From Kodisk to Speak-O-Phone: Victor and A. T. Emerson Launch the Instantaneous-Recording Industry

From Kodisk to Speak-O-Phone:
Victor and A. T. Emerson Launch the
Instantaneous-Recording Industry
By Allan Sutton

Source documents courtesy of Doreen Wakeman

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Father and son: Victor Hugo Emerson and Adelbert Tewksbury (“A. T.”) Emerson (Doreen Wakeman)

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Victor Emerson’s next venture after resigning from the Emerson Phonograph Company in 1922 was the Metal Recording Disc Company. Beginning with the purchase of Henry Wadsworth’s patent on a process for manufacturing pre-grooved metal recording discs, Victor and his son Adelbert built an operation that would corner the market for bare-metal recording discs, in the process laying the groundwork for what would become the instantaneous-recording industry.

The Metal Disc Recording Corporation was incorporated in Manhattan on March 22, 1922, by L. E. Dresser, E. E. Ennison, and A. B. Hermans [1] W. Jay Ennison (Victor Emerson’s personal attorney) made the corporate filing and served as MDRC’s president, while Emerson served as treasurer. The corporate filing stated only that the company would “make phonographs,” with no mention of metal recording blanks.

It appears that the original plan was to manufacture a coin-operated automatic disc-recording and dispensing machine on which Henry L. Wadsworth had filed a patent in 1917. For recording purposes, Wadsworth stated his preference for a disc of varnish or shellac, the surface of which was to be slightly softened by the application of a solvent just prior to recording. [2]

Wadsworth soon came up with a more practical recording blank. In March 1918, he filed a patent on a pre-grooved, uncoated metal disc:

I have discovered that a substantially permanent record groove may be formed in the highly polished surface of a suitable fine grain metal, for example, copper, sheet aluminum, pewter, etc. For best results the surface of the blank is first properly prepared by filling the voids therein as by the application thereto of an element of wax-like nature… Aluminum possess all of the characteristics necessary to make a record by my process, and I prefer to use the metal.

On May 11, 1922 MDRC signed a memorandum of agreement with Wadsworth, agreeing to purchase both patents (the second of which was still pending) and the corresponding foreign patents. Wadsworth was paid $10,000 in cash and received 2,500 shares in the company. [3]

In the meantime, Emerson had filed his own patent embodying improvements to Wadsworth’s pre-grooved metal blanks, which he claimed would make the discs more suitable for use “in connection with the ordinary talking machine.” Chief among them was a wider groove that he claimed would offer less resistance to the cutting stylus. In his patent filing Emerson boasted, “I have produced a new type of disc record in which the public, that is the unskilled person, can utilize his talking machine for the purpose of recording and thereby making permanent and indestructible records.” [4]

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Victor Emerson’s metal-disc patent, showing the wide groove that Emerson claimed offered less resistance to the cutting stylus. (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office)

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With strong patent protection in place, the Metal Recording Disc Company was ready to commence operations. The idea of manufacturing Wadsworth’s automatic disc-recording machine apparently was dropped. Instead, the company focused on creating a market for pre-grooved aluminum discs and an accompanying recording attachment that could be used to make home recordings on ordinary phonographs.

There had been earlier, short-lived attempts to market home-recording devices for the disc phonograph, including the Landay Brothers’ widely advertised Land-O-Phone of 1906. None had been a technical or commercial success, in part because the discs usually were composed of wax or other materials that were easily damaged in playback. MDRC’s aluminum discs solved that problem, being largely immune to damage provided that they were played with thorn or fiber needles rather than steel.

MRDC sold its pre-grooved blanks under the Kodisk brand beginning in May 1922. [5] Recording was accomplished by simply shouting into the phonograph’s horn (preferably with the aid of a megaphone), allowing the phonograph’s own reproducer and stylus serving as the recording mechanism. For better results, the company offered a $6 recording attachment consisting of a pivoting recording horn attached to a reproducer. An early advertisement pictured the device being used by Irving Kaufman, a popular Emerson recording artist.

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Irving Kaufman plugs Kodisk, August 1922. As an exclusive Emerson recording artist for a time in the early 1920s, Kaufman would have been well-known to Victor Emerson. (Talking Machine World)

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Although MRDC at first warned that only Kodisk blanks were the genuine article, it was soon supplying other companies who sold the discs under their own names. The Plaza Music Company, which had recently taken over Emerson’s Regal label, marketed the blanks under the Echo brand. Even Eugene Widmann, president of the Pathé Phonograph and Radio Corporation, got involved. [6] For a short time, Pathé phonographs could be purchased with a home-recording attachment employing the MRDC blanks. The idea apparently failed to interest many consumers, but it would not be Widmann’s last involvement with Emerson’s metal discs.

Unfortunately, due to the low volume inherent in the acoustic recording process and the mechanical resistance of the metal blanks, the recordings were often barely audible. As Douglas Cooke noted in his early account of the operation, “While an important step had been taken, there were still further obstacles to be overcome — the record was right, but mechanical recording was deficient.” [7] Interest in the Emerson–Wadsworth system of home recording faded in the mid-1920s. It would take the advent of commercial electric recording to rekindle that interest.

Little was heard of the Metal Recording Disc Company during 1925–1926. Management of the company had already passed to Victor Emerson’s son, Adelebert Tewskbury Emerson (or “A. T.,” as he called himself for business purposes) by the time Victor died on June 22, 1926. In early 1927, A. T. incorporated the Emerson Foundation Company to carry on the family’s business interests. H. T. Leeming, who had developed the inexpensive Regal label while an Emerson Phonograph executive in 1921, served as the company’s treasurer. [8]

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Emerson Foundation Company stock certificate #1. (Doreen Wakeman)

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On September 21, 1927, the Metal Disc Recording Company licensed Frederick H. Sanborn to manufacture blank metal discs, with or without pre-grooving, under the Emerson and Wadsworth patents. MDRC retained ownership of the underlying manufacturing rights, which it transferred to the Emerson Foundation Company on or about October 1, 1927. [9] Sanborn’s as-yet unnamed company was licensed to manufacture and sell the blanks in the United States, its territories and dependencies, and Cuba “in connection with installations of phonograph recording machines to make personal recordings on said discs at such installations.” [10]

Sanborn would be allowed to sell the blanks to his agents or sub-licensees, with several restriction. The blanks, and the machines on which they were to be recorded, were not be employed for commercial record production, broadcasting, home recording, or office dictation. The question of whether or not to enter the latter market, which at the time was dominated by Dictaphone and Ediphone, would resurface several times in the coming years. Ultimately, the machines and blanks would be marketed for dictation and other business purposes, but not until the early 1930s.

Sanborn was required to pay MDRC a royalty on each blank sold, ranging from ¼¢ for five-inch or smaller discs to 2¢ for ten-inch or larger. In addition, effective January 1, 1928, Sanborn would be required to manufacture and sell a minimum of 200,000 discs that year, and 500,000 discs in each succeeding year. The agreement prohibited Sanborn’s agents and licensees from duplicating recordings made on the blanks, effectively precluding their use in commercial record production.

By late 1927, Sanborn had acquired rights to an electrical recording system and was in the process of assembling a group of investors to develop and market that system. On December 30, 1927, Henry Blum, J. H. Schiller, and Helen Marsak, filed a certificate of incorporation for Speakeophone Incorporated in New York. Their names thus far had not appeared in connection with the metal-disc business, and they were inconsequential from an operating standpoint. The driving forces behind Speakeophone would be Frederick Sanborn, as president, and A. T. Emerson, as its largest stockholder. [11]

Speakeophone’s purpose, according to the incorporation filing, was:

To make, sell, lease, and otherwise deal in, metal or other discs for the recording, perpetuation or reproduction, or otherwise, of sound; and also recording and reproducing machines, their parts, thereof, and accessories therefor, relating to metal or other discs, and the making of phonographic records thereon, by any means, for the production, recording, or reproduction of sound. [12]

Incorporated as a separate entity, the Speak-O-Phone Corporation would serve as the public face of Speakeophone. It would handle distribution and licensing, while Speakeophone would continue to handle manufacturing. The distinction, although seemingly a fine one, would prove contentious in the later legal battle for control of the business.

The Speak-O-Phone Corporation filed a trademark application on the Speak-O-Phone name on August 28, 1928, claiming use since May 1. A second application covered the phrase, “A Snapshot of Your Voice,” a slightly revision of the old Kodisk slogan that would appear only on the earliest Speak-O-Phone discs. [13] The company planned to franchise walk-in Speak-O-Phone studio throughout the country.

The franchise operation Speak-O-Phone experienced steady growth. Licenses were granted to any financially qualified party wishing to open their own recording studio and willing to abide by a lengthy lease agreement that bound the licensee to purchase discs only from Speak-O-Phone.

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Page 1 of the Speak-O-Phone studio operating and lease agreement. (Doreen Wakeman)

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Before the advent of Speak-O-Phone, individuals wishing to make their own disc records had to deal with commercial record producers. Turnaround times were slow and costs were high, and most companies required customers to purchase multiple pressings. With the advent of Speak-O-Phone, anyone could walk into a studio, record their talk or performance, and walk out a few minutes later with an electrically recorded disc at prices ranging from 50¢ to $1.50 per side, depending upon the diameter.

The entire unit was housed in a cabinet the size of a large console phonograph. The licensee was responsible for set-up, maintenance, and repairs. Sound quality of the finished discs could vary, depending upon operator skill and the microphone selected (the choices, all carbon microphones, included the default Speak-O-Phone model, of unknown manufacture; a Western Electric model; and a couple of off-brands). But in the hands of a skilled operator working with a decent microphone, the technical results could be surprisingly good.

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Early Speak-O-Phone discs had full-size back-plates (top). They were soon replaced by the familiar Speak-O-Phone label (bottom left), which allowed for recording on both sides. The slotted, embossed-label Remsen blank — essentially just a rebranding of the Speak-O-Phone disc — was introduced in 1930. Another  version of the Remsen disc, not pictured here, had Remsen’s name and patent notice embossed in a circle around the regular Speak-O-Phone label. (Author’s collection)

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A demonstration studio — little more than a closet, judging from the advertisements — was opened to the public in the “economy basement” of Snellenberg’s Philadelphia department store on September 3, 1928. [14] By October, the studio was doing so much business that it was moved to a more prestigious location, in the fifth-floor music department.

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Speak-O-Phone’s first demonstration studio, in the “economy basement of Snellenberg’s department store in Philadelphia. (Philadelphia Inquirer)

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Speak-O-Phone’s license #1 was granted to the Famous-Barr Company’s St. Louis store, which first advertised its studio on September 18. [15] Speak-O-Phone made international headlines in May 1929, when it installed a studio aboard the luxury liner Ile de France. It was back in the headlines on June 22, when Dorothy Caruso (Enrico’s widow) opened Speak-O-Phone studio #7 in New York. [16]

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Speak-O-Phone studio #1, in the Famous-Barr Company’s St. Louis department store, 1928. (Doreen Wakeman)

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Speak-O-Phone studio aboard the S. S. Ile de France, one of at least five ocean liners that licensed Speak-O-Phone equipment. (Doreen Wakeman)

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Dorothy Caruso, Enrico’s widow, opened Speak-O-Phone studio #7 in June 1929. (Doreen Wakeman / Brooklyn Daily Eagle)

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By the late summer of 1929, new Speak-O-Phone studios were being opened almost weekly. A 1930 list of contracts showed seventy-one active Speak-O-Phone installations at the time, in department stores, music and record shops, free-standing studios, colleges, and aboard at least five ocean liners.  [17]

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Speak-O-Phone brochures, c. 1929, announcing the opening of a new studio in Boston (top); and explaining the system and touting its profit potential to aspiring licensees (bottom). (Doreen Wakeman)

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Speak-O-Phone provided portfolios of customizable newspaper ads to its licensees and distributors. This copy was sent to Herman Germain, of the Plaza Music Company, retailers of Banner and other inexpensive records. Plaza had been one of the earliest sellers of rebranded Kodisk blanks in the early 1920s.

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On August 14, 1929, Emerson wrote to Sanborn proposing a new partnership with the Emerson Foundation Company to further develop the technology for commercial purposes, including dictation machines, to be called the Metal Recording Products Company. [18] The way was soon cleared for Speakeophone to transfer all licensing, distribution, and sales rights to Speak-O-Phone. The agreement between Speakeophone and Speak-O-Phone was signed on August 28, 1929, at which time Sanborn also signed over the rights to his electrical recording process to Speakeophone. [19]

Speakeophone further consolidated its control of the operation in October 1929, when the Emerson Foundation Company assigned it all of its remaining U.S. manufacturing, distribution, and sales rights in return for a royalty agreement on disc sales. [20] On February 17, 1930, however, Emerson suddenly reversed himself, writing to attorney Thomas H. Matters, “I believe that the Emerson Foundation Co., Inc., should immediately take steps to cancel all of the  arrangements which it has with the Speakeophone Corporation of America.”

At issue was some bad publicity over the company’s failure to deliver machines and records for which customers had paid. The issue came to a head after crooner Rudy Vallee publicly complained that he had not yet received a machine and discs for which he had paid $750 many months earlier. Complaints to the Better Business Bureau increased as a rumor flew that executive Jacques Blevins was misspending company funds. Emerson was also displeased over the company’s failure to pursue the home-recording and radio markets. [21]

The next few months would be marked by ongoing disputes between Emerson, Blevins, Sanford, and various shareholders, involving accusations of questionable loans, overdue notes, missing stock, and unpaid salaries, among other issues. Thomas H. Matters (who ten years earlier had been of the receivers for the Emerson Phonograph Company), was finally called in by Emerson in an attempt to resolve some of most contentious issues. The ongoing legal squabbling had no apparent effect on Speak-O-Phone’s day-to-day operations, which so far seemed to be weathering the early effects of the Great Depression reasonably well.

By April 1930, Eugene Widmann — now working in banking after having resigned as president of the Pathé Phonograph and Radio Corporation three years earlier — was preparing to step into the fray. Blevins clearly wished to be out of the business. On April 8, he wrote to Widmann,

In connection with the proposal that you step into the situation and furnish the necessary capital to meet the requirement of the Corporation and develop its business, I propose to turn over to you the control of the business and its management and supervision on whatever basis you deem fair to the respective interests involved. [22]

At the same time, Blevins turned over a list of Speak-O-Phone accounts payable, notes payable, and studio contracts to Widmann, and Sanborn supplied him a breakdown of disc-production costs and an estimate of costs to produce attachments for home and radio recording. [23]

On April 11, Emerson informed Widmann that the Presto Machine Company could supply Speak-O-Phone fifty large studio recording machines within six to eight weeks and was also prepared to look into the production of home-recording equipment. Furthermore, Emerson reported, Presto was eager to take over production of the metal discs, with eighteen presses available and the capacity to “take care of unlimited quantities.” Emerson concluded his letter by writing, “I consider this an ideal plant for our work and for all of its future development.” [24] However, no agreement with Presto was forthcoming. The announcement that RCA Victor was about to introduce its own home-recording system may have dissuaded Emerson from further pursuing a Speak-O-Phone home system.

The long-simmering feud between Blevins and Sanborn came to a head toward the end of 1930, with Blevins complaining to Emerson that Sanborn had conducted “practically no business” since June, and had spent only $100 on sales. Blevins wrote to Emerson in January 1931, “In the interests if the creditors of Speak-O-Phone Corporation of America, I should like to see you and the other stockholders place a management in charge which will immediately take advantage of the demand for the product and give the business a progressive management.” [25]

As the sniping continued, Emerson finally moved to assume full control of Speakeophone Incorporated, canceling the Emerson Foundation Company’s contracts with Blevins and Sanborn. On January 20, 1931, he requested the return of their stock from the Harriman National Bank and Trust Company, which had been holding it in escrow. [26] Full manufacturing, licensing, and sales rights were transferred from the Metal Disc Recording Company to Speakeophone, which was now firmly under Emerson’s control (Speak-O-Phone now being little more than a trade name). In addition, MRDC lifted some earlier restrictions on its products’ use, although it inexplicably continued to prohibit their use for dictation purposes. [27]

On January 22, 1931, Emerson authorized the Emerson Foundation Company to sell any or all of its shares in Speakeophone Incorporated. [28] The move roughly coincided with the formation of H. T. Leeming’s Remsen Corporation, and it appears that Emerson accepted Remsen stock in exchange for some or all of his Speakeophone stock. By February, Emerson was negotiating to have Remsen take over manufacturing of the metal discs.

The Remsen Corporation left little in the way of a paper trail. It was affiliated in some way with inventor Douglas H. Cooke, who wrote a rambling, six-page document “not for public consumption” extolling the Remsen record’s virtues, although there is nothing to indicate that the Remsen disc was anything more than a rebranding of the regular Speak-O-Phone disc. [29]

According to Cooke, Remsen either owned or otherwise controlled (it is not clear which, from his wording) the Emerson and Wadsworth metal-disc patents, in addition to holding Cooke’s own pending patent on portable and home-recording machines. [30] When Cooke balked at the idea of manufacturing recorders, preferring to contract the work to outside suppliers, Emerson went to Widmann to with a proposal that they form a new company to manufacture recording machines. Widmann was not interested. [31]

On August 10, 1931, Sanborn wrote to Emerson, “Being completely out of Speak-O-Phone, I would like to clear it all up. The sum total of my loans to you is somewhere over $1,000. I would like to see this taken care of in some way… Trusting that Speakeophone is now doing all that you have expected from it.” [32] Emerson replied, “Am more than anxious to take care of the loan you were good enough to give me just as soon as I can… As to Speakeophone — Say Uncle Freddy, why pick on me?” [33]

On September 14, 1931, Emerson authorized sale of his Remsen stock through Widmann. [34] Speak-O-Phone would go on to flourish for a time in the 1930s, especially after finally getting into the dictation-machine market, although its bare-aluminum discs would be rendered obsolete by the Presto Recording Corporation’s superior lacquer-coated recording blanks. Speak-O-Phone’s later history will be the subject of a future posting.

 

The Sound of Speak-O-Phone

As many collectors have learned from disappointing purchases, surviving Speak-O-Phone discs are only rarely of any musical or historical interest. Here are two interesting exceptions. The first is by Martha Wilkins, a professional radio and concert performer who also sang occasional minor roles at the Metropolitan Opera. Her collection of personal records and air-checks from 1930 through 1948 now resides in the Mainspring collection.

The second (courtesy of David Giovannoni) is an excerpt from a 44-minute talk, extending over multiples discs, on the rosy future of dirigibles. The craft mentioned suggest the recording was made in 1933 or thereabouts. If any of you aviation-history buffs out there know who this might be, we would love to hear from you.

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MARTHA WILKINS: Indian Love Call
Norfolk, VA: May 22, 1930

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UNKNOWN SPEAKER: Talk on lighter-than-air aircraft (excerpt)
Unknown location: c. 1933

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Notes

 

[1] “New Incorporations.” New York Times (Mar 22, 1922), p. 23.

[2] Wadsworth, H. L. “Sound Recording and Reproducing Machine.” U.S. Patent #1,312,461 (filed Mar 7, 1917; granted Aug 5, 1919).

[3] Memorandum of Agreement Between the Metal Disc Recording Company, Inc., and Henry L. Wadsworth (May 11, 1922.

[4] Emerson, Victor H. “Record for Talking Machines and Method of Making the Same.” U.S. Patent #1,444,960 (filed April 25, 1921; granted February 13, 1923).

[5] “Kodisk Placed on Market.” Talking Machine World (May 1922), p. 33.

[6] Cooke, Douglas H. Unpublished manuscript, c. 1930.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Emerson Foundation Co., Inc. Stock certificate issued to A. T. Emerson (Mar 10, 1927).

[9] Emerson Foundation Co., Inc. Letter to Frederick H. Sanborn (Aug 14, 1929).

[10] Memorandum of Agreement Between the Metal Recording Disc Company, Inc., and Frederick H. Sanborn (September 21, 1927).

[11] Blevins, Jacques E. Letter to A. T. Emerson (Jan 31, 1931).

[12] Certificate of Incorporation of Speakeophone Incorporated (Dec 30, 1927).

[13] Speak-O-Phone Corporation. U.S. trademark filings #268,321 (Aug 28, 1928) and #268,322 (Oct 10, 1928).

[14] “Tomorrow in Our Economy Basement” (ad). Philadelphia Inquirer (Sep 2, 1928).

[15] Famous-Barr Co. (advertisement). St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Sep 18, 1928).

[16] Speak-O-Phone Corp. List of Contracts (c. April 1930).

[17] Ibid.

[18] Emerson Foundation Co., Inc. Letter to Sanborn, op. cit.

[19] Agreement Between Speakeophone, Incorporated, and Speak-O-Phone Corporation of America (Aug 28, 1929).

[20] Agreement Between Emerson Foundation Company, Inc., and Speakeophone, Incorporated (Oct 5, 1929).

[21] Emerson, A. T. Memorandum for Mr. Matters (Feb 17, 1930).

[22] Blevins, Jacques E. Letter to E. A. Widmann (April 8, 1930).

[23] Sanborn, Fredrick H. Latter to E. A. Widmann (April 8, 1930).

[24] Emerson, A. T. Letter to E. A. Widmann (April 11, 1930).

[25] Blevins, Jacques E. Letter to A. T, Emerson (Jan 31, 1931).

[26] Emerson, A. T. Letter to Harriman National Bank and Trust Company (Jan 20, 1931).

[27] Agreement Between Metal Disc Recording Co, Inc., and Speakeophone Incorporated (Jan 16, 1931; amended Mar 28, 1931).

[28] Emerson Foundation Company, Inc. Resolution (Jan 22, 1931).

[29] Cooke, op. cit. Cooke and a group of associates invented what he called the Chromatron recorder in the winter of 1927, which he claimed in the document was “developed quite independently of anything of the Remsen Corporation.” It is unclear whether this was the recording device that Remsen marketed.

[30] Sanborn, Frederick H. Letter to E. A. Widmann (Oct 28, 1930).

[31] Emerson, A. T. Memorandum to E. A. Widmann (Aug 18, 1931); Widmann, E. A. Memorandum to A. T. Emerson (Aug 20, 1931).

[32] Sanborn, Frederick H. Letter to A. T. Emerson (Aug 10, 1931).

[33] Emerson, A. T. Letter to Frederick H. Sanborn (Aug 17, 1931).

[34] Emerson, A. T. Memorandum to E. A. Widmann (Sep 14, 1931).


Our thanks to Doreen Wakeman (A. T. Emerson’s grand-daughter, and Victor’s great grand-daughter) for providing the source documents and many of the graphics used in this article.


 

© 2020 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

100 Years Ago at the Emerson Phonograph Company

100 Years Ago at the Emerson Phonograph Company
By Allan Sutton

Source material courtesy of Doreen Wakeman

 

The autumn of 1920 was a high-water mark for the Emerson Phonograph Company. A year earlier — after five years of producing only small-diameter discs — Victor Emerson had finally decided to take on the major companies, introducing standard ten-inch, full-priced records. Some popular stars and dance orchestras were being signed to exclusive contracts, there were the beginnings of a respectable operatic series, and the company was doing a strong business in records for the immigrant markets. In addition, Emerson had recently introduced a new line of phonographs starting at $80 and topping out at $1,000, a far cry from its first $3 offering of 1915.

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From Magazine of Wall Street (November 27, 1920)

 

Emerson’s facilities at the time were scattered around New York, with an executive suite at 3 West Thirty-Fifth Street, a sales office at 120 Broadway, and a studio at 365 Fifth Avenue. At some point, the decision was made to consolidate at a single location that could also house the company’s flagship phonograph and record store.

With production and optimism at an all-time high, in January 1920 the company signed a twenty-one lease for a building at 206 Fifth Avenue. A long, narrow five-story structure, it extended the full depth of the block, with an additional entrance at 1126 Broadway. It was already an old building, dating to 1856–1857 according to real estate records, but had recently been modernized and given a fresh facade by its new owner, the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank.

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Emerson’s offices and studio space would be consolidated on the upper three floors, one of which reportedly was given over entirely to recording. The move was completed during February 1920, at which time the record store was still in the early planning stages. Walter K. Pleuthner, a somewhat eccentric painter, architect, and interior designer, was hired for the task.

Pleuthner drafted ambitious plans for a record store and phonograph showroom on the ground level, with entrances on both Fifth Avenue and Broadway. It was an extravagant design, with vaulted ceilings, leaded-glass windows, specially designed chandeliers, individual listening booths, two “cloisters,” and a central staircase leading to a second-floor auditorium, to be called Emerson Hall. The store opened in September 1920 but wasn’t widely advertised until November, when it was featured in a nationwide marketing campaign.

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From Architecture magazine (December 1921).
View full-size floor plan

 

Unfortunately, no one at Emerson foresaw the crippling recession of 1920–1921, which began in the same month the company leased the Fifth Avenue building. Burdened with excess inventory and deeply in debt, the Emerson Phonograph Company was placed in the hands of receivers on December 9, 1920. It carried on, but on a less ambitious scale, buoyed in part by its 1921 introduction of the inexpensive Regal label for the dime- and chain-store trade.

The company continued to operate at 206 Fifth Avenue for nearly two more years, although plans to hold concerts in Emerson Hall apparently never materialized. Victor Emerson resigned in March 1922 and launched a new business, manufacturing and selling blank metal recording discs. Reorganized under new ownership in August 1922, the Emerson Phonograph Company vacated the Fifth Avenue building in October for decidedly cheaper-looking quarters. The Fifth Avenue building still stands today, minus the Emerson logo that once graced its pediment.

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Our thanks for Doreen Wakeman, Victor Emerson’s great grand-daughter, for supplying some of the source material for this article.

A detailed history of the Emerson Phonograph Company can be found in American Record Companies and Producers, 1888–1950, available from Mainspring Press.

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© 2020 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

Recording-Industry Pioneers • Victor Emerson’s Personal Photographs

 Victor Emerson’s Personal Photographs

 

These remarkable photographs come to us courtesy of Colette LaPointe, Victor Emerson’s great-great-granddaughter.

Emerson is one of the undeservedly forgotten pioneers of the recording industry, a gifted inventor and recording engineer, and a progressive businessman. Emerson’s own company, launched in 1915 after his departure from Columbia, was highly successful for several years, but ultimately did not survive the great recession of the early 1920s intact. Its history is covered in detail in American Record Company and Producers, 1888-1950, newly released by Mainspring Press).

Other photos from this group will appear in an expanded Emerson biography, which we will be posting soon.

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Victor Emerson (left) and unknown companion, c. 1880s

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A rare glimpse inside what is likely the New Jersey Phonograph Company or its successor, the United States Phonograph Company. Equipment more clearly visible in the full-size print dates this to the early-to-mid 1890s. The Bell-Tainter Graphophone (lower left, with goose-neck horn) would have been used for office dictation.

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Emerson in 1897. In January of that year, he resigned from United States Phonograph and joined the American Graphophone Company (Columbia) as a recording engineer.

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On a trip to London (undated)

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Victor Emerson at home (undated photos)

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A Few Emerson Favorites (MP3)

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GEORGE HAMILTON GREEN: Triplets

New York; released June 1920
Emerson 10169 (mx. 4882 – 1)

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EDDIE NELSON: I’ve Got the Joys

New York; released  October 1921
Emerson 10426 (mx. 41919 – 3)

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EUBIE BLAKE: Sounds of Africa [Charleston Rag]

New York; released October 1921
Paramount 14004 (1940s dubbing from a test pressing of mx. 41886 – )

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EUBIE BLAKE (vocal refrains by Irving Kaufman):
Sweet Lady — Medley

New York; released December 1921
Emerson 10450 (mx. 41985 – 2)

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ORIGINAL MEMPHIS FIVE (as Lanin’s Southern Serenaders):
Shake It and Break It

New York; released November 1921
Emerson 10439 (mx. 41924 – 1)

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Emerson Records: A History and Discography covers all 10″ and 12″ Emerson issues, including releases on subsidiary, client, and foreign  labels. Supplies are very limited, and we will not be reprinting — order soon!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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1892

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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…

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[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.

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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.

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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.

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Len Spencer Arrested (1897)

Russell Hunting wasn’t the only recording-industry pioneer to be arrested in the 1890s. In March 1897, Len Spencer and two of the Emerson brothers were taken into custody in Newark, New Jersey, charged with stealing cylinders from the United States Phonograph Company.

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Len Spencer’s Phonoscope biography, 1898

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The trouble began in early 1897, after Spencer and the Emersons (Victor H., George E., and Clyde D.) resigned from United States Phonograph to work for the American Graphophone Company (Columbia).

According to the charges, Spencer, George Emerson, and Clyde Emerson took a substantial number of records from U.S. Phonograph, which they allegedly sold to a “rival concern.” The company was not identified in the press reports, but quite likely it was Columbia, which had a history of copying other companies’ cylinders and marketing them as their own (see, for example, American Graphophone Co. v. United States Phonograph Co., et al., U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, In Equity No. 4005, an 1898 case in which Calvin Child confirmed the practice).

Victor Emerson was not charged. Details of the arrest were reported by the New York Sun on March 9, 1897:

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But unlike Hunting, who went to jail for three months for making and peddling “obscene” records, Spencer and the two Emersons  escaped unscathed. On March 25, 1897, the prosecutor declared that the state had no case, and defendants were discharged.

A few weeks later, Spencer formally announced his employment by Columbia:

 

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Spencer didn’t remain exclusive to Columbia for long, and by the early 1900s he had reclaimed his former status as one of the most prolific studio free-lancers. Victor Emerson went on to serve long and well as Columbia’s chief recording engineer before resigning in 1914 to launch his own label.

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