Information on Edison discs?
March 20, 2005 9:20 PM   Subscribe

Today, at an antique mall, I found, for $2 each, three Edison discs (also known as "Edison diamond discs"), big, thick (1/4"), 78-size records. I'm quite sure they're not valuable or anything, but I'd like to know more about them: when they were made, what the serial numbers etched into them refer to, who the artists were, etc. Does anyone know how to learn more about these things, either online or in print?

For the record (ha!), the discs are:
- Betsy Lane Shepherd: "Sleepy Little Baby of Mine" b/w Criterion Quartet: "Ole Uncle Moon" ("Edison Re-Creation" #80635-L and 80635-R)
- Frieda Hempel and the Lyric Male Quartet: "Kentucky Babe" (Edison Record #82189-R; this one has only "82189-L" stamped into a blank label on the flip side)
- Signor Lou Chiha "Friscoe": "Aloha Oe (Farewell to Thee)" b/w "Gypsy Love Song" (Edison Record # 51401-R and 51401-L)

Also, any tips on how to play these things are most welcome. I know they can't be played on a regular 78 machine, but I've heard that tweaks can be made to make 'em playable.
Basically, anything you know about these discs would be most welcome. Muchas gracias!
posted by Dr. Wu to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I believe you're wrong. does not have any of these recordings and so they may indeed be quite valuable. Contact the U.S. Library of Congress and see if they'd like to take a look at the recordings to see if they'd be interested in acquiring them for the collections.(I know Rick Prelinger, a film archivist, sold much of his collection to the LOC.) ...

The LOC may not pay a lot (or they may!), but they will at least do the transfer for you and leave you copies of the songs on a medium you can use, e.g. CD. At worst you'll just get a free transfer and a sincere thank you; at best, you'll get a handsome offer for them. The recordings are, after all, probably over 100 years old and (as far as I can tell) a previously unavailable bit of history.
posted by Tuwa at 9:34 PM on March 20, 2005

but they will at least

Insert an "I bet" there--I'd be very surprised if the LOC were not interested in acquiring the recordings.
posted by Tuwa at 9:37 PM on March 20, 2005

Do not attempt to clean them, other than blowing dust off.
posted by Dean Keaton at 9:40 PM on March 20, 2005

Response by poster: Tuwa: thanks! I hadn't thought of contacting the LOC, but it's a good idea. One thing, though: first thing I did after buying the discs was call a record-collector buddy, and he said that Edison discs are actually pretty common. He suggested I look on eBay for them, and, lo and behold, there they were. I actually think eBay is a fairly good indicator of an item's market value, and most of these discs were selling for under $10.
Which is fine - while I do want to hear these songs, I'm almost more interested in the discs as objects. A free transfer would be cool, but I'd almost rather hang onto the things. I'd sell them if they turn out to be valuable, as I could use the money. I guess I'm looking for some sort of compleat Edison catalog, indexed by rarity/value. Any ideas where to go for such a thing? Or if it even exists?
posted by Dr. Wu at 10:23 PM on March 20, 2005 has a lot of info on cylinders and early recording media.
posted by zaelic at 3:32 AM on March 21, 2005

If you want to contact Rick Prelinger directly just to chat about them, his email is on his web site and he's an incredibly nice guy and knows a lot of stuff. This site may be what you're looking for in terms of learning more about the recordings. Check the catalogues and the recording project page.
posted by jessamyn at 4:33 AM on March 21, 2005

One thing you might do is go out and buy an old gramophone to play these. Here are some links (here, here) with advice on playing your records.

Personal note: In the mid-eighties there was a record store on Mass Ave in Cambridge, MA called Stereo Jack's that had an unbelievable selection of 78s, most for $5 or so. I still have the 20-30 I bought there, including some amazing blues sides (Pinetop Perkins, Lightnin Hopkins), early rock'n'roll (Big Joe Turner, Big Mama Thornton) and various oddities from the 20s on. I'm not a collector, but I bought a ca. 1919 Victrola around the same time to play these things, and they are unbelievable fun. I love how you control the volume on the victrola: open and close the doors on the front. Congratulations on owning a piece of history! (Even if they're not worth so much)
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 6:22 AM on March 21, 2005

Funny, I'd never thought of checking ebay for them. Since they seem to be common after all, then I'm just puzzled about why the LOC doesn't have them already in their collection.

As for Prelinger: he is a very nice guy, but I hope I didn't give the wrong impression: he sold films, not recordings, to the LOC. I just meant that the LOC does buy from individuals to help fill its collection. Though Jessamyn is right; Prelinger is very knowledgeable and friendly.
posted by Tuwa at 9:31 AM on March 21, 2005

Contrary to popular belief, the Library of Congress does not collect everything published in the U.S. They have a selective collections policy.

It's a shame, because the British Library, as far as I know, does have the mission of comprehensive collection. Too bad for us Mericans again.
posted by Miko at 10:23 AM on March 21, 2005

In addition (after poking around the site) American Memory is not the complete LOC collection; it's just a digital archive of some of the works in the Library, chosen and organized by popular thematic topics. (The goal is 5 million, apparently).

Also, as with most libraries and museums, even if they wanted the discs they would not "buy it off you". That's not ethical. There's very little of that type of acquisition going on in the field; most institutions prefer to court and accept donations rather than to go shopping. If you donate, they usually ask you to get a quote from an independent appraiser, then have you donate and claim it on your taxes. When museums/libraries do acquire, the acquisition budget is always smaller than we'd like, and we do use e-Bay and reputable dealers as sources rather than wheel and deal with individuals.
posted by Miko at 10:31 AM on March 21, 2005


point taken about the online collection not being the complete collection, or even about the LOC not aiming to gather all items with potential historical significance.

But the LOC does indeed buy from individuals, and I take issue with your statement that it's unethical. I've spoken with Prelinger in meatspace, and he struck me as thoughtful and considered, and I'd never dream of impugning his ethics. Sure, the LOC would prefer a donation--who wouldn't?--but it's not required. But please tell me why buying from an individual on eBay would be any different, ethically, from buying from an individual directly?
posted by Tuwa at 1:25 PM on March 21, 2005

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone. If and when I get these things transferred, I'll burn copies for y'all. Seriously.
posted by Dr. Wu at 2:47 PM on March 21, 2005

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