Vintage gramophones are collectors’ delight


By Linda Dillman
Staff Writer

Messenger photo Linda Dillman
Canal Winchester resident Bill Garver, and his wife, Robyn, with a portion of their collection of antique toys, including working phonographs dating back to 1910.

A chance encounter with a record player produced by Thomas Edison set Canal Winchester collector Bill Garver on a treasure hunt 30 years in the making.

Garver started collecting “talking machines” in 1987 when he saw an Edison cylinder record phonograph at an estate auction. He didn’t know anything about phonographs then, but was intrigued that an Edison produced item was being auctioned.

“It seemed like a great piece of American history was on the auction block, so I bought it,” said Garver. “Years later—and after acquiring dozens of phonographs—I moved to a smaller home and needed to minimize my collection. That’s when I found that, for a brief period of time during the late 19th and early 20th century, miniature and toy gramophones had been manufactured. I was hooked. The collection of large phonographs was sold and I began to focus on toy and miniature machines.”

Garver owns more than 100 vintage machines consisting of toy gramophones, which were produced for children, and miniature gramophones, created for the adult market.

According to Garver, in the early 1900s, there was an emphasis to produce smaller,  compact talking machines.  Manufacturers wanted to make gramophones more portable, like today’s technology. Many of the machines in Garver’s collection appear to be toys due to their size, but are fully functioning gramophones.

“The Little Wonder talking machine made in Boston is a perfect example of this,” said Garver. “Its small size and name made it appear to be for children, however, it was  a ‘serious’ gramophone for adults.”

The rarest item in his collection is a colorful, toy lithograph Figuraphone made in Germany during the early 20th century.  It is equipped with an external horn which depicts three clown faces. Garver acquired it about three years ago from a collector in The Netherlands.

“It’s very difficult to find these types of machines,” said Garver. “Many were lost to the metal drives during World War I and World War II, as well as the majority simply being thrown away when they were broken. There are collectors throughout the world which I’ve bought and traded with.  That’s the easiest way. But I also spend lots of time looking through antique shops throughout the U.S.”

His most prized collectible is not the rarest nor the most expensive, but a toy phonograph he and his wife found together while looking through an antique store in southeastern Ohio.

“She spotted it sitting way up on a top shelf in the back of the store. The store owner had forgotten it was even there,” said Garver. “We dusted it off and it  worked. We paid only $25 for it, but the fact  it had been sitting in that old store for years, completely forgotten, and we found it. That makes it my favorite.”

Garver shares his passion at events, educational demonstrations and displays at schools and churches.

When asked if he had to give up his entire collection and keep only one item, he said it would be a difficult decision since each item has its own history and because of his efforts in finding, acquiring and many times restoring an item.

“I guess I’d retain an early cylinder phonograph recording with Thomas Edison actually speaking on it,” said Garver.  “After all, he’s the one who started this.”

For people interested in collecting toy and miniature gramophones, he offers the following advice: Be patient.

“I can recall waiting and searching for several years to acquire specific machines,” said Garver. “They’re not offered or seen  often, but when they are, that’s the time to acquire them.  Less rare machines can be found on the Internet or even at auctions from time to time.”

He said  there isn’t a lot of information  online to help a collector in discerning between what is rare and what isn’t.

“I’ve learned simply by doing my own research over the years,” said Garver. “It’s been a lot of fun and very educational for me. There’s a great deal of historical significance in early sound recordings and the machines produced to play them.”

Garver said collecting and preserving items from the past—whether it is a miniature or toy gramophones, documents, manuscripts, paintings, photographs or books—is important in order to tell its story.

“Over my many years of searching, traveling and collecting, it has always been enjoyable, not only meeting and interacting with the people who are preserving our historical items, but to learn about the passion behind it,” said Garver. “Collectors are interesting and historically knowledgeable people. It has been and continues to be a fun learning life experience for me.”


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