Rob Morgan, Collections Database Administrator
Like many municipal museums, the BMA has a large, eclectic collection. Included within it are a few objects collected for their design, including this awesome aluminum portable record player. With the recent rise in the popularity of records and portable players, it’s an interesting time to look at the RCA Victor Special.
In this era of transient technologies, it’s surprising how long records have existed (a record being a physical object that has sound waves etched into some type of material). Records were developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with a standard of 78 revolutions per minute appearing by 1925 (records that played at 33 1/3 rpm and 45 rpm were not marketed until after WWII). Unlike the vinyl records of today, records in the 1930s were pressed on shellac. This portable phonograph was built around 1935 and plays 78s.
Designed by John Vassos, famous for his 1939 World’s Fair creations such as a TV made of translucent Lucite plastic and a console that housed a television, radio, and phonograph, this record player is typical of Art Deco design. The case of the record player is aluminum, a popular material during the Great Depression. The front of the player contains two containers, one for fresh needles, and one for used needles. The record needles of this era wore out quickly (and quickly wore out the record grooves, too). A nice touch is the mirror located on the back of the player, allowing the user to watch their record spin round and round. Notice, too, the file folders located behind the mirror. The limit for a 78 side was about 3 and a-half minutes. The folders were needed so you could store several sides/records for your trek.
Here is a link to a YouTube clip showing the RCA Victor Special in operation. Despite its reputation as portable, weighing over 20 pounds, I imagine this player was difficult to take to picnics, or on a walk. Plus, the aluminum would get pretty scratched at the beach!
BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.