Vintage Sound

By Karen Parr-Moody

August 31, 2016


The phonograph was the first invention to bring international fame to American inventor Thomas Edison. In 1877, while testing out ideas to create the telephone, Edison experienced the happy accident of creating the phonograph instead.


Marc Greuther, chief curator of The Henry Ford Museum, said in a Time magazine film, “The idea that you could capture a slice of time and replay that, and have it happen again, that was the jarring thing that he managed to pull off with this outrageously simple mechanism.”(Photo, right: Edison with his second phonographer in 1878.)


Edison went on to set up Edison Phonograph Works, which produced musical cylinders for the phonograph, a strategy that assured the instrument would become wildly popular.


Despite its ingenuity, the phonograph was essentially a simple instrument – a fact that virtually guaranteed its replication. It was ultimately made by various companies, and whether these players had external-horns or internal-horn devices, they were collectively known as “talking machines.” In his book, The Fabulous Phonograph, Roland Gelatt states that by 1919 there were nearly 200 phonograph manufacturers in the U.S.


Two of these early “talking machines” are currently featured at GasLamp Too. One such device is a rare Queen Anne Talking Machine, circa 1918, on view in Booth T-255 (photo, left; $1,750). It was made by the Cheney Talking Machine Company, which was founded in 1914, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, by Forest Cheney, a concert violinist of the early 1900s. 


This model is among the most luxurious of the Cheney models – the Rolls-Royce of the line. The wood is a high-end blend of flaming mahogany, white ash and walnut. All parts, including the hinges, are plated in 24K gold, including the large Cheney medallion found only on this model.


This talking machine is in working order and comes with all of its original parts and accessories. Additionally, it is being sold with 75 record albums, the original Cheney accessory box, two boxes of needles and an extra regulator and rest. The original skeleton key that locks the cabinet is also included. It is a piece that would appeal to a true music lover, as well as to a host or hostess who would enjoy wowing guests with a historic conversation piece.


For decades, America's talking machine industry was dominated by the companies Victor, Columbia and Edison. But there were smaller manufacturers, as well. One of these was the Belcanto Company in New York City, which took its name from the Italian words for "beautiful singing," which refers to Baroque era vocal technique for the opera.


On May 17, 1919, Belcanto filed for a trademark for producing phonographs, as well as phonograph records, sound boxes and needles. Around that time, the company also advertised its phonograph in Talking Machine World, a monthly trade magazine published between 1905 and 1928.


Currently, GasLamp Too is showcasing a lovely phonograph that was made by Belcanto and dates to the 1920s (photo, right; $525 at Booth T-266). It is a “winding” style, meaning one must crank it by hand to make it play. It is housed in a narrow, upright cabinet, which makes it convenient for one’s home. It takes up little space, but provides major entertainment.


With today’s digital music – which can easily be housed on a device as small as one’s hand – we easily forget that a century ago, reproduced music was a phenomenon almost too fantastic to be believed. Music no longer had to be heard in the presence of the performer, but could be replayed in parlors and dining rooms everywhere, transporting listeners to other places and times. It was a powerful liberation for music lovers everywhere.



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