A Preliminary Guide to American Zonophone Recording Dates (And What They Tell Us About Early Zonophone Operations)

American Zonophone recording dates have always been a puzzle to collectors. Aside from a portion of the 1911 ledger that somehow escaped destruction, and dates gleaned from test pressings, primary-source documentation is lacking. And because the company often waited many months or even years to release recordings, attempting to extrapolate from release dates is bound to produce false results (or “alternative facts,” as El Presidente would have it).

Fortunately, some dated Zonophone test pressings exist that provide reliable anchor-points in establishing approximate date ranges, which are shown in the table below. Keep in mind that these dates are approximate and subject to ongoing refinement, and should always be cited as “circa.” In reality, the numerical breaks would not have been as tidy as those shown here, which assume relatively consistent monthly output (more about that below). However, they should serve as a reasonably accurate guide, give-or-take a month in either direction.

These dates also mesh well with known listing and/or release dates. However, It’s important to note that Zonophone at this time assigned entirely new master numbers to remakes, and it produced a  lot of remakes. So if you find a c. December 1905 master number on a May 1904 release, the chart isn’t out-of-whack; you have a remake. Remakes are listed in detail in the data we plan to post with DAHR later this year.

 

msp_zono-mx-dates_1903-05

 

The numerical ranges reveal a great deal about the Universal Talking Machine Company’s Zonophone recording operation. From mid-1903 (when master numbers first started appearing on Zonophone pressings) through the end of 1904, the company averaged a staggering 250 masters per month — more than double Victor’s output for the same period.

This activity can be attributed in part to Zonophone’s need to play “catch-up.” In mid-1903, the company began replacing its etched-label series with new paper-labeled discs. Although some of the etched-label recordings were pressed into service to fill out the new series, many new masters would be required to essentially rebuild the Zonophone catalog from scratch. Then, in March 1904, the company was forced to withdraw its entire catalog of bogus “Victor Herbert’s Band” recordings, requiring extensive remake work throughout the spring and early summer to replace those issues with legal versions (see the previous post).

In early 1905, there was a sudden dramatic drop in recording activity. Total output that year fell to approximately 1130 masters, more in line with Victor’s output. The drop can be attributed in part to Zonophone’s decision to replace the seven- and nine-inch series with a new ten-inch line. Although the company continued to record small-diameter masters through the end of 1905 (isolated examples as late as November–December 1905 have been confirmed), output of those masters quickly fell to negligible levels. Zonophone’s new ten-inch series was limited to just 25 single-sided releases per month in the main catalog, with a smattering of additional operatic, ethnic, and twelve-inch releases from time to time.

We certainly can’t rule out Victor president Eldridge Johnson as having had a hand in the slowdown. Although the majority owner of the Universal Talking Machine Company, Johnson did not meddle in Zonophone’s artist-and-repertoire matters. But he  certainly would have had his say on business issues from the start, as can be seen in the 1904 decision to transfer Zonophone’s pressing operations from the Auburn Button Works to the Duranoid Company, Victor’s primary pressing plant at the time. From the start, Johnson made it clear that his sole motive in purchasing Universal was to rein-in a competitor — and what better way to do so than by capping its production? *

If you’re fortunate enough to own any dated American Zonophone test pressings, we’d be grateful for the information. The more data that become available, the more closely we can approximate the actual date ranges. At present, we’re working to extend the dating guide through the end of Zonophone’s independent period in 1909–1910, at which point its recording activities were transferred to the Victor studios.

— Allan Sutton

* For a myth-busting account of the Universal Talking Machine Company–Eldridge Johnson saga, be sure to check the author’s A Phonograph in Every Home: Evolution of the American Recording Industry, 1900–1919, available from Mainspring Press and many major libraries.