Ladies get the horn with nasty big gramophones & consign them to the closet! Victrola explained

By Carey Fleiner


The majority of record buyers at the turn of the twentieth century were women, and the record player, while an interesting, new technology, was also an invader into the tasteful sanctuary, that was, their home. Men’s literature, such as Scientific American or The Gramophone, touted the tech specs of talking machines – which needles to use, what was the latest in tone arm technology, and how, in terms of talking machine horns, size really does matter. But the open-horned, table-top gramophone was an awkward beast perched in a sitting room or parlour – they took up a lot of room, and the horns were vulgar dust-catchers.

Model from the Johnson Victrola Museum; volume control was literally shoving a sock down inside the horn (hence the expression, ‘Put a sock in it’) (author’s photo)

Thus the advent of disguising the gramophone as furniture. It was after all women who made the decisions about what furniture was or was not coming into their home at the turn of the century. The gramophone and its cultural advantages on the one hand and its awkward shape on the other posed a real dilemma for the modern woman: she had aspirations towards creating a charming parlour to serve as a sanctuary and private refuge for her family away from the outside world, but she also wanted to be a part of the new, progressive world.

Johnson spent the first few years of Victor drawing in women buyers with advertisements on the one hand, and the creation of the Victrola on the other – if women didn’t like the sight of the horn, no matter how beautiful or decorated they were

Loads of horns at the Johnson Victrola Museum, Dover, Delaware, USA (author’s photo)

(after all, this is the era where special covers were made to hide the naked legs of pianos), then the horn would have to be tucked away. It wasn’t an entirely new idea to camouflage the phonograph – there’d been, for example, a short-lived fad to disguise gramophones as table lamps!

A brief, interesting experiment in phonographic camouflage

And ladies were already accustomed to utilitarian machines doubling as furniture, especially considering the beauty of Singer Sewing Machine cabinets. Alexander Graham Bell, in fact, had devised a graphophone model that was married to the treadle of a sewing machine, albeit less for aesthetic purposes and more to find a solution to the problem of handcranking the record player.
One of Bell’s treadle-powered graphophones at the Johnson Victrola Museum, Dover, Delaware (author’s photo)

Hence the Victrola: beautiful cabinets which doubled as tasteful pieces of furniture. The model names – the Gothic, Louis XVI, Jacobean, Chinese Chippendale —  conjured up images of old world sophistication; they also hid the horns behind cabinet doors (which might also conceal convenient shelves for record album storage as well.) Victrola is wordplay on the part of Johnson, combing the words Victor and pianola, another middle-class source of entertainment popular at the time.

Victrola models at the Johnson Victrola Museum (author’s photo)

Johnson was no fool, and while any horizontal surface was fair game for the myriad knickknacks beloved by Edwardian women, one will notice that most Victrola cabinets have rounded tops – it’s impossible to pile on top of them the vases, lamps, and assorted essential tchotchkes that would have made accessing the machine an annoyance.

Notice one can still place stuff on the sideboards, but the critical lid to the gramophone is rounded; Johnson did this deliberately as he figured once women started piling stuff on top of the machines, it would be too much trouble to have to clear them to use (author’s photo)

So now the fine lady – or middle or working class lady with aspirations – now had the perfect hostess’ companion.

The Victrola was beautiful and unobtrusive – in some advertisements, it’s barely in the picture.


Notice the Victrola tucked off to onside, and the cosy scene around it

Johnson’s relentless advertising campaign of the new design meant that ‘Victrola’ became a generic term for any sort of wind-up talking machine.

So when is it a Victrola? When it is a Victor machine, of course, but when the horn is concealed in a cabinet.

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I am the (very first UK) DJ. And I broadcast 87 years ago today.

It’s a far cry from the histrionics of Chris Evans, the authority of Brian Matthew or the intensity of Whispering Bob Harris, but on July 7, 1924, Britain’s first disc-jockey began broadcasting…..in a dinner jacket.

As Wikipedia describes…

Christopher Stone was educated at Eton College and served in the Royal Fusiliers. He became the London editor of The Gramophone, a magazine started by his brother-in-law Compton Mackenzie.
Stone approached the BBC himself with the idea for a record programme, which the corporation initially dismissed. Stone managed to convince them though and on July 7, 1927 he started playing records on air. His relaxed, conversational style was exceptional at a time when most of the BBC’s presentation was extremely formal, and his programmes became highly popular as a result. He wore a dinner jacket and tie when he presented.
In 1934 Stone joined the commercial station Radio Luxembourg (for 5,000 pounds a year) and was barred by the BBC in consequence. Three years later, as “Uncle Chris”, he presented the first daily children’s programme on commercial radio, Kiddies Quarter Hour on Radio Lyons. Stone later rejoined the BBC and caused a major row in 1941.

On November 11 he wished King Victor Emmanuel of Italy a happy birthday on air, adding “I don’t think any of us wish him anything but good, poor soul.” This good wish towards the head of a state Britain was at war with at the time led to the sacking of the BBC’s Senior Controller of Programmes and tighter government control over all broadcasts.
Stone was an avid record collector; in the mid 1930s he already owned over 12,000. When he turned 75 in 1957 the magazine Melody Maker praised his pioneering work: “Everyone who has written, produced or compered a gramophone programme should salute the founder of his trade.”

Christopher Stone, The Sound of the Hound salutes you! Three Woofs!

The main problem with starting new businesses…

…is getting all the ducks in a row. The early recording business proved no different.

Emile Berliner decided to set up his European disc pressing factory in Germany rather than England in 1898. In doing so he created the German Gramophone Company – aka Deutsche Grammophon (DG).

Berliner’s European operations were therefore split in two. DG was to manufacture the discs in Hanover. The Gramophone Company (of England)‘s role was to find the artists, make the recordings and sell the resultant discs.

Whilst Fred Gaisberg set up the Maiden Lane recording studio in Covent Garden, London, his old friend from America, Joe Sanders, was establishing the disc factory in Hanover. Fred’s task was perhaps the simpler of the two and he quickly set up the studio and created a backlog of recordings that needed pressing as discs. Sanders struggled to provide a manufacturing solution as quickly. He was dependent upon the pressing machines being first made and then delivered from America. They proved slow in arriving.

In the meantime the company sold the 150,000 records that they had imported from the States. These were quickly running out. The gramophone was already proving a huge success in Europe. Generating sales was not turning out to be the problem for the new business, but they were finding it difficult to make enough discs to meet the new demand. Alfred Clark who ultimately became Managing Director remembers the early days of the business in a later article for Gramophone Magazine (here) and recalls that “from its earliest days the company made large profits”. By Xmas of its first year of business The Gramophone company had established a distribution network of more than 600 shops selling gramophones and discs, including the oldest record shop in the world; Spillers Records of Cardiff.

Joe Sanders received his manufacturing presses in the autumn of 1898 but the factory that was being built in Hanover to house them was not ready. To meet the demand for discs in the run up to Christmas of that year he erected a huge tent next door to where the manufacturing plant was being built and produced the entire European supply of discs from under a big top. Even with such constraints he was able to deliver discs within a month of the recordings being sent from London which is a quite remarkable achievement. The proper factory was completed in 1899 and you can see the presses in action within it, here: