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Belfer Cylinders Collection

A description of the collection at Syracuse University

Overview of the Collection

Title: Belfer Cylinders Collection
Inclusive Dates: 1890-1929
Quantity: 19,750 items.
Abstract: Collection of early recorded music on commercially released 2-, 3- and 4-minute wax cylinders of standard diameter. The collection also includes small diameter to large diameter concert series cylinders as well as home recordings. Recordings cover a broad spectrum: classical, musical theatre, operetta, ballads, patriotic, dance band music, jazz and blues, ethnic and foreign language, religious, military marches, comedy, opera, children’s music songs and spoken word, country, vaudeville skits, speeches, instructional systems, foreign languages, office skills and test recordings. Also, more than 600 cylinder inserts.
Language: Majority is in English; other languages represented include Portuguese, Italian, French, German, Spanish, Croatian, Russian, Ukrainian, Welsh, Yiddish and Navajo.
Repository: Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries
222 Waverly Avenue
Syracuse, NY 13244-2010

Biographical History

Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. Initial efforts to record to foil cylinders proved unworkable, and shortly thereafter he developed and licensed wax cylinders which became the earliest commercial medium for recording and reproducing sound. Wax cylinders were mass marketed beginning in approximately 1880 and reached their heyday circa 1888-1915. Early cylinder machines could record as well as play, so the cylinders were also a medium for amateur or personal recording. Companies manufacturing the cylinders included American Gramophone Company, Edison Records, and Columbia Phonograph. In 1906 a more long-lasting medium was developed: phenolic resin, an early relative of Bakelite, marketed as "indestructible." This new format rapidly superseded wax cylinders due to its resistance to damage, and cylinders were no longer commercially manufactured after about 1929.

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Scope and Contents of the Collection

Sample insert from Edison cylinder The Belfer Cylinders Collection is one of the largest outside the Library of Congress, with more than 19,000 cylinders representing 11,971 unique songs (in some cases, the collection contains different takes of the same song). The collection currently houses 16,500 Edison cylinders which represents one half of the total output of Edison Cylinders beginning with the brown wax series of 1896-1901 through Edison Blue Amberol, Edison Royal Purple Amberol to Gold Moulded Amberols. The Cylinder collection is rich in 19th and early 20th Century American popular songs, foreign language songs and Yiddish songs, spoken word drama, vaudeville, humorous monologues and speeches. Numerous presidential speeches given between 1908 and 1912 are represented as well as early children’s’ stories and books-on-cylinder.

The collection also includes 626 cylinder inserts, under call number Belfer ML156.2.

Recently, thanks in part to a grant from the Delmas Foundation, the University began digitizing their cylinder collection. As of 2010, more than 1400 recordings are available online through the Belfer Cylinders Digital Connection.

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Arrangement of the Collection

Cylinders are arranged by company name then by cylinder number. All of the cylinders have been cataloged; please refer to the Classic Catalog to search for cataloged items.

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Access Restrictions

The majority of our archival and manuscript collections are housed offsite and require advanced notice for retrieval. Researchers are encouraged to contact us in advance concerning the collection material they wish to access for their research.

Access to non-digitized cylinders requires advance notice to create a working copy.

Use Restrictions

Written permission must be obtained from SCRC and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

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Subject Headings


Edison, Thomas A. (Thomas Alva), 1847-1931.


Band music.
Big band music.
Cakewalk (Dance)
Christmas music.
Christmas stories.
Country music.
Dance orchestras.
English language -- Study and teaching.
Fiddle tunes.
French language -- Study and teaching.
German language -- Study and teaching.
German wit and humor.
Humorous recitations.
Irish wit and humor.
Italian language -- Study and teaching.
Italian wit and humor.
Jewish wit and humor.
Minstrel music.
Minstrel shows.
National songs.
Old-time music.
Orchestral music.
Patriotic music.
Personal recordings.
Popular music -- United States -- 19th century.
Popular music -- United States -- 20th century.
Prohibition -- Songs and music.
Ragtime music.
Sacred music.
Scottish wit and humor.
Songs, Hawaiian.
Spanish language -- Study and teaching.
Spanish-American War, 1898 -- Songs and music.
Speeches, addresses, etc.
Spirituals (Songs)
String quartets.
Transportation -- Songs and music.
Vaudeville -- United States.
Vaudeville songs.
Vocal duets.
Vocal quartets.
Whistling music.
World War, 1914-1918 -- Songs and music.


United States -- History -- Civil War, 1861-1865 -- Songs and music.

Genres and Forms

Cylinders (sound recordings)
Sound recordings.

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Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

Belfer Cylinder Collection,
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

Acquisition Information

Purchase and gift, various sources, various dates.

Finding Aid Information

Created by: MRC
Date: 20 May 2011
Revision history:

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Note on alternate formats:

Many of the cylinders have been digitized and are available online through the Belfer Cylinders Digital Connection.

The entire cylinder collection has been cataloged. Please refer to the Classic Catalog to locate items, or to the Belfer Cylinders Digital Connection for digitized versions.

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