Music 100 Years Ago

No batteries, no electricity — just a crank

Your Victor-Victrola, made by the Victor Talking Machine Company, tells a great story about the advent of technology and home entertainment.

Thomas Edison had invented the spring-wound cylinder phonograph in 1877 while he was working on the telegraph machine. It was a tremendous discovery to be able to record and play back sound and music. Wanting something easier to mass-produce than Edison’s cylinders, inventor Emile Berliner created flat discs using a press in the 1890s. These discs were the predecessor for the modern record and compact disc as we know it. Berliner’s discs gained popularity as they were less expensive and easier to store. In the 1890s, Berliner hired Eldridge Johnson, a machinist from New Jersey, to help create a mechanism to play these discs. With patent infringements, lawsuits and other complications, Berliner eventually sold what remained of his company to Johnson, who in 1901 officially established The Victor Talking Machine Company.

Johnson continued to improve the design of his phonograph. At first the phonographs were powered by a spring-wound mechanism with a removable hand crank and dominated by a large speaker horn that fit into the arm of the playing needle. The awkward horn took up much space and was easily bumped, causing damage to the machine and discs. Johnson had an idea to internalize the speaker by incorporating it into the case below the turntable; thus, in 1906 the Victor-Victrola was born. At a cost of $200 (equivalent to $3,700 today) it was the latest in technology, even featuring volume control as the two cabinet doors in front of the speaker could be open or closed.

 As the Victor-Victrola was continually being modified and improved, less expensive versions were made which enabled many households to afford one. During World War I, production was ceased as the company helped the war effort by shifting their factory production to biplane wings and rifle components. After the war sales soared again, but in the 1920s, with the introduction and gaining popularity of radio, Victrola sales declined and Eldridge Johnson sold the company to RCA.

 Your Victor-Victrola is the VV-IX model introduced in 1911 for $50. The serial number 415230 tells us that yours was made in 1916. It appears to be in excellent condition with a good mahogany finish. These machines are terrific; today we are amazed to think that 100 years ago people could listen to recorded music without the need of electricity or batteries.

I would estimate its value at $350.

Categories: Antiques