Last Sunday afternoon, if you’d been looking, you’d have found me crouched at an antique mall in Omaha sorting through a surprise collection of about 250 phonograph cylinders, checking for condition, price, and musical selection. I bought 11. What are phonograph cylinders? You might know about them, but somehow I went my entire life, until a few weeks ago, without knowing. Now I own a cylinder phonograph, several cylinders, and rock out like Teddy Roosevelt rocking a monocle.
Invented by Thomas Edison in 1877, phonograph cylinders rivaled phonograph disc records for many years, but were no longer manufactured after 1929 (it was discovered that both sides of discs could be recorded on, while cylinders had no such option). Recently, though, novelty recordings have been made using cylinders, including a song by They Might Be Giants, “I Can Hear You”. This year, a British steampunk band, The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing, released a track on a limited edition cylinder. I might have gone a few more years without knowing about these little record tubes had I not run across some orphaned cylinders in an antique shop last month.
Not long before, I’d started my antiquing obsession when I came across a beautiful set of antique history books being used as props at an interior design shop and thought they’d look swell in my library. And they do. I soon set out to find more nice pieces and maybe an old lantern or two, and knew I needed to visit some antique stores. I hadn’t been to one in awhile and could sense my lameness. On my first trip, I went to a large antique mall where I found some cool lanterns, as well as one of those old accordion-type cameras that unfolds. It decorates a shelf in my living room.
It was the next store where I found some more great books and those fantastic phonograph cylinders. When I saw them, I was amazed by the packaging, and of course the fact that this was another form of musical reproduction (like the cassette, cd, 8-track) and here I was, a fairly well-read person with an enormous music library, completely unaware of their existence. In my excitement, I immediately called my brother Jay and had him look up what he could find on the cylinders (another good reason to buy a smart phone). He saw lots of 25 or 30 cylinders selling on eBay and advised me of actual cylinder phonographs selling online for $800-1200. If nothing else, the cylinders were great novelty pieces and priced moderately, so I bought 3 of them. And some swell books. I held off on the nifty furniture, stained-glass windows, and brass miner’s lanterns until a somewhat distant future.
Cylinder Phonograph (Edison Amberola 30). Not mine (my camera cord is missing)
The cylinders became a footnote as I visited one antique shop after another finding such things as a unique 9″ tall brass mesh sieve and an 1880s 6 volume leather-bound set of Le Comte De Monte-Cristo by Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo to us English-speakers). The leather book spines have those cool ridges. I even saw a nice cylinder phonograph with a beautifully decorated horn, but at $800 it was beyond my immediate consideration. A few days later, though, as I was trekking through Iowa and Minnesota, I found another great cylinder phonograph. This one played well, but had the horn built into the box, like a speaker. I was primed. Listed at less than half the cost of the other, I negotiated, getting an even better deal, and took the piece home. I had my own musical bit of history. It was awesome!
Really, I should be rebuilding my modern audio system rather than investing in the 8-track equivalent of the 1st World War, but it was too fantastic to pass up. Also, such non-electronic devices will come in handy in the fallout shelter after EMPs (electromagnetic pulses) have destroyed modern technology. Yea, verily.
To me, visiting these antique shops is like visiting museums where you can buy the display items. It’s strange to see what people are selling and what they’ve collected over the years. Sometimes the displays are themed, like Victorian or old tool shed or mad scientist, and really give you a small insight into the people behind the items. It’s interesting to consider the provenance of a piece: Who were the former owners and what were they like? Which meth-addicted grandchild is selling off grandma’s treasures?
So now as Fantasy Baseball season winds down (I have a decent chance of winning 2 championships, if I can survive todayoops!), it seems I’ve found an obsession replacement. In the last 3 weeks I’ve been to a dozen antique shops in 5 towns. I’ve started visiting garage sales (though I’m not an early-bird shoppers who arrives early for worms) and I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time on eBay. I have an idea of what pieces I’m looking for and what my price points are. At the moment I’m camping out on eBay looking for accidentally cheap, but fancy, 19th century music boxes that play a dozen songs or use weird metal plates or corn cobs. I’m also checking out strange musical instruments and unusual antique scientific devices in nice wooden boxes. In the shops my eyes are also open for the nifty furniture, stained-glass windows, and brass miner’s lanterns, knowing I should still wait on the pricier items until perhaps after I’ve had the house re-sided. But if I should happen upon that rare cylinder with Christmas music on it, I’ll be sure to grab it right up. You don’t just find that stuff anywhere.
Once I find my camera cord, I hope to post a video of my cylinders in action. The cord may be in Minnesota.