Recollections of the New Jersey Phonograph Company by Victor Emerson and John Bieling

Recollections of the New Jersey Phonograph Company
By Victor Emerson and John Bieling
Introduction by Allan Sutton

 

Chartered on February 19, 1889, as a licensee of the North American Phonograph Company, Newark-based New Jersey Phonograph was one of the earliest producers of cylinder recordings for entertainment purposes. Officers at the time of its founding included George G. Frelinghuysen (president), N. M. Butler (vice-president), and William L. Smith (general manager). In 1892, Smith was replaced by Victor Hugo Emerson (later of Emerson Records fame), who also served as the company’s recording engineer.

At the time of the company’s launch, the phonograph was being marketed primarily as a dictation machine, with music an afterthought; Edison didn’t begin making musical records for sale on a regular basis until May 24, 1889. New Jersey officials, however, reported difficulties in placing the machines with businesses. In May 1890, William Smith noted that the company was encountering organized opposition from stenographers (who feared losing their jobs to a mechanical contraption), and that many business leases were not being renewed.

The company would prove to be far more successful in the nascent entertainment field. The Phonogram for June–July 1891 listed New Jersey as one of the concerns “active in the securing of musical selections,” and the company itself confirmed in 1892 that it was making original recordings. The Phonogram for December of that year devoted a full page to portraits of New Jersey Phonograph recording artists, who included Will F. Denny, George J. Gaskin, John P. Hogan, Russell Hunting, Len Spencer, and George Washington Johnson.

Following a disastrous fire in the winter of 1892, New Jersey Phonograph moved its offices and studio to more picturesque quarters in a loft above the Armour meat-packing plant at 87–89 Orange Street in Newark. Banjoist Fred Van Eps, who made his earliest known recordings there, recalled, “They had the hams and carcasses downstairs and the records upstairs.”

On February 16, 1893, New Jersey Phonograph was reorganized as the United States Phonograph Company, although it continued to advertise under the New Jersey banner well into the year. [1] Frelinghuysen and Emerson retained their positions and were soon joined by George E. Tewksbury and Simon S. Ott, who had previously been associated with the Kansas and Nebraska Phonograph companies.

Detailed histories of these and all the other North American Phonograph sub-companies, and their successors, will appear in American Record Companies and Producers, 1888–1950, coming in 2018. In the meantime, here are the recollections of two men who were there — recording engineer Emerson, and singer John Bieling.

____________

Victor Emerson
Speech at the American Graphophone Company’s 25th Anniversary Celebration (Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York – May 15, 1912)

.The real birth of the musical record business took place in New Jersey. The promoters of the enterprise, in those early days, believed the real commercial value of the phonograph or graphophone lay in its commercial features. [2] I know I was hired by a concern to take charge of the dictaphones [3] they had out at that time, and I was asked by Mr. Charles Cheever to make a report upon the subject, and take a week to do it and not to be afraid to tell the truth about the situation. I thought that with a week’s practice I would be able to tell the truth about it and make my report to Lippincott and Cheever. It was an adverse one, and I know that I lost my job the next day. [4]

I then went to work for the New Jersey Phonograph Company and, with my fair exper­ience with the dictaphone, I  thought that to keep my 15 dollars a week coming in I had better try to get them started on musical features. I was very busy “jollying” capitalists for about a week and figured it would cost about 15 dollars to try the stunt.

The Board of Directors consisted of Nicholas M. Butler (now President of Columbia College), S.S. Batten, President of the First National Bank in Newark, N.J., and George Frelinghuysen. They held a Directors’ Meeting and held that a 15 dollars risk was too great! I told them I would pay the 15 dollars if we lost. They asked me to put up the 15 dollars. I didn’t have 15 dollars, but told them they could take it out of my pay if things went wrong! That was a sure bet because. If it went wrong, I’m sure I would have lost my Job and I would have been in 15 dollars anyway!

They finally consented and I set up ten machines on Market Street, beside the Prudential Building, which they were about to tear down at that time. Just as I had finished setting up the ten machines I heard the most lovely music playing out in the street. The tune was “The Boulanger Patrol.” It was being played by a “mud-gutter band” of four pieces.

I asked the “orchestra leader” to come up in my office as I wanted to talk business with him. He had, evidently, never talked with a real businessman before and was very much embarrassed, but he finally said that he did not want to do that kind of business as he was making money in “the legitimate field” and he did not think it would be worth his while, but I told him that we were “sports,” and he could play sitting down on chairs instead of kicking the “bouquets” in the streets! And he finally said he would play for 3 dollars a day for four men.

All phonograph men are economists — if they were not, they would not be in this business, and so I “Jewed” him down to 50 cents and closed the contract! He played all day, and we made about 2,000 records. These cost us nothing because we got the “blanks,” on credit, from the Edison Works, and we never paid our bills — neither did anybody else — it was merely a habit at that time! I’m sure that the people who bought them from me never paid for them! To my knowledge, there never was a musical record sold before that time, [5] and so we held many “conflabs” and figured out what profits we had to make on those 2,000 records, consi­dering the large investment of 3 dollars!

As I said, they were about to tear down the Prudential Building and a man came over and said it would be a good scheme if I could exhibit a Phonograph over in the Prudential place. He was sure I would make some money out of it. I told him it was an expensive thing to do and he acknowledged it. But finally we rented the place at a cost of about 60 dollars. “Now,” he said, “What about records?” I told him we had some “John Philip Sousa Band” records, that we had made at a very large expense, and that we could sell them at 2 dollars, meaning 2 dollars per dozen. And he said, “All right, here is 24 dollars for twelve!” Well we sold all those records at, practically, 2 dollars and now the great question that concerned us was how to stock them.

I got the Manager to consent to give me 5 dollars of that 24 dollars and let me buy a cabinet. I went to a junk store and bought a second-hand kitchen closet. It had a nice, large, fat chop in it, which quite considerably increased the assets of the Company! At the same time gave us something to eat — if the worst came to the worst! The only other expense was 10 cents for chloride of lime; and we stocked those records. I thought it was fun to have a “Grand Concert” up in my office, and when the stock got low, I said to Mr. Smith we had better make some more. He asked “How many have you got left?” and I said “Six.” He said, “Well, gracious me, wait till we sell them all!”

The next great artist we had was George W. Johnson, the composer of “The Whist­ling Coon” and “The Laughing Song,” and I think that the phonograph companies have made more money on those two records than on any other two records in their catalogues. [6] I con­tracted with Johnson to sing at 25 cents a song and kept him busy all day and all night. But the price of whiskey went up at about that time, as you will remember, and it was the same problem then as now, you must give a man sufficient money so that he can live and have the necessities of life. So George “struck,” and I had to bow to the yoke!

Our next artist was [George] J. Gaskin. He was the leader of the Manhattan [sic: Manhansett] Quartet. He, very fortunately, broke his contract just as we were perfecting our duplicating machine. I want to say, by way of diversion, that this duplicating machine was originally invented by Frank Capps. He used to go in a shop parlor, in Chicago, borrow a record, take it home and duplicate it, and would return the other record, but in another color! That looked sus­picious to us and we traced him up, and found him climbing telegraph poles near Pretoria, Illinois! We bought him out and started him manufacturing duplicating machines for us.

But what I want to say about Gaskin is that he told me, one day, that he had a new quartet and that he was going to put it on the market and bust our business. Says he, “The very name will do it!” And I asked, “What name?” and he said, “The Mozart Quartet.” “Mozart, you know,” he added, “was a great musical “‘moke.’”

Well, gentlemen, from that beginning we ran into a business of probably 500,000 records per year in a short time, and I  would have done a large and profitable business were it not for the fact that Mr. Easton [president of the Columbia Phonograph Company] started in about that time and used to buy records from me and scooped up all my new customers with my own records. [7] The only thing that kept us alive was that the Columbia Phonograph Company actually did pay its bills and, at that time, it was about the only company that did.

____________

John Bieling
From “Reminiscences of Early Talking Machine Days” (The Talking Machine World, April 15, 1914)

Some twenty-two years ago I belonged down in the old Fourteenth Ward — born and raised there; around Spring Street and the Bowery. Four of us fellows used to “barber shop” on a Saturday night and Sunday, and by constant practice our voices blended in great shape in the real thing — good, old fashioned melodies and sentimental ballads. The quartet at that time was George J. Gaskin, Joe Riley, Walter Snow and myself. We called it the Manhansset Quartet. In 1892 we had been working together about a year, when one day Gaskin told us about a man named Emerson who was manager of a concern over in Newark, N. J., called the United States Phono Co., [8] who wanted a good quartet to make some records for him.

.

1892

.

All of us fellows worked in the day time and did our quartet work evenings. I was making stained glass windows at the time and never thought of making a regular profession of singing. Gaskin had to do some tall talking to persuade us to go over to Newark and work till all hours making these records. I assure you we were a pretty nervous quartet. The first time we went there we knew nothing of what was expected of us, but we took a chance.

Over the ferry, the train brought  us into Newark and Gaskin steered us into a loft over some meat packing house about 50 by 100 and 20 feet, littered with machine boxes and barrels in every state of shipping and handling piled up everywhere. [9]

We at last got ready to make our first record, and I assure you a funny sensation came over all of us. They had about nine horns all grouped together, each one leading to a separate machine connected with a piece of rubber hose. The operator then put the soft wax cylinders on the machines and let the recorder down and then said “All right, go ahead.” I assure you I almost forgot to sing when I heard the sizzling noise coming out of the horns. However, we got through with that round fairly well, considering our nervous state, and after that we began to make some records and they sounded pretty good. Well, that was the first time I got real money for singing and I felt like a millionaire going home that night.

We worked contentedly along these lines for about a year, in the meantime holding down my job at my trade during the day. All was serene. When — crash — someone invented a dubbing machine, which meant that they could make any amount of records from a master record, and we could see fewer engagements coming our way with this new scheme.

It certainly gave us a shock when we discovered that this new idea meant that one “master record” could be used to make duplicates until the wax wore out. This is how it was done: They built a machine with two mandrels, one under the other; on one they would put the cylinder with the song on, and on the other a blank cylinder; then start the machine and throw the sound from one to the other without the services of the quartet. It was tragic, but, like all labor-saving devices, it gave birth to a greater field of work to develop records in. Where we formerly sang the same song forty times, now we sang forty different selections, satisfying the rapidly growing market for “canned music.”

By this time our success as a quartet was quite famous, and we worked for all the record making companies then doing business. About this time, say 1895, we used to go over to Philadelphia and sing about once a month for a man named Berliner, a quiet, modest little German, who had us work in his little attic workshop and register our selections on a flat matrix…

______

[1] Not to be confused with the much later U.S. Phonograph Company (Cleveland), the manufacturers of U-S Everlasting cylinders.

[2] Emerson here is referring to the phonograph’s use as a dictating machine, rather than as entertainment device. Each use  had its advocates, who often worked at cross-purposes during this period. The Texas Phonograph Company went so far as to ban any demonstrations of the machine’s musical capabilities in its Dallas offices and show-room, for fear of driving away potential business clients. Those wishing to hear a tune (for a fee) were directed to the company’s separate phonograph gallery, in an adjacent building.

[3] This is a generic reference to phonographs intended for business dictation, rather than the actual Dictaphone machine. “Dictaphone,” with a capital “D,” was not registered as a trademark until September 1907, by Columbia.

[4] The events referred to in the opening paragraphs occurred during early-to-mid 1892. Emerson resigned from United States Phonograph (New Jersey’s successor) in January 1897 to accept a recording engineer’s position with Columbia. Several associates followed him, helping themselves to some U.S. masters on their way out.

[5] Emerson is mistaken here. Edison had been selling musical cylinders since the late spring of 1889, followed by Columbia in early 1890. The reference to “2,000 records” is to individual copies, not the number of titles recorded.

[6] A pioneering African-American recording artist, George Washington Johnson’s main recorded repertoire consisted of approximately a half-dozen songs, which he repeated for numerous companies well into the early 1900s. Although Johnson’s records were very popular, it is unlikely that sales ever approached this level, given their relative scarcity today as compared to other surviving records of the period. Unfortunately, sales figures do not exist that could prove or disprove Emerson’s claim. Johnson didn’t compose “The Whistling Coon” as Emerson states, but he recorded it so often that the song became inextricably linked to him in the public’s mind.

[7] Emerson is referring here to master recordings, which Columbia purchased and duplicated for sale under its own brand. The copying of other companies’ recordings (done legally in this case, but not always in others) was a common practice during the brown-wax era.

[8] Successor to the New Jersey Phonograph Company. At the time the Manhansett first recorded, the company was still operating under the original New Jersey name.

.

________

VICTOR EMERSON went on to serve long and well as Columbia’s chief recording engineer and a key figure in the development of the Little Wonder record. He resigned from Columbia in 1914 to launch the Emerson Phonograph Company, which despite its initial success, was bankrupt by 1921. Forced out in the reorganization that followed, Emerson retired to California, where he died on June 22, 1926.

JOHN BIELING, although he never attained any great popularity as a soloist, continued to record prolifically as a member of various studio ensembles, including the Haydn (a.k.a. Edison Male) and American (a.k.a. Premier) quartets. After experiencing throat problems in 1913, he gave up singing to work as a traveling Victor salesman, then opened his own record store. Beginning in 1946, he hosted an annual reunion of pioneer recording artists. He died on March 29, 1948.

________

Annotations ©2017 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved. The Emerson and Beiling excerpts are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced.

.

Early Columbia Cylinder Phonograph Outfits (Chicago Projecting Company, c. 1901 – 1902)

Some tantalizing ads for Columbia cylinder outfits from a rare catalog issued by the Chicago Projecting Company (225 Dearborn Street). In addition to projectors, films, stereoptions and slides, and related items, the company stocked a wide array of Columbia and and Victor merchandise.

The catalog is undated but includes Victor Monarch “pre-matrix” discs that were recorded as late as October 1901, suggesting a late 1901 or early 1902 publication. By that time, high-volume molded cylinders were beginning to enter the market, and the ear-tubes, oversized “exhibition horns,” and Concert-type cylinders offered here were on the verge of obsolescence.

One page implies that the company was making its own cylinders, picturing an unbranded cylinder and bragging that “our records…made with much greater care than the ordinary records,” while another shows a Concert-type cylinder in a special Chicago Projecting Company box (but with a Columbia lid). In fact, they were all Columbia cylinders, using Columbia’s catalog numbers.

.

 

Odds & Ends from the Recording Industry’s Infancy (1891-1893)

Sarah Bernhardt recording in Bettini’s “Phonographic Salon”
(New York, 1892)

.

Members of the United States Marine Band recording for Columbia; at least six recording machines appear to be in use, each producing a master from which copies will be transcribed for sale. (Washington DC, 1891)

.

Getting their nickel’s worth (1891)

.

A gallery of first-generation recording artists. Aside from Russell Hunting and Len Spencer (shown here as “Leon”), all retired from recording in the early 1900s, if not earlier. (1892)

.

No electricity? No problem! Just hook up this Edison water-powered model to your kitchen sink. (No running water? OK, well there’s a treadle-driven model…) (1892)

Oddball Record Updates • 1907 Mercury Record; Indestructible Dictaphone Training Cylinder

A couple of unusual special-use records that we’ve not seen before, courtesy of Tim Brooks (Mercury) and David Giovannoni (Indestructible). If anyone has other examples of these, or more information on them, we’d like to hear from you.

.

MERCURY RECORD (1907)

MSP-TB_mercury-1907

 

The Mercury Record above obviously has nothing to do with the well-known label that was founded in 1945. It was made by American Graphophone (Columbia) for the Electric Novelty and Talking Machine Company. The company exhibited telegraphic equipment at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, although it was not formally incorporated until April 4, 1905. It was chartered in Jersey City, New Jersey, by George R. Beach (a prominent bankruptcy attorney who served as a receiver in at least two phonograph-related cases), Walter P. Phillips, and Thaddeus R. McCartie.

So, what to make of the Bridgeport address? On closer investigation, Electric Novelty’s official business address (15 Exchange Place, Jersey City) turns out to have been the office of George R. Beach, an unlikely venue for this sort of operation. The consistent use of the Bridgeport address (where Columbia had its factory), and the specially customized “conditions” sticker (below), suggest that Columbia was handling all operations and fulfillment for Beach, or possibly had even closer ties to his company.

.

MSP-TB_mercury-1907B

.
Numbers embossed under the label are T503-1-1, and M-1700-1-1. Tim notes, “That’s apparently a Columbia ‘M’ number, and it falls into a blank section in Bill [Bryant]’s M-number log. Judging by other M-numbers I would date it as 1907 or 1908, around the end of the period in which M-numbers were used. It’s embossed rather than hand-written like most M-numbers. The record doesn’t seem to have been assigned a standard Columbia number of the period (which were in the 3000s). This would seem to add more weight to the theory that the M-numbers were the true matrix number during this period, and the 3000s were in fact catalog numbers assigned after the fact.”

The copyright filings below, from the Library of Congress’ Catalog of Copyright Entries for July–December 1907, mesh nicely with Tim’s 1907–1908 estimate for the Mercury label:
.

MSP_electric-novelty

At the end of 1912, the Governor of New Jersey declared Electric Novelty & Talking Machine to be in default after having failed to pay its 1910 taxes. Apparently things were resolved; the company was still listed as an active corporation in the 1914 register, and the ad above appeared in May 1915. The “Diamond Disk” notation is puzzling; clearly, this was still a Columbia-affiliated venture, based on the photo. Could there have been an Edison Diamond Disc version as well, or was that just an ad writer’s flight of fancy? (We suspect the latter, but will check our copies of the Edison files.)

 

INDESTRUCTIBLE DICTAPHONE RECORD

MSP_DGIO_ind-dictaphone

Many collectors are familiar with Edison’s Ediphone training cylinders, but this is the first such cylinder we’ve seen for the competing Dictaphone. It’s a standard 4″ celluloid Indestructible, with 150 grooves per inch (as was usual for dictating machines; standard “entertainment” cylinders were 100-gpi (two-minute) or 200-gpi (four-minute). Like this example, the first Indestructibles had raised lettering on the rim, suggesting a very early Indestructible master. However, David notes that it has “the look and feel of a late 4-minute Indestructible.” Unfortunately, it didn’t have its original box; has anybody seen one?

 

MSP_dictaphone-gerson_1908

.

The Dictaphone began life as the Columbia Commercial  Graphophone, an example of which is shown above, mounted in Gerson cabinet. The Dictaphone name was first registered as a trademark, by the Columbia Phonograph Co., Gen’l., on September 18, 1907; the first Indestructible cylinders were released a little over a month later.

The Columbia–Indestructible affiliation was cemented (for a time, anyway) in 1908, when the former bought the latter outright. There’s much more to that story, of course, which can be found in Indestructible and U-S Everlasting Cylinders: An Illustrated History and Cylinderopgraphy (Nauck & Sutton), still available from Mainspring Press while supplies last.

.

The Playlist • U-S Everlasting Cylinder Favorites (1910–1912)

cover_indestructible-x200For a detailed history of U-S Everlasting and its complete output, with 24 pages of color illustrations, be sure to check out Indestructible and U-S Everlasting Cylinders: An Illustrated History and Cylinderography, available from Mainspring Press and many major libraries.

.

GIUSEPPE PIMAZZONI: Carmen — Canzone del Toreador

662 Sixth Avenue, New York; released 1911
U-S Everlasting Grand Opera Record 21133  (4-minute cylinder)

.

VESS L. OSSMAN (banjo): St. Louis Tickle  

662 Sixth Avenue, New York; released c. January 1911
U-S Everlasting 318  (2-minute cylinder)

.

FRED VAN EPS (banjo; piano by Albert Benzler): Gondolier / Temptation Rag 

662 Sixth Avenue, New York; released c. July 1911
U-S Everlasting 1260  (4-minute cylinder)

.

CAL STEWART: Uncle Josh’s New Years Pledge

662 Sixth Avenue, New York; released late 1912
U-S Everlasting 1598 (4-minute cylinder)

.

ARTHUR COLLINS & BYRON G. HARLAN: I’m Going Back to Dixie
[a.k.a. I Want to Be in Dixie] 

662 Sixth Avenue, New York; released c. April 1911
U-S Everlasting 453 (2-minute cylinder)

.

BOB ROBERTS: Gee, But I Like Music with My Meals 

662 Sixth Avenue, New York; released Summer 1912
Lakeside 1498  (4-minute cylinder)

.


BOB ROBERTS: My Own Adopted Child 

662 Sixth Avenue, New York; released c. January 1912
Lakeside 1385  (4-minute cylinder)

.

.

The Antique Phonograph Gallery: U-S Everlasting Cylinder Phono Advertisements (1912)

Some 1912 Talking Machine World advertisements for U-S Everlasting phonographs and cylinders. U-S Phonograph’s turbulent history, and details of its complete cylinder-record output, can be found in the ARSC Award–winning Indestructible and U-S Everlasting Cylinders: An Illustrated History and Cylinderography, available from Mainspring Press and many major libraries.

MSP_u-s-everlasting_1912-co

The Vintage Phonograph Gallery • Electric-Motor Columbia Grafonola (1915)

This ad for the electric-motor Columbia Grafonola dates to 1915. Large urban areas had been wired for electricity by that time, but rural electrification wouldn’t be completed until the Great Depression. That factor, combined with the steep prices of these machines, apparently limited their sales. They’re not seen very frequently today, and when they do turn up, they’re sometimes missing their motors, some of which no doubt were “repurposed” after the machines had outlived their usefulness.

MSP_col-graf-electric-1915

 

Inside the U-S Everlasting Factory (1912)

The U-S Phonograph Company’s Cleveland factory in 1912, from The Talking Machine World. (We’ve not found any photos inside their New York studio just yet, but recently got  a lead on where some might be.)

If you’re a U-S Everlasting cylinder fan, be sure to check out Indestructible and U-S Everlasting Cylinders: An Illustrated History and Cylinderography. It’s an ARSC award-winner, available from Mainspring Press and many major libraries.

US-E_factory-1912

.