“Discontinuing the Record Business”: Documents from the Final Days of Edison Record Production

The following documents from Blue Folder No. 40 (Edison National Historic Site, West Orange, NJ) offer a revealing, behind-the-scenes look at operations, record sales, and disposition of masters and surplus inventory during the final days of Edison’s Phonograph Division.

Subject: Discontinuing the Record Business

Arthur Walsh to Charles Edison
(October 12, 1929)

On or about 1912 the Edison Industries began to manufacture and sell the disc type of record and from that date to this, as far as I can estimate, it has always been a losing business. Without going too far back into history, I have looked over the financial statements of the past five years. The five years show a loss on account of records, as follows:

Statement of net book loss on disc records according to the financial statements during the past five years:

1924: $150,477
1925: $102,345
1926: $367,443
1927: $322,228
1928: $390,535
Total: $1,332,928

In 1929 the estimated net book loss will exceed $500,000….

In July 1929 we announced the Edison Lateral Cut Record, which was ultimately to supersede the Hill & Dale Record, previously sold. At the present time we are making both types. The sales in September ran 29,766 for Lateral Cut and 8,479 for Hill and Dale.

Below an attempt has been made to recapitulate the advantages and disadvantages of continuing in the record business…


1. Help to sell more [radio-phonograph] Combinations.
2. Possible idle equipment and plant.
3. Keeping faith with old owners.
4. Avoid possible embarrassment to trade in discontinuing project just started [lateral-cut discs], which might cause trade to feel we might cut out radio just as abruptly.
5. Possibility of Record Business being reborn, if Combinations become increasingly popular.
6. As Mr. Thomas A. Edison is the inventor of the Phonograph & Record, there is possibility of loss of prestige, if abandoned.
7. Absorbs portion of Thomas A. Edison Industries overhead, which would increase other costs unless something else is found for factory and space.
8. Eliminate loss thru voiding contracts with recording artists, which would be small in comparison with potential losses if business does not succeed.


1. Heavy losses, as indicated above.
2. Export situation — Cannot sell Records in Continental Europe, Dependencies or Colonies of a European Country.
3. Unfavorable situation regarding portables, which we do not manufacture but buy and sell at a book loss merely to help sales of records.
4. Increasingly high recording costs due largely to excessive fees demanded by popular artists whose reputations aid in selling records.
5. Necessity for investing large sums for promotion and advertising to increase sales.
6. It is a dying business and without sales of Phonographs it may be merely a question of time until the Phonographs now in hands of public will be discarded.
7. Cheap competition makes sales increasingly difficult. The public is interested chiefly in jazz music and buy cheaper grades of records which can be discarded in few weeks at little loss when popularity wanes.
8. To become world power in record business it will be necessary to establish recording units with plating a pressing factories in Chicago, and the West Coast, in Europe, South America, Australia and the Orient; the question being, can money so invested have the potential profit as money invested in other things.
9. Mr. Walsh and co-workers pending time on record sales and production out of proportion to return.
10. Possibility that present type of record may become obsolete. Mr. Sarnoff of R.C.A. announced at meeting few weeks ago that home talking pictures would play large part in future home entertainment which may be subtle warning that Victor is going into film recording.

Discontinuing Recording

W. H. Miller
(Undated; probably week of October 14, 1929)

Stop all recording at once. … [Note: The last Edison recording session was a private one for Margaret Rogge Becker, held on the morning of October 19.]

Prepare list of Recording Equipment to be retained for recording Broadcast Records.

Retain Electrical Recording Agreements — if they won’t cost us anything…

Negotiating Release of Contracts with Artists

W. H. Miller
(Undated; probably week of October 14, 1929)

Contact artists at once — advise them of decision and ask them to cancel contracts; also, to treat confidentially until announcement is made public. This is particularly important in the case of Martinelli who should be given opportunity of making new arrangement with another company before an announcement is made.

In cases of refusal to cancel — negotiate cash release always bearing in mind, artists’ expenses, etc. to obtain consent and endeavor to sell their contracts. No arrangement is to be consummated without approval.

All contracts are to be disposed of in one way or another by December 31, 1929.

Sale of Finished Stock

R. R. March and A. J. Clark
(Undated; probably week of October 14, 1929)

Liquidate inventories of finished stocks, wherever located, by December 31st.

Prepare estimated liquidation value of stocks as compared with inventory value.

Consideration to be given to plan to sell entire stocks thru regular jobbers and dealers, piecemeal, and/or entire stocks as job lots to one source of distribution, the question being, can we dump such records to one jobber because of other jobbers’ stocks that they may not want to sell at reduced prices.

Be prepared to sell Needle [lateral-cut] Reproducers at cost to disgruntled Hill and Dale [vertical-cut] users.

All records to be sold by December 31st.

All Schuberts and Beethovens [phonographs]… are to be sold with needle [lateral-cut] attachments by December 31st, even if these must be sold for as low a price as $10.00 each.

Inventories on hand December 15th to be turned over to Mr. Clark for salvage.

Contact F. R. Schell and set aside records of both types to be retained for [Henry Ford] Museum purposes.

Disposition of Master Moulds

W. H. Miller and A. J. Clark
(Undated; probably week of October 14, 1929)

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.

[Note: Such a sale was never completed, as far as can be ascertained. However, the existence at ENHS of a Brunswick sample record pressed from Edison Needle Type masters (below) suggests that the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co. might have been contemplating the purchase of some recordings:]


All moulds not thus sold and those not required for Museum are to be sold thru Mr. A. J. Clark.

Discontinuing Amberol Record Sales
W. S. Williams
(October 22, 1929)

… While [Amberola] phonographs are still carried in Cylinder inventory, they were turned over to Mr. Clark some time ago for sale as scrap or junk. …

A total of 32,408 B.A. [Blue Amberol] Records were sold for $6008.75 between July 1 and October 15. Of this number of records 15,185 were sold under the special $.20 offer which expired September 30. The balance of sales were to jobbers and dealers and to individuals at $.35 each.

Cancellations, which have been exceedingly high due to inability to ship records of customers’ selections, have been very costly because of paper work involved in refunding advance payments.

As of October 19, there were unfilled orders on hand for only 43 [cylinder] records.

It is apparent from the above that it is now opportune to either discontinue entirely or take action to endeavor to increase sales…

Therefore, the following recommendations are made.

(1) Entirely discontinue sales on October 26.
(2) Burn all records in stock, including 212,566 not carried in inventory, thus releasing 600 packing cases which may be salvaged thru Disc Record Sales at $.90 each.
(3) Release the remaining employees — thus saving $86.50 weekly.
(4) Close books of Division by December 31. …


To the Trade: Re: Discontinuance of Commercial
Record Production

Arthur Walsh
(October 29, 1929)

As you know, the Edison Radio is a pronounced success. Present demand is about three time production. We feel that this demand will increase steadily…

Our present manufacturing facilities are inadequate to satisfy the demand for Edison Radios. These facilities must be increased immediately.

After a careful weighing of the record business and its prospects, we have decided to discontinue the production of records, except for special purposes, and to devote our great record plant to the production of radio, and kindred new developments in the radio and home entertainment field.

This step is being taken regretfully because the phonograph for home entertainment was one of Mr. Edison’s favorite inventions. But, this is a case where sound business judgement must prevail over sentiment.

We must add that we are happy in the knowledge that there are many competent manufacturers, now producing excellent records, with adequate facilities to take care of all present and future phonograph owners…

We will, therefore, on November 1st discontinue the production of commercial phonograph records such as have been heretofore sold through you.

On and after the same date, the name of Radio-Phonograph Division will be changed to Radio Division.

Faithfully yours,
Radio-Phonograph Division
Arthur Walsh
Vice President.


To All Dealers

The Edison Distributing Corporation
(November 13, 1929)

Under date of October 29th a letter was mailed to you from Thomas A. Edison, Inc., Orange, N. J., announcing the “Discontinuance of Commercial Record Production.”

At this time we have in stock a limited supply of Edison Hill and Dale, and Lateral Cut Needle Records, which we will offer you, subject to prior sale, F. O. B. Chicago.

The Edison Hill and Dale Records at five cents each in lots of fifty or more to be selected by us, or ten cents each in lots of fifty or more of your selection.

Lateral Cut or Needle Records of the seventy-five cent series at fifteen cents each in lots of fifty or more of our selection, and twenty cents each, you selection. The two dollar series are priced at forty cents each.

Under no circumstances are the records returnable. …


Note: Edison’s New York studio closed out its account in December 1929. The Ediphone Standard Practice Records, issued on 4″ Blue Amberol–style cylinders beginning in 1930, were not recorded by Edison. They were transcribed from electrically recorded acetate disc masters commissioned from an unspecified New York studio, according to a 1934 internal memo written by Howard A. Miller.

The Playlist • Ragtime Accordion Classics (1915-1928)

MSP_bwy-1189A_20608-1Three ragtime pieces with some marked similarities, particularly Frank Salerno’s “Kent Street Blues,” which is a slight reworking of Pietro Deiro’s “Melody Rag.” The latter was originally titled “Philadelphia Blues”; although entered as such in the Victor files, the title never appeared on the record labels.

The third strain of “Melody Rag” has been plagiarized from time to time — as heard here on the Salerno recording, but more famously by Weiss & Baum in their 1949 hit, “Music! Music! Music! (Put Another Nickel In).”

These recordings and thousands of others (US and foreign) are detailed in The Ragtime Discography, 1894–1960: Cakewalks, Rags, and Novelties on Cylinders and 78, a multimedia CD available exclusively from Mainspring Press. In addition to the most detailed ragtime discography yet published, the CD includes 99 historic recordings in MP3 format, plus high-resolution reproductions of 50 rare ragtime sheet-music covers.



PIETRO DEIRO: Melody Rag (a.k.a. Philadelphia Blues)

Camden NJ: October 5, 1915
Released: January 1916 — Deleted: January 1923
Victor 17895 (mx. B 16597 – 1)


PIETRO J. FROSINI: New York Blues — Rag Classical

New York (79 Fifth Avenue): September 15 (or 16), 1916
Released: January 1917
Edison Blue Amberol cylinder 3052 (dubbed from disc mx. 4998-C)

The Edison studio cash book shows a combined payment for Frosini’s September 15 and 16 sessions; this recording appears to be from the earlier session, based on master numbers.


FRANK SALERNO: Kent Street Blues

Chicago (Marsh Laboratories): c. May 1928
Broadway 1189 (NYRL mx. 20608 – 1)


Just Arrived — “Edison Two-Minute and Concert Cylinders” — In Stock

NOW IN STOCK — Available Exclusively from Mainspring Press

American Series, 1897–1912
By Allan Sutton

398 pages, illustrated • 7″ x 10″ quality softcover
$49 (U.S. –  Free Shipping)
Order directly from Mainspring Press


Edison Two-Minute and Concert Cylinders is the first study  of these records to be compiled from the surviving company documentation (including the factory plating ledgers, studio cash books, remake and deletion notices, catalogs, supplements, and trade publications), along with first-hand inspection of the original cylinders. All American-catalog issues from 1897 through 1912, including the Grand Opera series, are covered.

Unlike previously published guides, which don’t list Edison’s numerous and often confusing remakes, this new volume lists all versions — even indicating those initially supplied by Walcutt & Leeds — along with the listing or release dates and the distinguishing details (changes in artists, accompaniments, announcements, etc.) for each. Plating dates for brown-wax pantograph masters and early Gold Moulded masters, which provide valuable clues to the long-lost recording dates, are published here for the first time.

Other features include composer and show credits, medley contents, accompaniment details, pseudonym identification, an illustrated footnoted history of Edison cylinder production during the National Phonograph Company period, user’s guide, and indexes.


Early Movie Stars on Records • Marie Dressler (1910)

MARIE DRESSLER: Marie Dressler’s “Working Girl” Song
(I’m a Respectable Working Girl)

New York: Listed July 1910 — Released September 1910
Edison 10416  (two-minute cylinder)
Acc: Studio orchestra


(Top) “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” featured a young Charlie Chaplin and was one of 1914’s biggest silent-movie hits.

(Bottom) A Bain News Service photo. Undated, but Bain posed a number of these “heavy drinker” shots with various celebrities on the eve of Prohibition. (G.G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)


The Playlist • Sophie Tucker: Edison Cylinders (1910–1911)


“When I first heard the playback, I turned to the boys and let out a yell: ‘My God, I sound like a foghorn!” I was terrible. However, the manager seemed satisfied with the recordings… I said to myself: ‘The Edison Company must know what they’re doing. They can’t think I’m as bad as I think I am.'”
Sophie Tucker (from her 1945 autobiography)


SOPHIE TUCKER: That Lovin’ Rag

New York: January 5 or 11, 1910 — Listed March 1910
Edison 10360 (2-minute cylinder)
The Edison studio cash book shows Tucker’s first two sessions on the above date but doesn’t list the titles recorded.


SOPHIE TUCKER: Some of These Days

New York: c. February 1911 — Listed April 1911
Edison Amberol 691 (4-minute cylinder)



New York: Probably July 27, 1911 — Listed October 1911
Edison Amberol 852 (4-minute cylinder)


The Playlist • Highlights from the First “Edison Hour” Broadcast (1929)

MSP-EDISON_columbia-street-low-speed(Courtesy of Edison National Historic Site)

.The first “Edison Hour” broadcast aired over WJZ on February 11, 1929. It was captured at Edison’s Columbia Street studio in Orange, New Jersey, which housed the low-speed recording equipment used to make these experimental airchecks (above). The recordings were made on 12” discs at 30 rpm, using a very thin ( .00379”) cutting stylus, and they survive at the Edison National Historic Site. The technical problems — most notably some severe speed fluctuations, and noise from a power tube that “went Democratic” in the words of the Edison engineer — are distracting at times but of relatively small concern considering the rarity of airchecks from this early period of American broadcasting.

The broadcast celebrated the birthday of Thomas Edison, who spoke briefly via relay from his home in Fort Myers, Florida, and also served to promote the new Edison radio, which had recently been introduced over the old man’s objections. Here are some of the most interesting excerpts. The first three selections are from Edison experimental mx. 185-A, the remainder from 185-B.




THOMAS ALVA EDISON: Birthday Message


FRIEDA HEMPEL: The Last Rose of Summer


B. A. ROLFE’S ORCHESTRA: I Can’t Give You Anything But Love




Uncle Josh Asks for Thomas Edison’s Autograph

An undated letter to Edison studio head Walter Miller from Cal Stewart, requesting an autographed photo of Thomas Edison. The Scott Printing Company in Stewart’s hometown of Muncie, Indiana, was one of several Midwestern printing companies with which he had connections. You can read about Stewart’s publishing activities in “Uncle Josh’s Punkin Centre Stories: Cal Stewart as Author, Publisher, and Entrepreneur,” on the Mainspring Press website. (Photocopy from unknown source, Bill Bryant papers)


Edison “Field” Recordings: William Jennings Bryan (Nebraska, 1908)

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:


Edisonia • B. A. Rolfe Memorabilia

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)


A Last Look at Edison’s Columbia Street Recording Studio (1929–1930)

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.

EDISON_columbia-street(Top) The dubbing set-up. Although this photo is captioned “Low-Speed Dubbing,” the same basic horn-to-horn technique was used to dub Blue Amberol cylinders from Diamond Disc masters.

(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.

An Edison-Brunswick Hybrid Record (1929)

ED-BWK-hybrid(Courtesy of Edison National Historic Site)

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.

Fourth of July at Pumpkin Center (and Other Uncle Josh Classics)


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):


Replacing Cal Stewart: Andrew Keefe’s “Uncle Josh” Records

In late 1903, Cal Stewart signed an exclusive three-year contract with Columbia. Left without a fresh supply of Stewart’s immensely popular “Uncle Josh” routines, Edison and Leeds & Catlin finally brought in a substitute — an Albany stove merchant and former junk dealer who did a credible imitation of Stewart. The Edison-endorsed version of Keefe’s discovery originally ran in the Albany Exchange and was later reprinted in the September 1906 edition of the Edison Phonograph Monthly:

keefe-epm“I’m Old, but I’m Awfully Tough” (a laughing song composed by Stewart) was released in December 1905, nine months before this article found its way into EPM. Edison went on to release Keefe’s renditions of two popular Stewart routines — “Uncle Josh in a Department Store” and “Uncle Josh in a Chinese Laundry” — March 1906 and January 1907, respectively.

The infamous patent-infringing firm of Leeds & Catlin issued no fewer than seven “Uncle Josh” routines by Keefe, which appeared during the late summer of 1906. Although very rare today, they were widely circulated at the time, appearing on Leeds’ own Sun and Imperial labels as well as Aretino, D&R, Oxford, and other client brands. Many of the labels showed no artist credit, probably leading buyers to believe they were genuine Stewart records; the truth was revealed in the opening announcements, which credited Keefe.

Stewart finally returned to Edison in August 1908 (the details can be found in Cal Stewart’s Recording Contracts, on the Mainspring website), and Keefe’s Edison records were deleted the following year. The Leeds issues were discontinued in the same year, after the company was ordered to suspend record production by the U.S. Supreme Court (more on that in A Phonograph in Every Home, available from Mainspring Press and many major libraries).


“Mr. Collins Is Not a Negro” — Edison Takes on the Rumor Mill

Although the early studio singers didn’t spend much time in the public spotlight, a few managed to attract the rumor-and-gossip mongers. One of the most persistent rumors was that Arthur Collins — who made his living imitating a “Negro” at a time when the real thing was generally not welcome in the studios — was himself black. The July 1905 edition of the Edison Phonograph Monthly set the record straight:


Although Edison rarely employed black performers (a policy the company  pursued right up to the bitter end in 1929), it had no such qualms about using material from black song-writers — including Bert Williams, Alex Rogers, Chris Smith, Clarence Jones, Tom Lemonier, Bob Cole, and Jim Europe — much of which was handed over to Collins.

Ada Jones was another rumor-magnet. In her younger years she was frequently rumored to be have married (which she eventually did), or to have died (which she also eventually did, but not until May 2, 1922). This notice ran in the July 1910 edition of EPM, well in advance of the actual event:

EPM_jones-rumorThe photos of Collins and Jones, taken c. 1919, are from the G. G. Bain Collection at the Library of Congress.


Edison Records — The 30-rpm Edison Radio Transcriptions (1928-1929)

The Edison 30-rpm radio transcriptions of 1928-1929 are among the company’s rarest and least-known output. After taking many twists and turns, the Edison transcription story finally ends with an unlikely Russian connection in 1931.

Full technical and discographic details of the Edison transcriptions, from the original Edison files, can be found in Ray Wile’s Edison Discography: 1926-1929, available from Mainspring Press and many major libraries. A detailed history of the transcription program is in preparation for the Mainspring Press website; in the meantime, here are some highlights from the supporting documentation:


This 1928 letter, from G. C. Cosden (of Edison’s Special Sales Department) to a National Radio Advertising executive, lists the disc’s technical specifications. Chicago-based NRA at that time was seriously considering the Edison transcription. But the company alienated NRA with uncompetitive pricing and overly restrictive licensing terms, and raised doubts over its ability to meet NRA’s looming deadline to start production.


Rebuffed by National Radio Advertising over pricing, Edison reworked its estimates. Still, Edison insisted on retaining ownership of the discs (even though NRA was to pay for their production in full), and continued to draw out negotiations for so long that by the time other issues were finally resolved, NRA’s deadline to start production had passed. NRA instead went with the much more nimble and accomodating Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company, which proved to be a highly successful (and for Brunswick, lucrative) collaboration.


With the National Radio Advertising account lost, Edison instead contracted with WAAM, a Newark radio station. This 1929 memo lists the contents of two transcriptions prodiced for the station. They were recorded in Edison’s Columbia Street studio on April 23, 1929 (using a two-microphone setup, one for bass and one for treble) with Ernest Stevens at the organ and Cosden himself the supplying the announcements.