Brown wax cylinder (late 1880s – 1906)

Brown wax phonograph cylinders were the first mass market cylinder format, and were introduced in the late 1880s.

Early brown wax cylinder recordings would commonly wear out after they were played a few dozen times. The buyer could then use a mechanism which left their surface shaved smooth so new recordings could be made on them. The ability to record as well as play back sound was an advantage over the cheaper disc record phonographs which began to be mass marketed at the end of the 1890s.

Over the years the type of wax used was improved and hardened so that cylinders could be played over 100 times.

Most of the commercial recordings made up to the mid-1890’s were recorded directly onto the cylinder, making each cylinder unique. The first duplicates were made by connecting a playing phonograph with a recording one by the use of a rubber tube. A more practical solution was found in pantographic duplication machines, which recorded a blank more directly from the original cylinder, allowing about 100 copies to be made from a single master cylinder.

In 1902 Edison Records launched a line of improved hard wax cylinders marketed as Edison Gold Moulded Records, replacing Edison brown wax cylinders. The last commercially recorded brown wax cylinders were likely made in Europe by small labels until around 1906.

Sources / Resources

Preservation / Migration

media stability 1obsolescence 1Brown wax cylinders are very brittle and easily damaged by handling or playing. They may be suffering mould damage, or oxides or oils may have migrated to the surface, both of which will damage the playing surface.

For playback, an Automatic or Model B reproducer should be used on the phonograph. Specialist systems with lightweight pickups can be used for transcription.