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A Guide To Antique Phonographs

Updated on August 4, 2017

antique wind-up phonographs

Antique phonographs are a specialized, unique hobby. When I first began collecting antique wind-up phonographs, I had no idea where to start. I tried joining a few phonograph message boards and gave up trying after getting my foot slammed in the cyber doors. The sheer lack of not receiving any valid answers to a few questions sent me on my way.

Happily, I found myself making the best decision in this unique and fascinating hobby by going about it on my own. I am by no means an expert, nor do I claim to be one either. Here, you'll find a general introduction to collecting antique wind-up phonographs-- and know when to leave well enough alone should repairs be needed.

Run across an antique wind-up phonograph in any antique store, online, or at a flea market, "Yup, that there's a genuine antique Edison-Victrola..."

Excuse me?

First of all Edison didn't create Victrola. Victrola is a registered trademark of Victrola Talking Machine Company of Camden, N.J. Edison created phonographs. Like anybody who might be new to this unique hobby, it's easy to confuse the two names. However, there were many more phonograph makers other than Victrola and Edison. There was Berliner, Columbia, Brunswick, Silvertone (Sears Roebuck and Company), Pathe (French company) just to name a few.

So you found an antique wind-up phonograph online, or perhaps you are considering purchasing one for the first time. What brand is it, and how much is it worth? Some brands were better than others. Secondly, antique wind-up phonographs are worth as much as you are willing to pay for them. I don't go by any price guides as I have found those to be of little use to me, especially if parts are missing or the cabinet resembles weathered barn wood. Sometimes the asking price is outrageous and other times the asking price can be negotiated.

If the price tag makes you inwardly cringe, try talking the person down. Sometimes this works. If you come across a flood of pages online that are selling new knock-offs of "Gramophones" and "HMV" buyer beware! These are not actual antique wind-up phonographs. They are just crap-o-phones being sold for nearly as much as their real antique counterparts. HMV stands for "His Master's Voice", and recognizable on all of the new 'antique' phonograph knock-offs coming out of third world countries. Be afraid, be very afraid of losing that hard earned cash to something that has a plate and pillar mechanism and shoddy workmanship.

Real Victrolas were elaborate in both design and function and they came in various makes and models. The most elaborate Victrolas I had ever seen on the internet were custom-designed floor models with gold cabinets and painted on Oriental designs. These by far are not only rare, but very pricey. Seldom will you come across these at a flea market. You might see them displayed in a museum somewhere and online.

Edison made some very high end upright models such as the C-250, and the later reincarnated, C-19 along with the Edisonic, LU console, etc. Any model is a beautiful phonograph in its own right. The only bad drawback about owning an Edison phonograph is that if the 78 attachment is missing, there is no way to play a lateral (thin) 78. Also, Edison phonographs were designed to play Edison Diamond Disc "Re-Creations", records that are a quarter inch thick, and ten inches in diameter. Another downside is that they require a diamond stylus and must never be played with a steel needle. This can potentially damage the record and the phonograph. Edison Diamond Disc Re-Creations had a "hill and dale" groove whereas the lateral 78 used a completely different method.

When the phonograph wind-ups but won't play... don't attempt to take it all apart and fix it yourself. Contact a professional antique phonograph repairman for service. Trying to trouble shoot a mainspring in a Victrola or an Edison would be like jumping into a pit full of rattle snakes if you don't know what you're doing. The mainsprings are encased in a barrel and even though they might be completely unwound, they are still under tension. Also, by referring service to an antique phonograph repairman, they can also supply parts should the phonograph be missing anything.

General cleaning of the internal parts (on or off the board) is a very tiring process but can be done. When cleaning off the caked on old grease wear old clothing and work in a setting like a garage or basement with proper ventilation when cleaning with solvents. The old grease will stick to everything and doesn't readily wash off either. If cleaning the antique phonograph is too taxing, refer service to an antique phonograph repairman to tackle. This may cost a few extra dollars, but worth it. Re-finishing the cabinet may sound nice, but... it's more work than I'd be willing to devote to a project and thus don't recommend it.

Blue Amberol cylinders and black wax; days before the disc phonographs took over the market:

These cylinder phonographs are the forerunners to the disc phonographs. I have included them in with this guide as more often than not they do turn up in all kinds of price ranges and conditions. Types of wax cylinder phonographs that are common to find: Columbia and Edison. Various models range from the table tops to the upright floor models like that of the Edison Amberola A-1. However, as with anything, some models preformed better than others.

Since I have never owned a Columbia cylinder phonograph, I cannot vouch for their preformance. I have owned a few Edison cylinder phonographs and each has its own history either known, or simply lost through the passages of time. What I like about the cylinder phonographs is that they're portable. The cylinder records can be found in their tube-like containers or without and can be transported fairly easily in a sturdy cardboard box lined with plently of packing peanuts.

The condition of the record surface is something to consider when purchasing a cylinder phonograph. Sometimes the surfaces of these cylinder records are so scuffed rendering them unplayable. Sometimes they have pot holes in the black wax the size of craters, this can present a problem for the reproducer and the phonograph. Mildew and mold can also attack the black wax, thus ruining the cylinder completely. Given what they are though, the cylinder phonographs and cylinder records are still fun to collect. They are readily found on places such as Fleabay, in antique stores,  and online.

For further information on antique wind-up phonograph repairs google search for "Great Lakes Antique Phonographs".  For additional information on antique phonographs (in general), I recommend: Mainspring Press dot com and The Victor-Victrola Page.


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      antique_mystique 2 years ago

      Hello to all,

      Sorry it has taken me forever... and I do mean forever to get back in touch on here, and now, I may be able to help with your antique phonograph questions.

      Starting with jmouss, you might try scouring eBay or some other online auction site to help you find a service manual for your Brunswick which are very beautiful and well-built phonographs. If you can't find a service manual, and want to try to restore this phonograph yourself, then I highly recommend "The Compleat Talking Machine" book. This book can be found on Amazon. Or a third option would be to contact Great Lakes Antique phonographs in Michigan. Hopes this helps, sorry for the extremely long delay.

      Hi Dave Pursh, You might try uploading a picture of your antique phonograph on a Hub pages thread, if you can. Without a picture of it, I have no way of helping you identify your phonograph since I don't give out my email.

      Hi Barry Koehler, unfortuantely I do not give out my email across the internet. But if you can post a picture of what Edison wax cylinder phonograph you are wanting on a hub pages thread, then I'd be more than happy to take a look and help you determine if the asking price is fair. As a general rule though, I only pay the amount I believe the phonograph is worth, plus I calculate the additional cost it will take to get an antique phonograph restored/ overhauled since most of the antiques ones I've bought in the past did require some work that was outside of my area of knowledge. Sure hope my answer has helped and sorry for the long delay in posting.

      Sandra Perry,

      You might try here at Collector's Weekly.

      I'm not familiar with Peritone phonographs, sorry. However, they do appear to be gorgeous none the less.

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      Sandra Perry 3 years ago

      I recently purchased a working Pur-i-tone phonograph, in excellent conditoin. I haven't been able to surface anything on this brand...any suggestions?

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      Barry Koehler 4 years ago

      I am considering a purchase of an Edison windup cylinder player with 100 cylinders. I have no idea what I'm doing. I'd like to have this machine especially since it works well and has so many cylinders. I have a picture. Would you be able to help me determine if the asking price is at least reasonable, or what questions I should ask to determine that?

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      Dave Pursh 4 years ago

      Hi there. A friend at work just found an antique wind up phonograph in his wife's grandmother's house. He trusted me to find out some info about it, but there are no visible nameplates of any kind. I've been doing research but I'm coming up empty. Is there any way I can email you a picture of this thing so you may be able to tell me what they have? Thanks, Dave.

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      jmouss 6 years ago

      i enjoy fixing older machines and furniture. cathy and i have a brunswick panatrope model 15-8,,160762.. we want to repair ,listen to and possible sell, need service manual,any ideas???

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      antique_mystique 7 years ago


    • Karen Wodke profile image

      Karen Wodke 7 years ago from Midwest

      Great article!