The First Book of Phonograph Records

Written by Mason Vander Lugt, National Recording Preservation Board

The First Book of Phonograph Records is a founding document of the recording industry, representing a log of recordings taken at Edison’s laboratory leading up to the first sales of musical records by the North American Phonograph Company in 1889 and 1890. It is now available in a digital edition here, presented by the National Recording Preservation Board, with scans courtesy of the Thomas Edison National Historical Park and National Park Service.

When the North American Phonograph Company was incorporated in July 1888, the Edison Phonograph Works were granted an exclusive right to manufacture phonographs and accessories, and North American the exclusive right to market them. North American wouldn’t deal directly with the public, but would license exclusive territorial rights to regional sub-companies, which were formed in the fall of 1888 and spring of 1889. These licensing agreements established that the Works’ exclusive right to manufacture phonograph supplies would include “special extras”, like recordings of music [1].

North American’s first list of recordings for sale, May 1889

The first of these were sold in May 1889, in mixed lots of 6 and 12. A. Theo. E. Wangemann began logging recordings in the First Book only a few days before these were advertised, but had in fact been developing his process over the preceding year [2]. In December Thomas Lombard, North America’s vice president, urged the Works on the sub-companies’ behalf to publish a catalog of available recordings and allow them to choose what selections they would receive. The Works obliged and in mid-January of 1890, North American published the “Catalogue of Musical Phonograms for the Phonograph, First Edition[3]. Little more than a week later, on Jan. 25th, Edison announced that he would be discontinuing the Works’ recording operation, apparently upset by complaints sent by the sub-companies [4], and suggested they should begin making their own recordings.

North American’s first catalog, January 1890

Roughly the first three quarters of the First Book represent the period between the first sales in May 1889 and Edison’s suspension of recording in January 1890. It provides insight into the state of the art, from cylinder shortages and machine malfunctions, to rates of success and productivity. It gives us a sense of the repertoire, some of which you’d expect, some which seem to be performers’ specialties. It documents the first sessions of future recording stars, like Edward Issler and George Schweinfest, and gives a rare glimpse at a generation of pioneer recording artists about which unfortunately little is known or likely to be found. The remaining quarter presents scattered clues about the Works’ come-and-go recording activities in the following years – a few more recording sessions, shipments for exhibitions, orders for repairs or duplication, and other various notes.

It’s worth noting that this is not the first time the First Book has been made available to the public. Allen Koenigsberg transcribed it for Edison Cylinder Records, 1889-1912, first published in 1969. As this important work becomes rare or expensive, we hope the First Book Digital Edition will ensure this portion remains available, as there is still important work to be done in researching this period in recording history. To this day, the recording activities of the North American Phonograph Company and its affiliates are poorly understood, partially due to the complicated relationships between the companies and partly due to patchy documentation. This resource and article represent the first in a series of studies on this topic. Readers are invited to send additions or corrections to mlug@loc.gov.

At the third annual convention of the sub-companies, Lombard noted that North American had made arrangements with the New York Phonograph Company to supply records shortly after Edison’s announcement [5]. North American began their own recording operation in February of 1890, or maybe January. Two letters dated February 24, 1890 offer clues – one to Edison from his secretary A.O. Tate saying “I think the North American people have started in on music business”, and another from the Vice President of North American Thomas Lombard to the sub-companies assuring they were “arranging to increase [their] facilities for making these records”. They published three lists of available recordings that year, one each in June, August and October, which are reprinted in Edison Cylinder Records.

Several of the sub-companies took Edison’s offer to begin their own recording programs. In February 1890 the New York and Columbia Phonograph Companies published versions of the January 1890 North American catalog with additions or substitutions of their own. By the following summer the trade journal Phonogram noted “The securing of musical selections has grown to be quite an industry. It is done mainly by the Columbia Phonograph Company of Washington, D.C., the New Jersey Phonograph Company of Newark, N.J., the New York Phonograph Company and the Ohio Phonograph Company” [9]. The sub-companies role in developing the industry will be a future installment in this series of studies mentioned above, but in general, the sub-companies dominated the records market from fall 1890 until at least spring 1892.

In the meantime, Edison returned his attention to developing technologies to duplicate records, understanding that the limited scale of recording “by the round” was expensive and unnecessary. At the second annual convention of the sub-companies in June 1891, Edison invited the attendees to visit the Laboratory and Works, and proposed launching a service to duplicate their recordings. North American reluctantly agreed to permit the service in August after negotiating a royalty with Edison.

Judging from the discussion at the convention, the sub-companies were under the impression that the Works would either duplicate for a fee and return records to the sub-companies to market or that North American would sell the records and pay the sub-companies a royalty. In fact, the Works would surreptitiously acquire recordings taken by the Columbia and New England Companies and advertise them for sale [6]. The Works’ first and only catalog, published sometime in late 1891 [7], lists recordings taken at the Works between April and October (First Book pp. 180-190, 206, 208) alongside band, whistling, and recitation recordings recorded and marketed by Columbia. When Columbia and New England protested in December 1891, Samuel Insull (North American’s president) wrote to Tate that this approach was unsustainable, and requested he draft a response.

In his response, dated 1/12/92, Tate suggested they insist that the Works maintained the exclusive right to manufacture recordings, but would allow the sub-companies to continue making original (one of a kind) recordings if they would deal exclusively with the Works for duplication. The Chicago company had begun offering a duplication service at a lower rate [8]/[9], and Tate may have staged the event as a way of protecting the Works’ proposed service.

He told Insull that “The prices which now prevail are absurdly high, and the character of the records is very poor. It is only by employing an adequate method of duplication that the prices of these records can be brought down to a reasonable point, but this cannot be accomplished unless the work is concentrated in one spot, so that whoever takes it up can have the full benefit of that whole class of manufacture”.

Tate must have had an interesting evening, because the day after writing the above, he wrote to Edison proposing nearly the opposite – that the Works discontinue their recording program and duplication service (to the local companies) and enter into an agreement with independent recordist and entrepreneur Charles L. Marshall [10] to supply a large number of duplicate recordings for the New England, New York, and New Jersey coin-slot markets. Insull wrote to Edison to give his support to the idea in late January, and a draft of the proposal was written in which the Works would manufacture recordings and duplicate Marshall’s, sell them to Marshall with North American’s consent, and Marshall would distribute them across the northeast with Edison’s legal protection.

The agreement seems to have fallen through, but the concept of re-centralizing the business had stuck. Shortly after, the Works and North American would again join forces to manufacture and sell recordings, anticipating a larger consolidation of the company later that year [11]. The Works resumed recording in February, and in April, North American published “Bulletin No. 1 – The North American Phonograph Co. List of Musical Records for the Phonograph”. Advertisements in Phonogram were headed “The ‘Edison Records’ / Manufactured exclusively for this company at Orange, N.J.”.

The first catalog of North American’s “Numbered Series”, which ran April 1892 – August 1894. Image from Phonogram Vol. 2 No. 10

The first of these must have been from the recording sessions listed in the First Book, pages 192-211. After this, it’s likely that master records were taken at the North American headquarters in New York, but that duplication continued at the Works. At the annual convention in June 1892, Lombard told the sub-companies that their goal was to compete with them directly with the advantage of low-cost, high quality duplicates [12].

North American advertised heavily in 1893, including a brochure advertising phonographs for home entertainment. By March 1893, recordings were taken at a dedicated facility at 56 E. 14th Street, New York [13]. At least one surviving example – Silas Leachman’s “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow Wow” was recorded at the company’s offices in Chicago.

North American’s December 1893. The last known to the author.

A September 1893 letter from Tate to Edison gives us a rare overview of the business – the joint North American / Works recording operation had made 18,600 records and had shipped 7,100 [14]. They had 120 selections to choose from. He said that there had always been more of a demand for recordings than available supply, and estimated that the market could support 150 to 200 thousand records per year. By November the catalog showed that the number of selections had cumulatively reached more than 800. By December, 880.

Tate’s gamble seemed to have worked. North American’s recording program grew steadily, while at the fourth and final convention in September 1893, R.T. Haines, president of the New York Company complained that demand for high class records always outpaced supply and that high-quality duplication was unavailable to the sub-companies [15]. Columbia, as usual, was the major exception, having purchased Leon Douglass’ patent in June 1892.

North American’s accounting ledgers show continued recording and sales until the company’s collapse in August for reasons having little to do with the recording business [16]. Coming full-circle, the company supplemented their supply of original recordings by purchasing from the New York Phonograph Company. The August 20 “closing entries” in the ledger estimate $5,200 worth of musical records unsold.

Notes:

[1] http://edison.rutgers.edu/NamesSearch/SingleDoc.php?DocId=QP0100934 (Image 725)
[2] Patrick Feaster’s dissertation “The Following Record” provides the most detailed history I’ve found of this period. For this citation, see p. 141.
[3] https://griffonagedotcom.wordpress.com/2015/03/15/filling-in-the-gaps-some-discographic-inferences/
[4] http://edison.rutgers.edu/NamesSearch/SingleDoc.php?DocId=LB036335 (images 150-153)
[5] Transcriptions of the proceedings of each of these conventions are available on Patrick Feaster’s website here. In this instance, see page page 83 (original pagination).
[6] http://edison.rutgers.edu/NamesSearch/SingleDoc.php?DocId=D9240AAC, also “Following Record” footnote 125 (p. 231)
[7] http://edison.rutgers.edu/NamesSearch/SingleDoc.php?DocId=CA025C – the Feb. ’92 date supplied is for an order if you look carefully
[8] Regarding “available” http://edison.rutgers.edu/NamesSearch/SingleDoc.php?DocId=D9240AAB
[9] Regarding “Chicago” http://edison.rutgers.edu/NamesSearch/SingleDoc.php?DocId=D9240AAJ
[10] More on Marshall in Phonogram 1:3 p. 63
[11] In the summer of 1892 Edison and Tate would become President and Vice President of North American, respectively, and would offer a “suspension agreement” to the sub-companies in which North American would market phonographs and supplies to the public. See Ray Wile’s 2004-2005 ARSC Journal articles for details.
[12] Page 84 original
[13] Phonogram 3:3-4, p. 383. “13th St.” in Phonogram. Ledgers and journal refer to recording at 14th St.
[14] It’s unclear whether these figures are for the year or the program to date
[15] Regarding demand, p. 114, regarding duplication, p. 55
[16] See Ray Wile’s 2004-2005 ARSC Journal articles for details about North American as a business.

The “Big Tent” of the Antique Phonograph Society

Post written by George Paul, Antique Phonograph Society President and co-author of “The Talking Machine: An Illustrated Compendium”

Among those of us who have a serious interest in the history and surviving artifacts of sound recording and reproducing history, there is an elephant in the room. The diversity of collectors and academics often polarizes us into two broad groups: one which regards the other as knuckle-dragging dilettantes, and another group which regards the first as pointy-headed bores. I’d like to make the case for a “big tent” approach which includes a broad-enough scope to satisfy serious collectors/historians of our field as well as practical tips on collecting/repair/enjoyment to benefit those who don’t know a Berliner from a Brunswick. The Antique Phonograph Society is endeavoring to make this “big tent” a reality.

For the typical ARSC member (is there such a thing?), probably the most noteworthy APS achievement in this regard is the searchable online archive. The ever-expanding web site has recently obtained one-half terabyte of storage capacity from a world-class internet service provider and uploaded in excess of 15,000 pages (so far) of documents ranging from January 1890 to the present. Some of these documents consist of primary resources (period articles, original catalogs) while others are articles published in journals around the world from the 1950s to the present on a dizzying variety of topics. The APS was formed in 2011 from the merger of the Michigan Antique Phonograph Society and the California Antique Phonograph Society, and all past issues of their respective publications are included in this archive. There are modern book features by R.J. Wakeman on Brunswick and Sonora – each presenting new research, hundreds of pages in length, and copiously illustrated – as well as historical reprints, like Henry Seymour’s The Reproduction of Sound (1918) and Ogilvie Mitchell’s Talking Machines (1921). Articles are divided into “intermediate,” “advanced,” and “technical” categories to simplify browsing, and new articles and features are added regularly. Members can even view videos of presentations and a large number of interesting talking machines/records in action.

The APS’s Mission Statement and Bylaws (under the “Governance” tab on the home page) will make clear the organization’s primary thrust: education and public awareness. Our 52-page full-color quarterly journal The Antique Phonograph also demonstrates the variety of interests and depth of knowledge of our members. You can view a sample issue on the website. The full text of the journal is searchable in our archive but we’ve also prepared a subject index (for the journal only) if you prefer to browse. I think you’ll be impressed by the breadth of topics (there’s even a “records” section!).

Other APS member activities include development of the CPS1 (“Cylinder Playback System 1” – a device which can play virtually any type/size/speed cylinder record with minimal wear and wide frequency response), restoration of cylinder records, and contribution to the UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive. APS members include Grammy and Oscar winners, descendants of record label founders, jazz recording pioneers and even museums and libraries.

There will always be a wide range of folks who share our field of interest, but if the memberships of ARSC and the APS could be represented as a Venn diagram, I feel certain that a significant portion of each organization would find our interests are shared. ARSC members are encouraged to browse our web site (www.antiquephono.org) and consider joining. The online archive alone is worth the annual dues ($30 in the U.S.).

The 2016 Annual Meeting of the Antique Phonograph Society

The National Sound Library of Mexico: An Institution Beyond the Preservation of Sound Archives

Editors note: This was originally presented by Dr. Lidia Camacho at the 2006 IASA Conference in Mexico City. It was printed in the July 2007 IASA Journal (no. 29) and is reprinted here with permission. Ten years later, the Fonoteca Nacional has achieved many of these goals and remains at the cutting edge of audio scholarship and public education through an active calendar of concerts and lectures, daily and weekly podcasts, galleries and exhibitions, recording and preservation studios, online collections, regional listening centers and more. Visit their site at fonotecanacional.gob.mx

Born out of substance and raised by senses and desire, memory is the most complete and perfect of human symbolic constructs. Though generated by individuals, its essence merges with the social being and, through an efficient path of communication it manages to become part of that common heritage that lives on through generations: tradition. Without memory there is no tradition, culture, roots, or product we can call our own, since memory is for each of the five senses, and for each human being the ground on which they sit and the beginning of their reason for living.

Memory, in individual and social terms, gets deposited in innumerable external niches, and gets shaped almost without sensing the different patrimonies which, over the years, become the extremely rich heritages of peoples, nations and the world. Unfortunately, the full value of those heritage is not appreciated, and this has led to the ruin, disappearance, and oblivion of more than a few of the riches we possessed until fairly recently.

That lack of attention and care of cultural heritage has reached very high levels in Latin America, especially with regard to sound and audiovisual archives. In that respect, it should be said that in Mexico there is an urgent need for a site dedicated to preserving our national heritage of sound. It runs a very serious risk of disappearing, not just because of the fragility of the analogue media on which it is held, the technological obsolescence of the instruments capable of reproducing it, and the imminent disappearance of this analogue equipment, but above all because this country lacks the tradition of conserving this intangible patrimony.

This lack of awareness has hindered appreciation of the enormous wealth contained in a sound archive and its virtually unlimited possibilities for the most diverse uses. These range from social, political and entertainment uses, to educational and cultural ones, where its value rises, since the sounds that characterise our daily life shape our identity, differentiating us from other cultures. Clearly, if we lose this heritage, part of our deepest being will disappear forever.

In Mexico, there are public educational and cultural institutions that have begun the task of archiving sound collections resulting from radiophonic production, research and the rescue of sound and musical manifestations. This labour has been carried on more with imagination than with sufficient economic and technological resources. This is why we believe it is particularly important for the public sector to implement a decisive policy to systematise the conservation, dissemination, and physical and intellectual control of sound resources.

It is therefore vital to have the guidance of adequate State policies that base its actions on the awareness of the fragility of the sound materials, and of the impending technological obsolescence of traditional sound media and equipment. Such a State policy would encourage the creation of appropriate strategies for conserving the sound heritage of Mexico to ensure access to that part of our identity by all the Mexicans. Moreover, it should foment awareness in the educational sphere of the value of sound documents, and promote the preservation of sound archives. Mexico’s audiovisual stocks are indeed still young: the oldest – UNAM’s Film Library – was created in 1964. For their part, video libraries like those of the Directorate General of Educational Television. Channel 11, Channel 22. TV UNAM, and the National Video Library itself, are still younger authorities that have grown rapidly for reasons particular to the mission of the institution to which they belong. Strictly speaking, however, they still do not have a long-term guarantee for their conditions of preservation.

This situation places us at a clear disadvantage compared with other audio libraries around the world. However, this has begun to change as a result of fact that the Secretariat of Public Education and the National Culture Council, through Radio Educación, have formed a culture of preservation of the country’s sound patrimony and taken the first steps towards implementing that State policy I mentioned earlier.

Accordingly, almost six years ago, Radio Educación embarked on a battle in Mexico against the laxity and ignorance that was allowing one of our most valuable legacies to disappear. I believe that we have managed to plant a seed of awareness of the importance of the country’s sound and audiovisual patrimony in Mexico. The battle has been fought on various fronts: on one hand, from our studios and broadcasting cabins, with radio programmes broadcasting samples of the world’s principal resources, or promoting the culture of preservation of humanity’s patrimony of sound; on the other, with the creation of the Mexican Standard of Phonographic Documents, an indispensable tool for the work of cataloguing sound materials from Mexican institutions. Finally, with the organisation of various national and international forums, such as seminars on sound and audiovisual archives.

These actions are joined today by another, which is about to become a tangible reality: the National Sound Library, an institution that will guide the particular policies of the educational and cultural sector aimed at safeguarding the country’s sound legacy, and which is an essential part of the National Culture Plan 2001-2006 implemented by the Mexican State to govern its actions in the vast and complex field of national culture. This newly formed institution already has a building to house it: the Casa de Alvarado (so called because it was where Pedro de Alvarado, the famous captain of Hernán Cortés, lived). With a space of over seven thousand square metres, the National Sound Library will be a centre truly dedicated to sound.

The mission of the National Sound Library will be to acquire, preserve and disseminate the nation’s sound heritage, so that present and future generations will have access to Mexico’s legacy of sound, through the processes of documentation, preservation and conservation. Consequently, the resources of the National Sound Library will comprise voice, music, radio and soundscape collections, as well as the legal depositing of sound recordings published in Mexico. This institution will therefore support a great many activities beyond that of preservation of the patrimony of sound. These will turn it into a living institution, a ceaseless promoter of the culture of sound, through a wide range of activities controlled by a well-planned strategy. The National Sound Library of Mexico will organise various cultural activities in and outside its facilities. One of these will be the exhibition of artistic manifestations related to sound. This area will include the presentation of sound sculptures. as well as performances and installations using sound as the raw material of their work. The National Sound library will also organise seasons of music, and sound art concerts, for didactic purposes as much as for pure recreation. No less important will be the auditions of various artistic expressions based on sound.

Similarly, the National Sound Library of Mexico will organise rounds of conferences with educational and recreational objectives, with the aim of strengthening the culture of preservation of the sound in a pleasurable and sustained manner.

Together with these activities, research into sound and its different manifestations, and fields of study, will occupy a privileged position in the new institution. That will broaden this area of knowledge so little explored in Mexico until now.

Such research will have two main guides: science and art. The scientific research will explore not only acoustics but also the history of mentalities, socio-biology, and other related fields. Investigation in this field will be done, using firm, clear foundations, into the value of the nation’s sound heritage, and into the scope of sound ecology. At the same time, strategies will be established to enable Mexico’s soundscape to be recognised, recovered and disseminated. With regard to the aesthetic directive, the research will be aimed at inquiring into the history, prospects and scope of sound art, an aesthetic expression that has opened up the possibility of treating sound (per se, and not just musical sound) artistically, and that now has more than a century of history, with representative works now forming part of the history of universal art.

Additionally, the National Sound Library of Mexico will have an extensive and concrete programme of printed and electronic publications to enable it to disseminate both the ideas generated within our institution and those coming from outside, so as to breathe new life into our works.

Training, without doubt, occupies a special place because we feel the formation of human resources is one of the tasks vital to preserving sound archives. A national and international programme of courses, workshops, diplomas and seminars on the different fields of conservation, documentation, and preservation of sound will therefore be designed, with the consequent benefit to the people who are interested. This will help us achieve the very necessary formation of professionals in the area of documentation, conservation, restoration and digitisation. IASA will have a leading role in this programme, since its support will be essential to bringing our academic objectives to fruition. However, the National Sound Library will also have other fields enabling it to influence the national stage in Mexico. One of the most important is that of promoting artistic sound experimentation, no longer from the perspective of research, but from that of creation, to produce works of sound art with the involvement of the most distinguished representatives of this manifestation and, in turn, to disseminate much of what has been made in this field of contemporary art. In this sense, the tasks of the Artistic Sound Experimentation Laboratory (LEAS – Spanish acronym), conceived as a space for researching and investigating the possibilities of sound art, will take on particular importance. Moreover, the National Sound Library of Mexico will base part of its actions on the educational and cultural possibilities of sound collections. To do this, it will create a sound stimulation programme with educational and artistic aims directed at children. Furthermore, the educational use of the National Sound Library’s sound documents will be promoted in the classroom, with a view to encouraging an appreciation for records of musical and oral memory, and micro-history, among children and young people. In the same way, teachers will be involved in the handling of the sound, acoustic and musical medium in the classroom. Public presentations of sound collections from the National Sound Library will also be promoted.

Additionally, in order to promote the knowledge and use of its resources, the National Sound Library will have a range of access and dissemination services. These will be in various formats, making our institution an informal space for meeting, research and education based on sound.

Among the most important of these are the audio library, both on site and online; the supply of online programming designed according to demand from the various educational centres; sound experimentation workshops, and electro-acoustic and acoustic music workshops, applied to creative and communicational processes; courses on musical appreciation and radiophonic appreciation; and the exchange of resources.

No less important will be the guided tours, where visitors can have a new experience given the great wealth of sound, and where they can enjoy a marvellous sound garden of over 600 square metres.

It has taken six years of intense work on behalf of Mexico’s sound heritage. Every idea, every action, every step has been guided by passion and patience, by imagination and intelligence, but above all by a profound conviction that the conservation of sound memory is our prime commitment to future generations – those who, with other ears, will have to ask us what we did with what has always belonged to them, and what our time sounded like as well as that of bygone ages. Today, more than ever, I feel enormous satisfaction to be part of the birth of a new institution that will strengthen our national identity and at the same time enrich the world’s cultural resources.

The Fonoteca hosts sound-walks and sound-tracks (by bicycle) to encourage visitors to listen closely to their surroundings. Photo from Caminata Sonora Por el Zócalo de la Ciudad de México. Not included in original article.