1912 Victrola

 Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

Robert Mullen

Catalog Number: 1972.006.02

People who find their favorite songs on an online service probably don’t know much about music recorded under the brands Victor, Columbia or Edison. Yet, those names were the major players in recorded music 100 years ago.

In 1918, musical offerings didn’t come from wireless devices — they were recorded on hard rubber discs or wax cylinders. And these discs and cylinders were designed to be played on machines that were manufactured by those same companies.

The phonograph’s power came from a spring that was wound up by turning a crank on the side of the cabinet. The music was acoustical, played by a stylus that mechanically reproduced vibrations engraved or pressed into the revolving record, and the sound was amplified through a metal horn.

After the first phonograph was developed by Thomas Edison in 1877, other inventors played with the technology. They changed it, improved it and fiercely competed with Edison for a dominant position in the market, much like the music-streaming industry of the 21st century.

By the early 1900s, phonographs had found their way into many U.S. households. Two record formats — the flat disc made by Victor and the wax cylinder made by Edison’s company — were pitted against each other for some 20 years. Columbia used both disc and cylinder formats.

The companies offered many styles of music, from classical to ragtime to marches. They competed to record popular musicians and entertainers like operatic tenor Enrico Caruso, band leader John Phillip Sousa, or singers Sophie Tucker and Bert Walker. Because of their size, records were limited to two or three minutes in length, and artists were forced to shorten longer pieces of music, and new music being produced was composed to fit to that short time frame. This was the beginning of the standard length of pop tunes that is still used today.

Early 20th century phonographs were housed inside large standing cabinets that cost up to $300, too expensive for most people to purchase.

However, the disc phonograph, shown here, is an early tabletop model that was priced at $25, affordable for many families. It is a 1912 Victrola model VV-VI that was donated to the La Crosse County Historical Society in 1971 from the estate of Edith Wooley. It has an internal metal horn placed behind the two doors in the front. Opening and closing the doors helped to control the volume of the music. This model was a popular phonograph, with more than 700,000 manufactured between 1911 and 1925 by the Victor Talking Machine Co.

One-hundred years ago, someone in La Crosse was enjoying their own musical library with this Victrola. While they didn’t have a digital playlist in their mobile device, they had a choice of many records, with popular songs such as “Over There,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “Peg o’ My Heart.” Whether living in the 20th or 21st century, everyone loves to listen to their favorite music. Only songs and technology have changed.

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on January 20, 2018.

This object can be viewed in our online collections database by clicking here.