August 8, 2000

Columbia Phonograph Companion, Volume I: Hazelcorn‘s Guide to the Columbia Cylinder Graphophone.  By Howard Hazelcorn.  Mulholland Press, 1999.  304 pages.  ISBN: 0-9606466-5-4. $69.95.

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

 Phonograph collectors will be delighted with this splendid new volume on cylinder models manufactured by the Columbia and its affiliates between 1887 and 1909.  Long ignored in favor of Edison and Victor, Columbia has recently been the object of much scholarly attention.  This is one of several books published in the last four years treating each of the company’s principal products, others being Baumbach’s Columbia Phonograph Companion, Volume II (1996, disc phonographs), Rust and Brooks’ Columbia Master Book Discography (1999, records) and Sherman and Nauck’s Note the Notes: An Illustrated History of the Columbia Record Label (1998, label styles).  Somewhere up there–or down there, in the eyes of Edison and Victor partisans–Columbia founder Edward D. Easton must be smiling.

Nearly a quarter century ago Hazelcorn authored a slender volume titled A Collector’s Guide to the Columbia Spring-Wound Cylinder Graphophone (APM Press, 1976), but this is an entirely new book.  It is large format (8¾ by 11½ inches), with a heavy full-color cover, and full color illustrations throughout.  After a full-page, black and white, turn-of-the-century style portrait of a mustachioed gentleman labeled “Howard Hazelcorn” (apparently a joke), it begins with three guest essays, whose relevance to the main subject of the book is somewhat puzzling.  “Early History of the American Graphophone Company” by Raymond Wile deals primarily with litigation and corporate maneuvers up to the turn of the century.  “Opportunity Lost: The American Graphophone and Its Six-Inch Cylinders” by George F. Paul, concerns the aborted marketing of long-play cylinders, and is a reprint of an article from the ARSC Journal 30:1 (though not labeled as such).  “Adolph Melzer, Thomas MacDonald and the Development of Columbia Cylinder Records” is an interesting piece by Paul about Columbia’s development of wax blanks in the 1890s.  None of these has much to do with phonographs, and although it is nice to have them in print (a second time, in one case), one suspects that readers are not likely to look for them in a book about cylinder phonographs.

The real reason to buy this book is for the machine listings.  Each principal model (about 100 in all) receives two facing pages, with a large color illustration of the machine on the left, and descriptive text on the right.  The book is thus extremely easy to use.  For each machine we are given the model number, year it was introduced, common name, standard horn, type of motor, governor, cabinet, and reproducer, serial number range, size and original price.  The author also assigns a “rarity” code, ranging from R-1 (common, 500 or more known to exist) to R-10 (good luck finding one!).

The machines are organized into four sections: treadle Graphophones (1887-1895), spring-wound Graphophones (1894-1908), electric Graphophones (1893-1907), and coin-in-the-slot Graphophones (1893-1899).  Some truly remarkable phonographs are shown, for example a prototype treadle model of ca.1885 (p.54).  This foot-driven machine played the narrow Bell-Tainter cylinders, and was built in the inventors’ Volta Laboratory as a means of inducing investors to finance the formation of the American Graphophone Company.  In all, five treadle models are pictured.  The legendary Multiplex Grand (p.100) had three reproducers and played a special fourteen inch cylinder with three separate tracks, yielding the first “stereophonic sound.”  The only known sale was to the Shah of Iran, who had it delivered by camel caravan to Teheran.  The type “G” Baby Grand of 1894 (p.68) is hardly common, but is notable as the first phonograph built exclusively for the home market (until then machines were for offices or exhibition).

Of course many common machines are illustrated, including the widely distributed AT, the inexpensive type B (“Eagle”) and the even cheaper type Q.  Odd bits of information emerge, for example what the “T” in “AT” stands for (p.89); and the significance of the “Thornward” Graphophone (p.103).

The pictures are large and adequate for identification, but truthfully they are not up to the standards set by recent publications such as Fabrizio and Paul’s The Talking Machine: An Illustrated Compendium.  Compare, for example, the two books’ pictures of the rather common 1899 Type Q.  Fabrizio and Paul’s illustration (p.65) is sharp and clear, while Hazelcorn’s (p.92) is somewhat fuzzy and lacking in detail, making close examination of the governor, feed screw, etc., difficult.  Moreover, the winding key appears to have been drawn in!  Hazelcorn’s Graphophone Grand illustration (p.90) is adequate, but Fabrizio and Paul provide three views of the same machine, a sharp full view and two revealing close-ups.  Of course Hazelcorn covers all Columbia models, while Fabrizio and Paul can be selective.  However even common machines are better illustrated by the latter.

It is obvious that many of Hazelcorn’s illustrations have been retouched.  While this makes for a colorful presentation, I’m not sure it was such a good idea to enlarge and colorize  illustrations that originally appeared as small black and white cuts in old catalogs.  Did they really look like that?  The 1902 Combination Grand (model AD) on page 108 looks muddy and blurred,  and the 1906 Jewel (model BK) on page 142 is positively garish.  It is not clear why so many illustrations have been “enhanced” from catalogs in this manner, rather than simply using photographs of surviving examples.  There must be a 1904 “AT” (rarity: R-2) around somewhere to photograph.  Even some “non-existent” machines are pictured, for example the 1895 Type T Treadle, built to sell off parts remaining from obsolete foot-powered models.  A note helpfully tells us that since no examples are known, “this example was built from parts to simulate a Type T.”

I compared Hazelcorn’s listings with three actual machines on hand, and the results were instructive.  A coin-op marked Type S turned out to actually be a Type AS (they were slow in changing the patent plates).  The illustration, while not terribly detailed, was sufficient to identify mine as the same machine.  The book’s chief value lay in the text, which provided interesting background on this machine–although my serial number was outside the range claimed.  Likewise, the book provided only a rather distant, indistinct photograph of the Type BF, and not of the exact model I had on hand (the book frequently illustrates only one example in each “family” of models, which may or may not be the one you have).  Again, however, the text added much of interest.  For a really common Type B “Eagle,” the picture was once again disappointing, but the text informative.  Among other things, I learned that approximately 149,000 of these were produced.  No wonder they’re really common.

Section five describes “miscellaneous machines, devices and attachments,” including the Mills Phonograph/Fortune Teller (which played a record then showed you your fortune), the Mills Illustrated Song Machine (it showed pictures as the record played), pantographing machines, “The World’s Smallest Talking Machine” and the “Backwards” Graphophone.  There are also machines with various odd motors.  Section six contains charts and tables, including detailed descriptions of reproducers and horns, a machine-horn matching chart, machines assigned to each serial number range, a chronological machine listing (1887 to 1909), an alphabetical listing by model, and a modern rarity and value chart.  Rarity and value are of course subjective, but always fun.  Hazelcorn’s estimates for a good-condition machine range from $350 for the lowly Type Q to $50,000 for a model A Treadle machine (or for that Treadle prototype, if you can get your hands on it).  The Shah’s Multiplex Grand, if it ever surfaces, would bring only $40,000.  Garden variety Eagles are pegged at $500 and AT’s at $575 to $650.

There is also a brief bibliography and an index.

The Columbia Phonograph Companion a well organized, accurate and information-packed guide to the confusing world of Columbia cylinder phonographs.  While the photographs may not be state of the art, they are certainly adequate for identification purposes, and the text is excellent.  This book will be a worthwhile addition to the library of any serious collector of phonographs.


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