The old phonograph
By Lily Kongslien
The old-type phonograph (whether a Victrola, graphaphone or gramophone) had a prominent place in the parlor, as it was most likely the only entertainment enjoyed by the family of olden days. The graphaphone we had was ordered from Sears & Roebuck catalog and consisted of a storage cabinet below, and then the mechanism set on top of the cabinet. I recall that we had quite a variety of records on hand and we added to the number at least once a month.
There was no electricity in most rural homes, so it was necessary to “wind up” the machine in order to hear the records. All records were of one speed, the 78 rpm’s. The arm that held the needle was manually placed on the outer grooves of the record; our player had no volume control. The needles were available at the dime store, as were the records themselves. You could tell when a new needle was needed, as the record lost its clearness.
We had a record duster, which was a long handled brush we used to remove particles of dust from the tiny grooves in the records. There was a crank handle on the side of the upper mechanism which was used to wind the motor; one good winding should have been sufficient for the playing of one record. I remember when I was quite young, I wound it too tight, and then I was scolded and there were no more records played until my father came home and fixed whatever I had “sprung.” After such an incident, I would be very careful as I cranked the handle to play my favorite records.
Some people had the Edison players with the big metal horn, and the records were cylinders instead of flat records. My husband’s family had an old Edison; he often talked about the fun they had listening to the old cylinder records. Now these old players are antiques and very valuable.
Records were on sale at the Woolworth 5 and dime store, and we rationed ourselves to a new record every month or so. There was a record player on the counter, and records were available for 10 cents or perhaps 15 cents. It was customary for the purchaser to play several records before deciding on “the one.” If it was a busy day, you had to stand in line for a chance to listen to the record you picked out. This was a busy spot in the store, and a popular place for young and old. Then after the record was purchased, careful handling was necessary to get it home safely. It was easy to scratch the records with the needle jumping, or not picking up the arm that held the needle when it was finished. And great care was needed as you began the record, to gently place the needle in the outside groove and not cause scratches. For home use, the early records did not wear out, but we did have some favorites and gradually it was hard to understand the words and the music. It took only several minutes to play one side of the record. The earliest records we had were only one-sided and some were smaller than the standard ones. It was a test of patience when buying records to get one that had good selections on both sides.
The oldest one-sided records we had include “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” “Silver Bells” and “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.” There were sad records, such as “The Engineer’s Dying Child,” “The Little Red Caboose Behind the Train,” “Twenty-One Years,” “Behind these Gray Walls,” “The Convict and the Rose” and “I Want a Pardon for Daddy.” Some of the funny records I remember playing a lot were Uncle Josh records, “Who Said I was a Bum?” “The Preacher and the Bear” and “The Little Brown Jug”(my father’s favorite).
Patriotic songs (possibly pre-World War II) included “Uncle Sammy,” “Stars and Stripes March,” “National Emblem March” and “For Your Boy and My Boy.” We were still listening to the old phonograph around the time of the World War II and then we bought “God Bless America,” “Pearl Harbor,” “There’s a Star-Spangled Banner Flying Somewhere,” “Red Sails in the Sunset” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.” My favorite at that time was “Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree.” And of course everybody’s favorite and mine “You Are My Sunshine,” brings back memories! Christmas records were seasonal favorites too.
Now records are almost a thing of the past, with CDs, tapes and VCRs in abundance. I have a large collection of old 78s and an old fashioned record player that will play them, so at times I slip downstairs and listen to some of my old favorite 78 records. We’ve come a long way in the music department, but the words and sentiment in these old songs bring back some good memories – and sad times, too – but mostly great memories and great music and lyrics of yesteryear!