Furniture Detective: Victrola clones playing to collector interest


I have taken the liberty of answering two questions at once since the answers for each vary only by the name of the record player involved:

I have a client who is in possession of a Starr record player. Can you provide any further information, such as history, style, value, etc.?

— R.H.

Enclosed is a photo of a floor model record player that has no identification except the dates on the playing mechanism, June 18, 1912, and November 20, 1915. This player was sold by N. H. Swanson, 69 Division Ave. S., Grand Rapids, Michigan. There are some sayings on it that read “SONOR _ CLEAR AS A BELL” and “THE HOUSE WITH A CLEAN RECORD.”

Any information you have about this player will be appreciated: make, model, age, value or original price.

— J.C.

A Both of these machines are known as Victrola clones from the early part of the 20th century. Emile Berliner patented the original disc record player called the Gramophone in 1895 to compete with the cylinder players of the day. The advantages of the disc player over the cylinder models were increased volume and longer playing time.

Few companies managed to compete with Gramophone in the early years. Victor was one of them, and Pathephone in Europe was another. Internal horn machines appeared in 1906 and the old, odd looking talking machine with the top mounted horn was gone very quickly.

Starr disc player

This Starr disc player is a Victrola clone made by Starr Piano Company of Richmond, Indiana. (Photo courtesy Fred Taylor)

Berliner’s original patents expired in 1912 and the competitive race was on even though Victor owned some 229 additional patents related to the production of the players and the discs. Most importantly, Victor owned the patent to the lateral cut record making process and that patent would not expire until 1919.

A number of companies still tried to compete with Victor in 1912 but none were successful except Edison, who introduced a different method of cutting discs. By 1914, the real competition arrived in the form of Cheney (bankrolled by department store mogul Marshall Field), Aeolian (the maker of Aeolian pianos) and Sonora.

Sonora Phonograph Sales Co. was the successor to the Sonora Chime Co., a manufacturer of church bells and chimes. The “SONOR_” inscription on the second machine mentioned above actually should read “SONORA” and its motto, “CLEAR AS A BELL,” was a reference to the parent company’s former business.

In 1919, Sonora opened an assembly plant in Saginaw, Michigan, where Herzog Furniture Co., the maker of its cabinets, had a factory. Most other cabinets for talking machines were made in Grand Rapids by other major furniture manufacturers, including Berkey & Gay, who made cabinets for Cheney.

Between 1916 and 1920 more than 260 companies entered the phonograph business, including Starr. Like many musically oriented companies, Starr Piano Co., a maker of pianos in Richmond, Indiana, felt confident it could compete in the industry, and for a short time it did, enjoying a national distribution.

Starr’s slogan was “The Singing Throat,” referring to its sound horn, which was made of silver grain spruce, called “the music wood of centuries” by the company. But attrition was swift and brutal.

By the mid-1920s, overproduction had driven many companies out of the market and radio was beginning to take a big bite out of home entertainment money.

Talking Machine book

Published by Schiffer, available at Amazon

Both of the disc players in question are standard floor models from the early 1920s. In good working condition they have a market value of around $300.

Operating manuals for both the Starr and the Sonora are available for viewing online at

An excellent source for additional reading on old phonographs, even though it is a bit pricey from Amazon, is “The Talking Machine: An Illustrated Compendium” by Tim Fabrizio and George Paul (Schiffer Books, 2005).