As design icons go there can be few as influential on the pop culture of the twentieth century as the portable record player. Like the radio and the television, the record player became the must have appliance from the 1950s onwards and helped facilitate the cultural revolution that was pop music. The main player and the choice of every discerning teenager in the UK during this period was the Dansette: a portable record player which was both functionally advanced and stylish. The popularity of this style phenomenon and the ensuing cultural revolution was no fluke or lucky chance, but as is usually the case, it was driven by economics and hard-nosed business acumen.
In the early days before dedicated record stores emerged, people bought their 78s and later their 45s from a small corner of their local furniture store. Most furniture stores sold radios, TVs and record players and so there grew a strange symbiotic relationship built upon sound business sense. If you sold the player and also the records then one sale promotes the other.
This curious marriage of British pop music culture being born initially out of humble furniture stores selling record players like the Dansette, set in motion a certain serendipitous event which became the catalyst that changed pop music forever.
Brian Epstein, manager of The Beatles, was the heir to just such a furniture store business and grew up in the very place that gave birth to pop music and the cultural revolution. His father Isaac Epstein had had the vision to expand the already thriving family furniture store in Liverpool to incorporate household appliances and musical instruments. On leaving college, a reluctant Brian was brought into the family business, although his preference would have been to become a dress designer. It was here though that Brian Epstein saw the potential of the sales of recorded music and the way music captured the attention and the disposable income of the young generation. His interest in this new phenomenon led him to become directly involved in the burgeoning music scene in Liverpool, and the rest is history.
In its heyday through the fifties and sixties a teenager’s bedroom without a Dansette or similar player was almost unheard of. Designed and manufactured by Margolin in London, the Dansette record player went through a variety of incarnations combining the cabinetmaking prowess and style of the Margolin family business and the innovative auto-changer manufactured by Birmingham Sound Reproducers (BSR). The models included the Senior, the Junior, the Major and the ever popular Bermuda. Dansettes were covered in bright candy coloured leatherette finishes reflecting the colours of American automobiles and pop culture of the time. The portability and the added feature of being able to stack and play multiple disks meant that the Dansette could be taken anywhere teenagers gathered and set up to play uninterrupted while people danced or swooned over the latest heart-throbs. Between 1950 and 1970 Margolin sold over one million units, facilitated by the availability of hire purchase terms. Inevitably this also fuelled the spread and development of modern discothèques.
Today with a renewed interest in old vinyl records and current artists from Adele to the Arctic Monkeys requesting their new releases be pressed on high quality vinyl, these players are now being rediscovered, refurbished and are fetching substantial amounts of money on Ebay and from specialist retailers, and giving their warm valve sound and wider tonal range to a new generation of listeners.
A fan and recent owner of a Dansette Bermuda is Caroline, owner of Oh So Retro Ltd, a vintage and retro furniture and homeware business based in Hitchin, Hertfordshire:
“I found the Dansette at a car boot sale; I didn’t really know anything about record players but I loved the look of it. I have a love of all things 1960s anyway. I bought it from its original owner who told me that when he bought it he paid an extra £1 to have the legs! I bought it for £20 and he even threw in a free record of my choosing – I chose The Beach Boys. I love the Dansette because of the sound: records have a lovelier sound, better than any cd or mp3 player in my opinion. It now sits happily in the corner of my living room and I don’t think I’ll part with it.”
So if you are keen to relive the heady days of the fifties and sixties pop experience, keep your eyes peeled for this bona-fide design classic.