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Dusty boxes of 78s

Killing time silently with 100+ year-old recordings


The rusting garage door creaks up and the Spring sun alights on piles of records in dusty, dog-eared sleeves piled high on battered cardboard boxes.


With zero knowledge of 78s, no way of playing them and no obligation to buy there's a refreshing freedom in just slowly looking through them accompanied only by an original soundtrack of afternoon birdsong.


Aside from poring over the wealth of superb designs on the labels and sleeves there are song titles to smile at, long-forgotten artists to ponder about and a wealth of other curious details.


The earliest recordings here are from 1904 and the latest ones are dated 1956. A span of 52 years may sound like a long stretch but it's no different from a collector today owning records that were released in 1960 through to records released in 2012.


None of the very early 78s here have dates on but I found an old and heavy file containing a complete run of purple Imperial Record 78s in immaculate condition with a typed list stating the year of their origin. The previous owner of this collection had just started to painstakingly list everything he had. Some 78s pictured here could be older but this is the earliest confirmed date to be found.





Sleeves and labels

Spanning at least 52 years the sleeves and label designs in this collection cover a lot of artistic ground.


The purple and white Columbia bag (below; 4th row down) with it's pen and ink illustration of teenagers listening to records is very well-known having been appropriated by The Clash and several other bands.


The fetching duck egg blue, black and gold Genuine Edison Bell Record / Bell Disc 78 (above; 4th row down) must classify as a very early example of a library record.


Would anyone back in the day really have purchased a song entitled 2391: Descriptive Selection: Fire Alarm:? For radio use surely unless this collector was a very early cut n'paste artiste looking for sound effects? The other side is 2324: Descriptive Selection: The Departure Of A Troopship.


The Co-Op Fruit and Vegetable sleeve (below; 4th row down) containing a Columbia 78 was deceiving until the crudely cut centre hole revealed it as an early example of a home-made sleeve. It's probably one of very few Co-Op Fruit and Vegetable bags still in existence but that hole puts a serious dent in its value.


The winner of the stand-out sleeve of the day title must go to the Elite-Special one shown below. The design may not have been borrowed yet but give it time.


With echoes of Kraftwerk meets the Residents it's crying out to be re-used as a flyer for an alternative disco night.






Artists and titles

More recent and better known names in this collection include Frankie Vaughn,Humphrey Lyttleton, Billy Cotton and Artie Shaw.


On the rear of the Parlophone sleeve shown below is a long list of artistes whose names will be unfamiliar now to all except the most hardened opera or light comedy buffs or members of the population over 70 years of age.


Names like Lotte Lehmann, Nino Vallin, Lauritz Melchoir, Conchita Supervia, Elsie and Doris Waters, Ann Suter and Eide Norena may not arise in many record collector conversations today but they are all still Googleable. Providing sunspots and solar flares don't mess things up the internet may usefully preserve artists from every generation forever.


Sifting through so many unfamiliar names on such an old format accompanied only by the sound of birdsong felt a bit like meandering through an old graveyard examining names on headstones. Looking at these it hits home what a transient thing 'celebrity' really is.


Master Joe Peterson certainly had a subtitle and a half to live up to when his agent added The Phenomenal Boy Singer to his title.


Mr Ben Redford is polite-sounding enough and presumably sang Ooh Timothy Let's Have a Look without smirking. Here's hoping he also kept himself in check when singing the other side of the record called Has Anybody Seen My Tiddler It's a certainty that nobody at the Arrow Record company saw either his tiddler or the question mark missing from the title.





Sleeve advertising

The person who collected these was either well-travelled or bought imports.


Many names and addresses advertising shops on the generic sleeves are from areas in and around London. Harringay, Shoreditch, Braintree in Essex to name just three. There are also sleeves from Kingsleys in Nottingham, Foster Powell in Milford Haven; Sittingbourne in Kent and from Lune Street in Preston (not shown)


From overseas there are 78s and sleeves from Sweden, Belgium and Germany. Were there UK 78 stockists who imported recordings from overseas? There were definitely stockists who ran other lines.


Foster Powell from Milford Haven had their sales pitch locked down tight on their own 78 sleeves. Gramophones and Latest Records is loud and clear but to the right a blurb reveals Largest Selection of Toys in the District and below it states Cycles and Accessories, Repairs a Speciality and for good measure Fishing Tackle.


A Saturday afternoon in the company of these records was an unexpected pleasure and if I can just persuade the ever-hospitable Julian to fire up his gramophone on my next visit I'll return to this site with soundclips.


Oh Timothy Let's Have a Look could well be a long-lost Toytown psych banger.




Ian Townsend: April 2012

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