The Collection and Exhibit
The Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound at the New York Library for the Performing Arts currently houses a collection of more than 3,000 wax and celluloid cylinders. These cylinders range from very early, non-commercial, white and brown wax cylinders, to commercial moulded black wax cylinders, to Indestructible moulded celluloid cylinders and, finally, to the later Edison Blue Amberol celluloid cylinders.
The collection is comprised of cylinders produced by American manufacturers such as Edison National Phonograph Company, Columbia Phonograph Company, Indestructible Phonographic Record Company and the U.S. Phonograph Company, but also includes cylinders produced by French manufacturers, Pathe and Lioret.
Currently an exhibit featuring 11 cylinders from the RHA's collection, along with related print ephemera and catalog supplements, is on display on the third floor of the Library for Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. Audio from each of the featured cylinders has been digitized using NYPL's Archeophone. Digital copies are available for listening by request at the A/V Playback Assistance desk on the third floor.
Acoustic Recording and Early Cylinders
The 11 cylinders selected for the exhibit were likely manufactured between 1890 and 1926 and were recorded acoustically, or without the use of electricity. Encyclopedia of Recorded Sound describes acoustic recording as, "The method of recording in which all energy comes from the sound waves themselves [...] Sounds to be recorded were sung, played, or spoken into a horn, which activated a diaphragm attached to a stylus. This stylus transferred the vibration patterns on the surface of a cylinder or a disc." This recording method was first employed by early disc and cylinder manufacturers, Emile Berliner and Thomas A. Edison. In 1877, Edison invented the Tinfoil Phonograph which could be used to acoustically capture and playback a recording made on, or impressed upon, a piece of tinfoil wrapped around a brass drum; an early incarnation of what would later become the wax cylinder, the first commercially successful audio format.
Featured Cylinders from the Collection:
Brown Wax Cylinder: "Village Orchestra" Issler's Orchestra (ca 1890-1900); 2-minute brown wax cylinder; Consolidated Record #5452; Consolidated Phonograph Co., Ltd.; Newark, N.J.
Edison's earliest wax cylinders, or "white wax cylinders," were manufactured around 1887 and made from a blend of plant and animal waxes. The Edison Company later switched to a standardized metallic soap composite for their two-minute brown wax cylinders, which were produced until 1902.
Lioret Cylinder: "Il Pluet Bergire" unknown (ca 1895); 30-second celluloid cylinder; Phonographe Systèm Lioret; France
By 1893, Henri Jules Lioret of Paris had already pioneered the celluloid-based cylinder, the most durable of all cylinder mediums. Following Lioret, The Lambert Company of Chicago introduced celluloid-based cylinders to the American market as early as 1900. Edison, however, did not release his celluloid-based cylinders, known as Blue Amberol Cylinders, until 1912.
Edison Gold-Moulded Cylinder: "The Philippines" Non-musical sound recording William H. Taft (1908); 2-minute wax cylinder; Edison Gold-Moulded Cylinder #10003; National Phonograph Co., Orange, N.J.
After 1902, Edison developed the Gold Moulded process, which greatly improved the efficiency of wax cylinder duplication and further contributed to the cylinder's commercial success.
Columbia "Twentieth Century" 6-inch Cylinder: "I Pagliacci, Prologo" Italian - Baritone Solo (ca 1905-1908); 3.5-minute wax cylinder; Columbia #85007; Columbia Phonograph Co., Gen'l
Known as Twentieth Century Talking Machine Record cylinders, Columbia 6-inch cylinders could play for approximately 3-3.5 minutes, longer than the standard 4-inch cylinder of the time, due to their length. Approximately 187 were issued between 1905 and 1909.
Indestructible Cylinder: "Chimmie & Maggie At The Table D'Hote Dinner" Ada Jones & Len Spencer (1908); 2-minute celluloid cylinder; Columbia Indestructible Record #849; Indestructible Phonographic Record Co., Albany, N.Y.
Indestructible Phonograph Cylinder (Oxford): "I Never Knew I Loved You Till You Said Good-Bye" H. Ellis (1909); 2-minute celluloid cylinder; Indestructible Phonograph Cylinder #1191 (Oxford); Indestructible Phonographic Record Co., Albany, N.Y.
Celluloid-based cylinders marketed as "Indestructible" records were produced primarily by the Indestructible Phonograph Co. of Albany, New York from 1907 through the 1920s. "Indestructibles," made of moulded black celluloid, were commonly sold under the Oxford label in department stores such as Sears Roebuck and Co.
U.S. Everlasting Cylinder: "They Always Pick on Me" Miss Mabel L. Howard (1909); 4-minute celluloid cylinder; U.S. Everlasting Cylinder #1247; U.S. Phonograph Co., Cleveland, Ohio U.S.
Everlasting Cylinders, black celluloid-based cylinders with a thick paper-mâché core, were produced from 1908 to 1912 by the U.S. Phonograph Company. They were distributed under the U.S. Everlasting label, as well as the "Lakeside" label for Montgomery Ward department stores.
Edison Amberol Cylinder: "On San Francisco Bay" Billy Murray and Chorus (1911); 4-minute wax cylinder; Edison Amberol Cylinder #4M-703; National Phonograph Co., Orange, N.J.
Amberol cylinders, introduced by Edison in 1908, like earlier Gold Moulded cylinders were also made of black wax, but could play up to 4-minutes as opposed to the standard 2-minutes of the time.
Edison Royal Purple Amberol Cylinder: "Eviva la Francia" ("Daughter of the Regiment" G. Donizetti) Frieda Hempel (1919); 4-minute celluloid cylinder; Edison Royal Purple Amberol #29034; Edison, Orange, N.J.
Royal Purple Amberols, essentially Edison Blue Amberols dyed purple, were marketed by Edison as "higher-end" recordings and featured classical and operatic selections. In total, 77 Royal Purple Amberols were issued between 1918 and 1921.
Edison Blue Amberol Cylinders: "Don't Let the Deal Go Down" Vernon Dalhart (ca 1920s); 4-minute celluloid cylinder; Edison Blue Amberol #5260; Thomas A. Edison Inc., Orange, N.J.
"When the Work's All Done This Fall" Ernest V. Stoneman (1926); 4-minute celluloid cylinder; Edison Blue Amberol #5188; Edison Blue Amberol; Orange, N.J.
First manufactured in 1912, Edison's celluloid-based Blue Amberol cylinders were the last of the cylinder format in production, with manufacturing finally ceasing in October of 1928.
Edison originally imagined that the cylinder would find its primary success as a dictation format. Instead, cylinders became the first commercially successful recorded sound format, bringing popular songs, vaudeville sketches, opera and other recordings into homes for the first time. Never before did people have the ability to capture live sound and then play it back again — over and over. Cylinders and home phonograph players were the first audio format and playback technology to revolutionize the way people experienced, listened to and accessed recorded sound.
For more information on the history and development of cylinder recordings, visit tinfoil.com and the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project at UCSB, which also features a collection of over 8,000 digitized cylinder recordings.