Recording companies rarely ventured outside of their home studios in the early 1900s, and Edison’s National Phonograph Company was no exception. All, however, were willing to pack up their equipment to oblige major political figures. Here, Edison recording engineer Harold Voorhis recounts his 1908 trip to record William Jennings Bryan in his Nebraska home:
Top — B. A. Rolfe, the self-anointed “World’s Greatest Trumpet Virtuoso,” in the early 1900s. At that time he was fronting his own concert band, which is not known to have made recordings. (William R. Bryant papers)
Center — Rolfe demonstrating the Edison portable phonograph in 1929; the women are unidentified. (Edison National Historic Site)
Bottom — Rolfe was featured in the 1929 “Close-Up Music” advertising campaign for the new Edisonic phonographs. (William R. Bryant papers)
The Schubert Edisonic Phonograph; all pieces are dated 1929.
Courtesy of the Edison National Historic Site
Fans of late 1920s Edison records: We have just a few copies available of Ray Wile’s 1926-1929 Edison Discography. This title has been discontinued and will not
be reprinted, so order soon if interested!
BILLY MURRAY: They Start the Victrola (And Go Dancing Around the Floor)
Camden NJ: August 21, 1914 (Released: December 1914; Deleted: January 1920)
Victor 17631 (mx. B 15139 – 2)
AMERICAN QUARTET (MURRAY, lead tenor): That Fellow with the Cello Rag
Camden NJ: April 4, 1911
Victor 5844 (mx. B 9946 – 5)
BILLY MURRAY: Piano Man
New York: Listed April 1911 (Released April 25, 1911)
Edison Amberol 673 (4-minute cylinder)
BILLY MURRAY (with uncredited female chorus): Oh! That Yankiana Rag
New York: Released April 1909
Columbia A643 (mx. 4002 – 1)
All accompaniments are by studio orchestra, with uncredited conductors.
In 1920, with sales of Diamond Discs reaching an all-time high, the Edison factory found it hard to keep up with demand for the records. Paul Kasakove was hired to develop new processes that would shorten the disc production cycle. The following are his recollections, from 1964.
Particularly interesting is Kasakove’s observation that only one take was chosen for immediate issue, with the others held in reserve. This refutes the often-repeated statement that all three takes of any given Edison master were automatically issued during this period. Multiple takes were still issued during the 1920s, but with decreasing frequency as the decade progressed.
EDISON DIAMOND DISC RECORDS (HILL AND DALE) MANUFACTURING PROCESSES AS OF 1920 to 1929 FROM WAX MASTERS
TO CONDENSITE RECORDS:
Electroplating Process for Disc Record Moulds
By PAUL B. KASAKOVE (July 2, 1964)
In July 1920, I was engaged by Mr. T. A. Edison to modernize the entire process for making the nickel-faced copper moulds that were used, to press out the disc records. It was taking approximately three weeks from the time the newly recorded Wax Masters were delivered to West Orange from our New York Studio, before the first prints from the Wax Masters could be heard. As a result of the experimental work by Mr. T. A. Edison and myself, the process was changed so that the three-week period mentioned above was reduced to three days…
This improved process remained in use right up to the time the Disc Record Manufacturing Division was shut down. It may be described, as follows:
1. The Wax Masters were recorded in our New York Studio and delivered to the plant at West Orange in the evening of the same day that the recordings were made. Mr. Walter Miller, who headed our New York Studio at the time, and who lived in West Orange, would usually bring the Wax Masters in on his way home. It was the practice to make three Wax Master Recordings for each selection, and they were identified by a serial number and the letters A, B, and C.
2. On the morning following the delivery of the Wax Masters, they were turned over to the Plating Department employee who was responsible for the grafiting [sic: graphiting] operation. This grafiting process, the purpose of which was to provide the recorded face of the Wax Master with an electro conductive surface, had replaced the gold coating process, because it saved a full day’s time. At first, the grafite [sic] that was used to coat the wax was purchased: as ordinary commercial grafite, and subjected to an elaborate purification process which consisted of fusing the grafite with caustic soda, then dissolving out all the impurities, rinsing thoroughly in distilled water, with a final rinse in pure grain alcohol. Later I discovered a small company in Connecticut that specialized in making and selling grafite, purified for electroplating purposes, and I was able to buy this grafite cheaper than I could purify it myself, so we discontinued the purification process. The grafiting of the Wax Masters took only a few minutes. They were placed on & table which could be made to revolve slowly while being brushed with a very fine silk bristle brush saturated with grafite, which just barely touched the face of the Wax Master. At first My Edison was somewhat concerned that this brushing action might result in removing some of the wax, thereby causing poor reproduction. However, I was able to reassure him by letting him listen to and inspect two records of the same selection one made by the old Gold Coating Process, and one by the grafiting process described above. He was unable to see or hear any difference. When the grafiting of the Wax Masters was completed, they were brought down to the Master elating Room located just below the Grafiting Room in the same building, (22A).
3. As soon as the Grafited Wax Masters were received by the man responsible for the copper plating of the masters (Peter Dempsey), he would mount each Wax Master on a suitable, specially designed, plating holder, which permitted the master to be rotated while semi-submerged, in a Copper Plating Bath, with the electric current passing from a Copper Anode in the bath through the Copper Sulfate-Sulfuric Acid solution to the grafited face of the Wax Master, depositing a coat of copper on to the grafited face. It formerly took several days before the deposited copper was heavy enough (about .030″) to be stripped from the Wax to be used as the Copper Master. However, we were able to cut this time down to 24 hours or less. As soon as the recorded face of the Wax Master was completely covered with Copper, an operation that took about four or five hours, the Wax Master and holder, were transferred to another bath, which was a cylindrical hard rubber pot containing a more concentrated copper-plating solution, and in this bath, the Wax Master was suspended face down, and completely submerged. In the bottom of the hard rubber pot was a Copper Anode. By increasing the concentration of the Copper Sulfate solution to permit higher current densities, and by rapid circulation of the solution between the plating baths and the central storage tank, the Copper Masters were heavy enough for stripping from the Wax the following morning.
4. When the Copper Master plated to the Wax Master had reached the proper thickness, the plated Wax Master was delivered to Mr. Frank Clancy, Supervisor of the Lathe Department on the 3rd floor of Building 24. Here it was mounted on a Lathe, the outer edge turned down until the line of separation between Wax and Copper became visible, and then the Copper Master was stripped from the Wax. The Wax was returned to the Silver Lake Wax Department for remelting. The Copper Master would have a brass lug soldered in the center of the back of the mould and returned to the Plating Department.
5. In the Plating Department, the first step was to place the Copper Master face up on a turn-table of a polishing machine, so designed as to permit the turn-table to rotate, while a circular brush, fed with a rouge polishing compound rotated slowly, with the bristles in contact with the face of the Copper Master. Although this polishing operation produced a completely clean surface on the face of the Copper Master, it did not affect adversely the sound reproduction.
6. After polishing, the Copper Master was mounted on a Mould Holder, placed in an electro-cleaning bath (a Sodium Sulfate solution), for about two minutes to insure a chemically clean surface, rinsed in distilled water, and then immersed in the “8-4″ solution and rotated for about two minutes. It was then removed; rinsed again in distilled water, and placed immediately, while still wet, in the Nickel Plating Bath.
7. The Nickel Plating operation under the old process required at least ten hours to get the required thickness of coating (about 0.0004″). By increasing the density of the Nickel Plating Solution using Glacial Ascetic Acid to improve conductivity, and immersing the Copper Master in the solution face down instead of semi-submerged as was previously done, and using Nickel Shot for an anode instead of a solid cast anode, the total time required to get the desired thickness of nickel was reduced from ten hours to two hours. The Nickel Shot was contained in a hard rubber, round, tray at the bottom of the hard rubber cylindrical plating bath, and was periodically removed from the bath and washed free of the Nickel Sludge which is formed during the electroplating process. The sludge was replaced by new Nickel Shot Additional changes made to speed up the Nickel Plating consisted of raising the temperature of the Nickel Solution to about 120°F, and circulating it rapidly between a central storage tank and the individual plating baths. As a result of these various changes, we were able to reduce the plating time from ten hours to two hours. Because of the increased current density, there was a tendency occasionally toward the formation of an excess of Hydrogen gas bubbles to be released, which if allowed to settle on the face of the mould being plated would result in a series of small holes in the plating. To prevent this, we added some hydrogen peroxide, which combined with the excess Hydrogen to form water.
8. After two hours in the Nickel Plating Bath, the Copper Master was removed from the bath, rinsed quickly and thoroughly, and transferred without any delay into the Copper Plating Bath, which was also a cylindrical hard-rubber pot, with a specially designed copper anode at the bottom of the pot. The Copper Master, attached to its Mould Holder, was suspended face down in the Copper Plating Solution in this pot, and rotated rapidly with the current on. The cast copper anodes used for this high speed copper plating process were made in our own copper foundry located in the rear of Building 1, and were so designed as to permit of a maximum surface facing the cathode (master) and also to permit the Copper Sludge which was formed in the plating process to be washed to the bottom of the plating bath by the circulating copper plating solution. The copper plating solution was stored and heated in large crocks from which it was pumped and fed individually to each Copper Plating pot. Since any interruption in the electro-plating before the desired thickness of copper was obtained would spoil the mould, it was necessary to guard against such an interruption by having available at all tines an emergency source of current. This was accomplished by keeping a sufficient number of Edison Nickel-Iron Batteries in a separate room in Building 22A. These batteries were connected in such a manner as to permit of an immediate switch in the event of a power failure. The electroplating process was continuous, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I was on call at all times in the event that anything went wrong with the process.
9. On the morning following the start of the copper plating of the female to the Copper Master, the Master with its plated female was removed from the Copper Bath and its holder, washed, dried, and delivered to a room adjacent to the plating room. Here a trained lathe operator turned down the beaded copper plated edge, until the line of separation between the nickel face of the female, and the Copper Master, became visible. Then on a machine specially designed by Sam Moore for this purpose the Master and female were separated cleanly, without in any way marring the surface of either one. The time required for making a Female from a Copper Master totaled about 24 hours as compared with a minimum of three days by the old process.
10. The Nickel faced Female Mould, after stripping from the Copper Master, was sent up to Mr. Clancy on the 3rd floor of Building 24 where a brass lug was soldered to the center of the back of the mould, so that it could be screwed to the Mould Holder, and returned to the Plating Department. Here it was given a quick polish similar to that given the Copper Master, but since the Nickel face was so much tougher than the copper face on the Master, the polishing compound in this case consisted of a fine emery paste. After polishing, the female mould was put through the same cycle as the Copper Master, as described above; i.e., Electro-clean, Rinse, Rotate in “8-4″ Solution, Rinse, Nickel Plate 2 hours, rinsed and place in Copper Plating Bath until the following morning. It was then removed, the plated mould stripped from the Female, and sent up to Mr. Clancy to be finished to glass-like smoothness on the back, so it could be used to press out the male recording on its nickel face, on to the Disc Record Blanks. This was called the Working Mould, and if properly handled could print several hundred Disc Records.
11. The complete cycle as described above, from the receipt of the Wax Master Recording to the completion of the Working Mould, could be repeated as many times as necessary to print the number of records needed for sales. The Copper Master could produce about ten Females. Each Female could produce at least a dozen Working Moulds, and if by any chance something happened that would interfere with the completion of the number of moulds needed, it was always possible to start with one of the other two Wax Masters kept in the Vault for emergencies.
12. All three Wax Masters on a given selection were put through the above cycle so that at least one print from each Master could be listened to by our Music Committee, of which Mr. Thomas A. Edison was a member, and this Committee chose one of the three for production. However, to insure that nothing happened that would cause any deterioration with the face of the Copper Masters, I arranged that after they were no longer needed for immediate use, they were put through the plating cycle again, but were not separated from the plated female. The Copper Masters with the female mould plated to them for protection were stored in the Vault for possible future use and safe keeping.
These photos (courtesy of the Edison National Historic Site) were taken in 1929–1930, after Edison had suspended commercial recording operations, and offer a last glimpse of the Columbia Street studio in Orange, New Jersey. The industrial appearance stands in stark contrast to Edison’s bright, well-furnished New York studios, where virtually all of the commercial recording was done. Columbia Street was used primarily for experimental, dubbing, and (in the final years) radio transcription work.
(Middle) Studio chimes, with organ pipes visible behind.
(Bottom) The electrical-recording set-up. Note the massive array of batteries under the right-hand table; Edison stubbornly clung to direct current in the studio, decades after alternating current had become standard. The cutting lathe can be seen in the upper left. Insurance papers on files at ENHS reveal that Edison was using RCA Photophone equipment; the company never developed a viable electrical-recording system on its own.
Here’s one of the strangest artifacts in the ENHS disc collection — an Edison electric lateral-cut master pressed by Edison, with a Brunswick label. The recording is “King for a Day,” and shows mx. number 507, according to the ENHS description. It was assigned catalog number 11018-L, which was not used commercially, although it was issued as an Edison sample record.
The likely explanation can be found in an undated memo (probably from the week of October 14, 1929) by Walter Miller and A. J. Clark, by which time Edison was preparing to close its Phonograph Division:
“Disposition of Master Moulds”
“Contact Messrs Buchanan and Schell to ascertain moulds to be retained for [Henry Ford] Museum purposes and after setting these aside, Mr. Miller will endeavor to sell needle type [lateral-cut] moulds to other companies, provided this can be done without obligation on our part to artists who recorded such records.All moulds not thus sold and those not required for Museum are to be sold thru Mr. A. J. Clark.”
Based on this unique hybrid pressing, it appears that Brunswick might have considered a buyout of the lateral-cut masters. If so, nothing came of it; no commercially issued Brunswick disc has ever been reliably reported using Edison masters.
Below is Cecil Arden’s 1920 agreement to perform in Edison Tone Tests, those popular staged events in which the audience was challenged to distinguish live from recorded performances. For a decade they proved to be an extremely effective marketing gimmick, while providing some extra income and exposure for Edison’s artists.
The ad at the bottom may be a bit of weasel-wording. Although there’s no way of knowing if the statement is true for this particular 1915 Tone Test, the Edison files contain details of recordings and pressings that were made exclusively for use in the Tone Tests. We also know, from Vernon Dalhart’s correspondence with company officials, that artists were given specially modified reproducers that they were to substitute for the regular production models at the Tone Tests.
The full story of the Tone Tests can be found in A Phonograph in Every Home: Evolution of the American Recording Industry, 1900–1919, available from Mainspring Press and many major libraries.
Here we have Billy Murray’s 1909 Victor contract, which restricted his services to the Victor Talking Machine and National Phonograph (Edison) companies. Original sets of Murray’s Victor contracts were photocopied on several occasions many years ago, and those copies have been circulating among researchers since at least the late 1960s. This one was found among Bill Bryant’s papers, along with other important Murray-related paperwork.
Note that this was not a joint contract with Edison (i.e., a single contract binding all parties under identical terms), as has often been stated. The Victor and Edison contracts were entirely separate agreements, signed on different dates and containing distinctly different terms.
For more on Murray’s Victor contracts (including the 1920 exclusive contract and various amendments), and their historical significance, see “Billy Murray’s Recording Contracts: A Case Study” on the Mainspring Press website.
Discographical details of Murray’s Victor recording, compiled from the original files, can be found in Fagan & Moran’s Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings (through 1908) and John Bolig’s Victor Black Label Discography Series (from 1908).
Among the many oddities from the last years of Edison’s phonograph operations are the Slogan-Reproducing Machine records, samples of which survive at the Edison National Historic Site. The records apparently were intended to play a message when an item was purchased from a vending machine. They are 10″ vertical-cut discs, with an extremely wide groove-pitch of 17 turns-per-inch, recorded at 24-rpm.
The discs were recorded in 1929 and were probably the last ever made by studio veteran Edward Meeker, who had begun his career with Edison more than two decades earlier, initially as a cylinder-record announcer.
Each disc contains one or more short spoken messages — “Thank you—Hershey’s for health”; “Thank you—You’ll like all Beechnut products”; “Thank you—Have you tried our French pastry?”; “Buy Jake’s Vienna products—Thank you”; “Remember Sam’s Diner—Thank you”; and “The little piggy thanks you,” among others.
For full details on these and many other obscure late Edison recordings (radio transcriptions, low-speed discs, Selectatune multi-track discs, even experimental dubbbings of Victor records), be sure to check out Ray Wile’s Edison Discography: The Final Years, 1926-1929, available from Mainspring Press (limited quantities left — order soon!) and many major libraries.
These Edison artist photos are courtesy of the Edison National Historic Site, and are in the public domain. The first three are autographed to John Loesch, a staffer at Edison’s New York studio. From top to bottom:
WESTELL GORDON (December 28, 1927) — Gordon has sometimes been misidentified as a pseudonym, but he was actually a popular radio star and performer at the Capitol Theater in New York whose recordings spanned high-end (Edison) to low-end (Grey Gull) labels.
ERNEST DAVIS (February 24, 1926) — It’s also been claimed that Davis was a pseudonym, although there’s some basis in this case (his name was used in error for other artists on a few minor-label issues in the early 1920s).
VAUGHN De LEATH (July 28, 1929) — De Leath, like so many other Edison artists of this period, also recorded prolifically for the dime-store labels, under a staggering array of pseudonyms; the latest confirmed discoveries will appear in the upcoming expanded edition of Pseudonyms on American Records.
B. A. ROLFE (1929) — Edison’s answer to Paul Whiteman, Mr. Rolfe is shown demonstrating the new Edison portable phonograph to three unidentified women. The portables were contracted from an outside maunfacturer and were not actual Edison products.
For discographical details of Edison records by these artists, from the original Edison files, check out Ray Wile’s Edison Discography: The Final Years, 1926–1929, available from Mainspring Press (limited quantities — order soon!) and many major libraries.
CAL STEWART: Fourth of July at Pumpkin Center
New York (Knickerbocker Building); Released June 25, 1912
Edison Amberol Cylinder 734
CAL STEWART: Uncle Josh at the Bug House
New York; Released July 1907
Columbia 3667 (take -3)
UNKNOWN SPEAKER: Uncle Josh Weathersby at the Opera
Probably New York, late 1890s
Unbranded brown-wax cylinder
This “mystery” cylinder is probably by a Stewart imitator, based on the aural evidence. (Such subterfuges weren’t uncommon; Leeds & Catlin issued bogus “Uncle Josh” discs by Andrew Keefe as late as 1907.) This early reading deviates significantly from the version published in Uncle Josh Weathersby’s “Punkin Centre” Stories (1903):
We get a lot of requests for Thomas Edison’s unissued personal recording of “The Liver Complaint Story,” so here it is. Walter Miller, whom Edison addresses at the beginning, was largely responsible for recording operations right up until the end in 1929. Note the muffled laughter at the conclusion.
THOMAS EDISON: The Liver Complaint Story
Location and date unknown
Edison two-minute wax cylinder (Unissued; Edison National Historic Site Collection, National Park Service)
Some more ads from National Phonograph’s million-dollar marketing blitz of 1907–1908, which employed some of the top illustrators of the period. These appeared (top to bottom) in the Edison Phonograph Monthly for February, March, and May 1908, and ran in the major national magazines. What a contrast to the early 1920s, when Edison himself quashed funding for most national advertising (details in Recording the ‘Twenties)!
BILLY MURRAY & WALTER VAN BRUNT (as WALTER SCANLAN): Brunswick Brevities Program U, Part 5 (“Shut the Door”)
New York: c. December 1929
Brunswick Special — (mx. XE-31655-A)
A large part of Brunswick’s business in the late 1920s and early 1930s was the production of packaged radio programs, including the company’s own “Brunswick Brevities.” Some of the “Brevities” masters were produced by combining dubs from existing recordings with spoken announcements to suggest live studio broadcasts. We don’t know if that was the case here, since the relevant parts of the 1929 Brunswick ledgers are missing. However, Murray and Van Brunt recorded two takes of this title in November 1929 (takes -A and the oddly designated -AA), one of which was issued on Brunswick 4611.
BILLY MURRAY with B. A. ROLFE’S ORCHESTRA:
Doin’ the Raccoon
Edison experimental mx. 185 (30-rpm 12″ disc)
New York: February 11, 1929 (Aircheck from WJZ broadcast)
The “Edison Hour” broadcast for February 11, 1929, celebrated the birthday of Thomas Edison, who spoke briefly by relay from his home in Florida. The broadcast was captured as an aircheck by the Edison engineers, and pressings were made, some of which survive at ENHS. At least one copy has found its way into a private collection.
Murray previously recorded this selection for commercial release by Edison — in an initial version with the studio orchestra under Irwin Schloss, which was rejected, followed by an issued version with much jazzier accompaniment than here, by the Seven Blue Babies (a California Ramblers unit).
The speed fluctuations are a defect in the low-speed transcription, as are the occasional ominous rumblings — the latter the result of a power tube that “went Democratic,” in the words of the Edison employee who logged the recording. For complete discographical details of all late Edison commercial and experimental recordings, see The Edison Discography: The Final Years, 1926-1929, available from Mainspring Press and many major libratries.