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Early Brown Wax Questions


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Hello fellow cylinder collectors. This is my first post here. I have two question, if I may. 


1.  Dating Pre-May 1899 Edison Cylinders


In Allen Koenigsberg's Edison Cylinder Records, 1889-1912, he dates Edison brown wax cylinders #1 through #4610 as all being recorded between Jan 1896 - May 1899 (with a couple of exceptions). 


Does anyone know if these were released in chronological order?

In other words, was the Edison record #2 (entitled "America") released in 1896 while #4600 ("I Don't Like No Cheap Man") was released in 1899?

I'm trying to date some of my early Edison brown wax cylinders and would like more precise data (if it exists). 

2.  Identifying Two Brown Wax Cylinders 


I bought these two cylinders as a pair many years ago. I think they may be United States Phonograph Company cylinders, dating from the mid to late 1890s, but I may be wrong.

The first cylinder is announced "Band Selection - Light Cavalry Overture" and the second is announced, "Alabama Troubadours - Original Minstrel First Part."

As you can see (hear), neither cylinder announces a performer or recording company.

I did find an old Thomas Edison's Attic episode with the same Alabama Troubadours title but my cylinder is a different recording https://wfmu.org/playlists/shows/13994 ("High Old Time" is sung in mine). The "Old Homestead Quartet" is listed as the performer in that the Thomas Edison's Attic description so I'm thinking maybe mine is also performed by the "Old Homestead Quartet."

Not sure who the band would be in my "Light Cavalry Overture" recording.

I wasn't able to find any exact matches for my cylinders in the UCSB website database.

Any thoughts on the performers, dates, and record companies?


Thanks! -Josh in MA


Edited by JPow
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Hi Josh,

These are good questions with complicated answers!


The catalog numbers you refer to were from Edison's original block system.  That is, performers were assigned blocks of numbers.  So, while the lowest numbers were released at the beginning and the highest numbers were released at the end of this period, the numbers in between were released at various times during this period. 


In 1899, Edison migrated to a chronological system.  If you look in ECR, Allen breaks down the release dates of blocks after the chronological listing of catalog numbers.  The later edition of ECR has a more granular breakdown than the earlier edition.


Note that I talk about when these records were released, not recorded.  We think of records as "copies" because most of them are.  But back then, they were made in batches.  So, each record is really a "take," not a copy, which is why most brown wax cylinders are likely to be unique "copies." 


I have several recordings of #85, Selections from Robin Hood.  Each is recorded at a different speed with a different announcer and a different tempo.  The different record slips indicate that these were probably made years apart from each other.  In other words, to answer your question about recording date, original slips, recording speed, groove cut and other data help identify date, but most Edisons from this period defy accurate dating.


The Alabama Troubadours was a set of minstrel records released in two groups by Edison.  The early ones were not recorded by National Phonograph, which might be why they lack an Edison announcement.  It's possible this convention was carried over when the later set was made.  ECR lists both.


The Light Cavalry Overture is not an Edison or Columbia release.  The absence of a band name makes it quite interesting and near impossible to assign to a company that released it much less recorded it.  More data and study is required, but it's like not USPNJ either.


At the risk of sounding critical, I am concerned that you are playing these early records with a heavy Columbia reproducer.  All period reproducers result in significant  wear; we know this given the condition of records we find today.  But this reproducer was never designed to play this early, soft wax without damaging it.  Remember that these cylinders (particularly the overture) are likely unique copies.


Hope the above helps.





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Hi John,


That is great information. I appreciate the clarity, and I'm sure other forum members do as well. Your example of #85 illustrates how difficult it is to precisely date Edison cylinders of this time period.  Columbia brown wax are much easier to pinpoint, it would seem.


Thank you for the context re: my two mystery cylinders.  


"All period reproducers result in significant wear" - Point taken. I've always read that, by using a either floating Columbia reproducer or Edison automatic reproducer rather than later, heavier reproducers like a Model C, etc., then you are minimizing the degradation. Still bad, but less bad.  I trust your research - they are all bad.  Thank you for the clarification. 


But that begs the question: what is a amateur hobbyist to do if they have a small collection of brown wax cylinders, a period reproducer, and they: 1. aren't willing to invest in a modern, low-impact cylinder playback device, 2. don't want to donate their cylinders to archivists, and 3. don't want to use their brown wax cylinders as paperweights (ie, never play them)?  


The logical answer is probably "then don't collect them in the first place." I do find the early records to be the most fascinating, though. 


I've been in the habit of playing my brown wax cylinders no more than two or three times, ever,  making a video of the recording for posterity, and then keep the cylinder on the shelf thereafter.  Maybe not ideal....


Thank you for your insights, John. Much appreciated. Keep up the good work.






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Hi Josh,




Glad to have helped.


As you probably have discovered, a lot of brown wax cylinders are chewed up during their first 20 seconds or so.  What caused that wear?  It wasn't the original owners who played their records all the way through.  No, it's 120 years of collectors dragging heavy reproducers through the announcement.  


As serious collectors, we need to be better stewards of these records.  And it's not that hard or expensive.  But you do need to recognize that if you have - say - 20 good brown wax cylinders, they are likely worth more and more rare than the machine you're using to play them.  In other words, they are worth protecting.


When you mention playing a cylinder once or twice to digitize it, you are on the right track.  The first thing is to get the period reproducer out of the audio chain.  The cheapest way to do that is with the Edisonia reproducer, if it's still being made (www.edisonia.com).  You mount it on a small-carriage Edison and plug it into your computer or mike preamp.  It's that easy.


When you do the math on the tracking force of the cartridge, the stylus they give you and its compliance, the Edisonia (surprisingly) is not much more gentle than an Automatic, but it's much better than a Columbia D or Edison Model B.


To get better results requires more effort but still costs less than a good Edison Triumph.  Find a Rabco tangential tracking tonearm on ebay or the equivalent.  These have quite good tonearms and are made to track linearly at low tracking forces (~2 grams).   Mount it on a board opposite a beat-up Edison Standard or equivalent with carriage removed to access the mandrel.  The Rabco mechanism will move its arm as it tracks the cylinder to keep it roughly perpendicular.


If you go this route, you will need a cartridge, 2M/4M styli and a preamp.  Most people use conventional cartridges re-wired to play vertical cuts.  Because this method introduces distortion, I developed vertical cartridges two years ago specifically to play cylinders.  You can read about them at http://www.cps1.net/features-2/.  You can write to me there and we can correspond more about this unless others are interested in this thread.


In the meantime, to give you a sense of all that's lurking in the grooves, here is a brown wax treasure I just found.  It was recorded by Reed & Dawson ca. 1898.





Booth - Chopin Nocturne in E flat - 119.6 - 1167 restore.mp3

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Wow - - thanks for sharing that Booth record, John.  What a contrast from the "Arkansas Traveler" genre so often found on brown wax! 


George P.

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What a great cylinder! Wow. I didn't think anyone was recording piano solos with that clarity in the 1890s.


When I click the link I have an option to simply open it with my media player. No download required (though I will archive it).


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I think there are probably a lot of cylinder collectors out there that have a few/couple dozen brown wax cylinders within their collection (like me). This is good information to share w/ this type of collector, esp in the Facebook groups.  I'll point them to this thread if I see violators, and I'll digest the options you present.  I agree, "we need to be better stewards of these records."  


Thanks! -Josh 

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To JPow - Congratulations, you have reached a leading authority on brown wax recordings via this Forum.


To Analogous - What a fantastic recording.


To your specific question - "To all - is there a way to post sound files so people don't have to download to play them (e.g., a Dropbox link)?"


 Convert your MP3, WAV, M4A or other audio format to the MP4 video format (MP4), notwithstanding you don't have video.  It will imbed and play without download, in the following example.


I use an online converter - https://www.online-convert.com/ - selecting the Video Converter Option (Convert to MP4) and upload the MP3 file for conversion.  






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Cylinders with unconventional announcements, (e.g., Light Cavalry Overture) quicken my pulse.  I want to study them and try to figure out who recorded them, who released them, what was the band, etc. so I can apply it to other recorded mysteries


So - disclosure - when I posted the Chopin Nocturne, the pixie in me was curious to see if anybody would ask, "What makes you so sure the record was made by Reed & Dawson, Mr. Smarty Pants?"


The record slip is how I knew; I got lucky!. 


"B-b-but how do you know they recorded it?  After all, they sold Issler cylinders under their names."  The clipping below is from the July, 1899 Phonoscope.  Plus, the company made the best sounding recordings of the era, including (surprise!) some of the B series Concert cylinders for Edison.







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