and jokes about the phonograph were also repeated in newspapers with most originating in national publications. Phonograph advertisements by regional stores appeared when places like Gordon's Jeweler & Optician and the Hardware Store started selling phonographs and records. The phonograph at the beginning of the 20th century was becoming part of popular culture and daily life.

 

The Gordon Journal, August 29, 1902

 

 

The Gordon Journal, May 31, 1907

Waterman's Jeweler & Optician, and Jordan's both of Gordon, Nebraska were the closest stores to the Sandoz homestead where Edison Phonographs and Records could be purchased.

 

 

"Edison’s Famous Phonographs” at Jordan Hardware Co’s., The Rushville Recorder, February 7, 1908

 

 

The Gordon Journal, January 17, January 24, February 28, March 6, March 13 and March 20, 1908

Edison Phonograph ad for Chapman’s in Valentine, Nebraska said it had the "largest stock of Edison Records in N. W. Nebraska"

 

For more examples of the phonograph in popular culture as seen in newspapers of Sheridan County, Nebraska 1890-1910 see Newspapers and the Phonograph in Sheridan County.

 

Not everyone subscribed or even read a newspaper and "many rural dwellers picked up their mail only once a week and even as late as 1896, only letters, no packages were handled." What the Sandoz family read in 1908 is unknown but virtually all of Nebraska was connected by 1904 in the post office's newly formed Rural Free Delivery (RFD) so even a remote homestead in the Nebraska Sand Hills could receive mail. Parcels and shipments like the phonograph and its records were handled by firms such as Wells Fargo, which formed in 1866, and became American Railway Express in 1918." (2)

Since all of the records and the phonograph arrived by rail and were delivered at the same time it's likely that Jules purchased everything as a mail order.

 

1909 map showing train stations at Hay Springs, Rushville and Gordon on the Chicago & North Western's Railroad Line (Courtesy Adam Burns) (3)

 

On the morning when the phonograph was delivered it had been possible for that delivery because "wagons had pushed out on the long miles to the railroad, with men enough to scoop a trail for each other through the deeper drifts." (p. 3)

"Lamplight was pouring from the open door in a cloud of freezing mist over the back end of a loaded wagon, with three neighbors easing great boxes off, father limping back and forth shouting, "Don't break me my reads!" his breath white around his dark beard." (p. 4)

Illustration by James W. Brown (Courtesy of the Estate of Mari Sandoz)

 

 

The Cylinder Records

Mari remembers how the "brown wax" cylinders (p. 5) were slipped onto the machine and that her place was established from the start. "I was to run the machine, play the two-minute records set before me." (p. 6)

New releases of two-minute cylinder records would continue to be promoted each month by Edison until 1912, however, Edison's four-minute black wax "Amberol," introduced in October 1908 would later continue as a celluloid four-minute record until 1929. Playing twice as long as the Edison Gold Moulded Record, the Amberol Record was said "to play better, their tone quality richer, clearer and more delicate than has been possible in the past." (The Edison Phonograph Monthly, October 1908)

 

What Phonograph was purchased by Old Jules?

"At a school program" people had heard "about the Edison phonograph going out to Old Jules Sandoz" so we know the phonograph purchased was an Edison. (p.5)

Edison Phonograph models before Christmas 1908 could have been a 2-minute machine or one of Edison's new 2 and 4-minute combination machines introduced in October 1908. (4)

Mari's description of their phonograph was that is was "varnished oak, with a shining cylinder for the records, and then the horn, a great black, gilt-ribbed morning glory, and the crazy angled rod arm and chain to hold it in place."

One of the following is most likely the Edison Phonograph purchased by Jules Sandoz.

The Edison Standard Phonograph Model C, introduced in February 1908 as a 2-minute machine with a suspended straight polygonal horn with 10 panels, 30 inch length, 19 inch diameter of bell; black with gilt decoration.

 

The Edison Standard Phonograph Model D, introduced in October 1908 as a 2 and 4-minute combination machine and 10-panel black horn (known as a Morning Glory Horn).

 

Edison STANDARD Phonograph Model D, with Morning Glory Horn. (courtesy The Edison Cylinder Phonographs 1877-1929, Frow & Sefl, ©1978 by George L. Frow)

The Edison Home Phonograph Model C introduced after mid-February 1908 as the regular 2-minute machine with 11-panelled horn.

 

Edison HOME Phonograph Model C. A catalogue picture showing the straight 11-panelled horn (courtesy The Edison Cylinder Phonographs 1877-1929, Frow & Sefl, ©1978 by George L. Frow)

 

The Edison Home Phonograph Model D introduced in October 1908, standard finish was oak, 2 and 4-minute combination, with straight 11-paneled horn.

 

The Edison Triumph Phonograph Model C introduced in February 1908 as regular 2-minute machine, with 33 inch 12-panelled straight horn.

 

Edison TRIUMPH Phonograph Model C with straight 12-panelled horn (courtesy The Edison Cylinder Phonographs 1877-1929, Frow & Sefl, ©1978 by George L. Frow)

 

The Edison Triumph Phonograph Model D introduced October 1908, oak, combination 2 and 4-minute, with 33 inch 12-panelled straight horn.

 

Why an Edison?

Edison and other phonograph companies advertised by mail, in magazines and in newspapers but consistently they asked the public to visit a dealer and listen for themselves. We don't know when Old Jules heard his first phonograph or how he made his decision on the model of the Edison phonograph and the records. And we don't know who made the sale. There would have been opportunities for the public to have heard a phonograph at a social gathering in town or to go to one of the retail stores (e.g., Jordan Hardware or E. A. Waterman's) where Edison phonographs were sold, and a few people in Gordon and Rushville and Hay Springs owned a phonograph. But Old Jules's purchase was still a significant event for the area even if any of his visitors had previously heard a phonograph. The rarity of some of the records that Jules had purchased gave his "guests" the opportunity to hear records never before heard in the area.

"People appeared from fifty, sixty miles away and farther so long as the new snow held off, for there was no other such collection of records in all of western Nebraska, and none with such an open door."

If Old Jules did purchase his Edison for the Christmas Holiday in 1908 it's another example of the how popular the Edison cylinder machines still were in areas like the Nebraska's Sand Hills. The battle between cylinders and discs as record formats was changing course with more companies making disc machines and records.

Sears, Roebuck and Co., started selling Columbia graphophones (American Graphophone Co.) cylinder playing machines in the late 1890's and were still selling them in 1908. But in the spring of 1902 "while the cylinders were still in their hey-day, the interloping disc machines had finally arrived in the new Sears catalog. Nor is the fact to be taken lightly, for not before the disc had begun to sell well would Sears have considered taking on sales of disc products." (5)

In 1906 Pathé Frères, one of the largest manufacturers, quit "the cylinder business altogether and concentrated on disc records." (6). Victor introduced their Victor-Victrola in 1906 and Columbia in 1907 introduced their own internal horn phonograph called the Grafonola. Of the big three phonograph companies Edison would now be the only one fully committed to cylinder records and their machines. Disc machines, therefore, were becoming the dominant format but in 1908 Edison's cylinder phonograph was still selling many machines and with its 4-minute Blue Amberol records introduced in 1912 Edison would continue to sell records into the 1920's.

The growth of the disc machine led by the Victor Talking Machine and the Columbia Phonograph Company in the first decade of the twentieth century also became a competition by those two companies to have their recording artists be "The Greatest Artists in the World." The Victor Company signed Enrico Caruso in 1904 and other opera stars were joining the new recording industry. Opera and its celebrity opera stars would become major advertising subjects for Victor to promote its supremacy in recorded music. Style also became a selling point with the introduction of the Victrola and its stately cabinet with its internal horn creating an attractive incentive to remove a phonograph horn from the parlor.

Perhaps Old Jules had never seen or heard a Victor disc record. But even if he had the popular culture associated with the Edison was a much closer fit for a Nebraska homestead than the Metropolitan Opera stage promoted by Victor.

The Edison Phonograph Monthly showing their illustration for their August 1908 advertisements

 

We know that Jules bought foreign records from a Swiss friend in New York so that friend may have also influenced Jules in selecting a phonograph.

No matter which of the Edison's was purchased one can still visualize it as an Edison Phonograph with "its great black, gilt-ribbed morning glory" horn sitting inside the "weathered little frame house." One can also be confident that from Christmas Eve 1908 to New Year's Day 1909 the Sandoz Edison Phonograph was performing to its largest and most appreciative audience that would ever listen to it.

I think Old Jules purchased the oak Edison Home Phonograph Model D introduced in October 1908, 2 and 4-minute combination, with its 11-paneled horn (a choice perhaps overly influenced by my hope that Mari listened to Edison's Amberol 4-minute version of sextet of "Lucia" as her first record).

In the following years It would be played again using the records that would be stored in flat boxes under the bed while the "finest from both the Edison and the foreign recordings, were put into this cabinet, with a door that didn't stay closed."

But their house was small, the children were growing, and the horn was probably too big for the phonograph to remain assembled on the washstand in the bedroom.

If the phonograph didn't get played as much after that memorable holiday week maybe there was still an upside. The one thing Mari said she wanted to do but had forgotten to do because of the dancing and the music of the Phonograph, was for her and Jule to sing their new song, Amerika ist ein schönes Land at the tree.

Perhaps for the Christmas of 1909 more singing took place.

 

1907 Phonograph Ad from one of Edison's National Distributors

 

 

The Cylinder Records Referenced in the Story

Besides the record titles specifically named in the story there are other general references which describe some of the "extravagant" collection Old Jules had purchased.

There were "a couple of the expensive French records of pieces he had learned to play indifferently in the violin lessons of his boyhood in Neuchatel." (p. 13)

"He didn't say how many, nor that there were other brands besides the Edison here, including several hundred foreign recordings obtained through a Swiss friend in New York, at a stiff price." (p.8)

"Waltzes, two-steps, quadrilles, and schottisches were sorted out and set in a row ready for me to play..." (pp. 9-10)

There were "several German love songs he had learned from his sweetheart, in Zurich, who had not followed him to America." (p. 13)

"Soothing music" was selected: "Bach, Mozaart, Brahms, and the Moonlight Sonota on two foreign records that father had hidden away so that they would not be broken..." (p. 17)

"...and a little Strauss and Puccini, while the young people wanted Ada Jones and "Monkey Land" by Collins and Harlan." (p. 17)

"There was something for everybody, Irishmen, Scots, Swedes, Danes, Poles, Czechs as well as the Germans and the rest, something pleasant and nostalgic." (p. 22)

 

For record titles identified in Mari's story see Phonographia's Factola Referenced Records in The Christmas of the Phonograph Records.

 

 

 

Other Related Images and Annotations to The Christmas of the Phonograph Records.

 

 

Rushville Register, September 18, 1908

 

 

 

Hay Springs postcard, July 18, 1910

 

 

Hay Springs School, May 28, 1910

 

 

Rushville, NE postcard, January 1911

 

 

Rushville, NE postcard, September 5, 1911

 

 

Washstand, circa 1900

"By now the phonograph had been moved to the top of the washstand in our parents' kalsomined bedroom, people sitting on the two double beds, on the round-topped trunk...The little round boxes stood everywhere, on the dresser and on the board laid from there to the washstand and on the window sills..."(p. 7)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Krishna Menon, 1958

"Early in the forenoon the Syrian peddler we called Soloman drew up in the yard with his high four-horse wagon. I remember him every time I see a picture of Krishna Menon---the tufted hair, the same lean yellowish face and long white teeth. Solomon liked to strike our place for Christmas because there might be customers around and besides there was no display of religion to make him uncomfortable in his Mohammedanism, father said, although one might run into a stamp-collecting priest or a hungry preacher at our house almost any other time. "

So far as I know, Solomon was the first to express what others must have thought. "Excuse it please, Mrs. Sandoz," he said, in the polite way of peddlers, "but it seem to uneducated man like me the new music is for fine palace---"

Father heard him. "Nothing's too good for my family and my neighbors," he roared out.

"The children have the frozen feet---" the man said quietly.

"Frozen feet heal! What you put in the mind lasts!" (pp. 14-15)

 

 

 

 

The Victor III and Geraldine Farrar, Colliers, 1908

 

 

 

FACTOLA: In Mari Sandoz's "recollection" short story The Christmas of the Phonograph Records her father's extravagant and much anticipated Phonograph is delivered to their isolated homestead in western Nebraska just in time for Christmas. The first cylinder record they play is the sextet from "Lucia di Lammermoor" by Donizetti. Mari remembers that moment of hearing Lucia as "what still seems to me the most beautiful singing in the world."

 

For more examples of the phonograph in popular culture and daily life as seen in newspapers of Sheridan County, Nebraska 1890-1910 see Phonographia's Newspapers and the Phonograph in Sheridan County.

For record titles identified in Mari's story see Phonographia's Factola Referenced Records in The Christmas of the Phonograph Records.

For more on the the phonograph in the home as the best seat in the house see Phonographia's "The Stage of the World.

For more on the phonograph industry's advertising of opera and its stars see Phonographia's "Willa Cather's Prototypes Who Were Recording Artists."

 

 

Phonographia