Today, downloading or streaming music to smart phones and tablets is commonplace but a little over a century ago recorded sound was still in its infancy and to play a record, you had to use a hand-cranked machine which had a large external horn to amplify the sound.
In the 1870s Thomas Edison invented a way to record sound onto wax cylinders – he called it the phonograph – and initially saw its potential only as an office dictating machine. But it quickly caught on for entertainment purposes and popular songs were recorded, many from the Victorian music hall stars.
Although the photograph was manufactured until after the first world war, its popularity was always waning because soon after, in the 1880s, a man called Emile Berliner devised a flat disc machine the first real record player – which was able to give much greater sound clarity than the phonograph.
Early gramophones featured a large external horn to amplify the sound, but by the First World War, portable models with an internal horn and looking rather like a small suitcase were already being made, and were very popular to help cheer up soldiers fighting in the trenches.
In the 1930s electric power began to take over as the means by which the gramophone operated, though hand-wound spring-driven models were still made until as late as the 1950s.
These days there is strong demand these days most old gramophones but for many years now, demand has outstripped supply and consequently many of the ones seen around the antiques trade are either replicas, or hybrid examples, the sum of many parts!
An all-original horn gramophone normally costs at least £300, and that’s if it’s by an anonymous maker, as many were. If it has a makers name on it, such as His Masters Voice, or Columbia then the value can double in some instances, depending on specific model and degree of originality and condition.
Reproduction models can be priced from about £75 or so, though I have seen some priced at two or three times this amount, so be sure to check authenticity before handing over the cash!
Most horn gramophones had metal painted horns, but luxury horns made of brass, or nickel plated, or sometimes made of oak or mahogany were optional extras and machines with these horns do command higher prices.
The machines could play just one record at a time, and there was no form of volume control. To muffle the sound on a loud record, people would often stuff an old sock down into the base of the horn. Yes, you’ve guessed. That really is how the expression ‘putting a sock in it’ originated!
While the gramophone was aimed at the adult market, within a few years examples were being made for children, and records were issued featuring popular songs and nursery rhymes to appeal to the junior market. The real boom in gramophones for children came in the 1920-1940 period, and most of them were made of tin-plate, and decorated with scenes of children or animals or just pretty patterns printed onto the metal surface. These small gramophones, just a few inches across, were spring-driven and key-wound like a clock. Sound quality wasn’t brilliant, but it was good enough to amuse children.
Today these little toy gramophones, which were designed to play miniature records, are very sought after, and prices can be surprisingly high for examples which have survived in good condition. Prices start at around £150 and rare examples can fetch two or three times as much.
Among the most popular models were the Kiddyphone, the Peter Pan, the Mikiphone, the Pygmyphone, and several by a firm called Nirona.
These small, attractive but rather vulnerable toys provided delight and entertainment for children for several decades, but after the second world war, tinplate was quickly replaced by plastic and then batteries took over from clockwork.
Later of course came the cassette tape, then the CD – and now its music streaming!