The Victor Talking Machine Company (1901–1929) was an Americancorporation, the leading American producer of phonographs and phonograph recordsand one of the leading phonograph companies in the world at the time. It was headquartered in Camden, New Jersey.
The company was founded by Eldridge R. Johnson, who had previously made phonographs to play Emile Berliner‘s Berliner Gramophone records. Some sources also claim Berliner as a co-founder; others say Berliner was never connected with the Victor company, though that may have been part of a ruse by Johnson to defeat the Zonophone lawsuits that had put Berliner Gramophone out of business (in the U.S., but not in Canada, the UK, or Germany) and threatened Johnson’s phonograph business. (Zonophone had used patent ruses to defeat Berliner, the inventor of disc records, whose technology Zonophone had copied.) In any event, Victor ultimately acquired the remaining assets of Berliner Gramophone; it also acquired Zonophone after defeating it in court.Contents
Name and logo
There is some controversy as to how the name came about. Fred Barnum gives various possible origins of the “Victor” name; in “‘His Master’s Voice’ In America”, he writes, “One story claims that Johnson considered his first improved Gramophone to be both a scientific and business ‘victory.’ A second account is that Johnson emerged as the ‘Victor’ from the lengthy and costly patent litigations involving Berliner andFrank Seaman‘s Zonophone. A third story is that Johnson’s partner, Leon Douglass, derived the word from his wife’s name ‘Victoria.’ Finally, a fourth story is that Johnson took the name from the popular ‘Victor’ bicycle, which he had admired for its superior engineering. Of these four accounts the first two are the most generally accepted.”
Victor had the rights in the United States and Latin America to use the famous trademark of the fox terrier Nipper listening to a Berliner Gramophone. (See also His Master’s Voice.) The original painting was by Francis Barraud in 1893, as a memorial to his deceased brother, a London photographer, who willed him his estate including his DC-powered Edison-Bell cylinder Phonograph with a case of cylinders—some home-recorded—and his dog Nipper. Barraud noticed that whenever he played a cylinder recorded by his brother, the little dog would run to the horn, cock his ear and listen intently. Barraud’s original depicts Nipper staring intently into the horn of an Edison-Bell while both sit on polished wooden surface. There is some controversy amongst historians as to whether this surface is the top of a table or the lid of the deceased master’s coffin. This dispute originated long after Barraud’s death and he made no comment during his life as to what the polished wooden surface is supposed to depict, if it depicts anything other than an artistic device for fixing Nipper and the Phonograph in space.
After several years the painting was still unsold. Since the horn on the Edison-Bell in the painting was black, a friend of Barraud’s suggested that he might paint one of the bright brass-belled horns on display in the window at the new Berliner Gramophone shop onMaiden Lane. The London branch was managed by an American, William Barry Owen. Barraud paid a visit to the branch with a photograph of the painting and asked to borrow a horn. Owen gave Barraud a Berliner Gramophone and asked that he paint it into the picture and then he would purchase the painting. The original painting shows the contours of the Edison-Bell Phonograph beneath the paint of the Gramophone when viewed in the correct light
The “His Master’s Voice” logo as rendered in immense circular leaded-glass panels remains in the 1915 factory building tower, now converted to apartments.
Acoustical recording era
Before 1925, recording was done by the same purely mechanical, non-electronic “acoustical” method used since the invention of the phonograph nearly fifty years earlier. No microphone was involved and there was no means of amplification. The recording machine was essentially an exposed-horn acoustical record player functioning in reverse. One or more funnel-like metal horns was used to concentrate the energy of the airborne sound waves onto a recording diaphragm, which was a thin glass disc about two inches in diameter held in place by rubber gaskets at its perimeter. The sound-vibrated center of the diaphragm was linked to a cutting stylus that was guided across the surface of a very thick wax disc, engraving a sound-modulated groove into its surface. The wax was too soft to be played back even once without seriously damaging it, although test recordings were sometimes made and sacrificed by playing them back immediately. The wax master disc was sent to a processing plant where it was electroplated to create a negative metal “stamper” used to mold or “press” durable replicas of the recording from heated “biscuits” of a shellac-based compound. Although sound quality was gradually improved by a series of small refinements, the process was inherently insensitive. It could only record sources of sound that were very close to the recording horn or very loud—preferably both—and even then the high-frequency overtones and sibilants necessary for clear, detailed sound reproduction were too feeble to register above the background noise. Resonances in the recording horns and associated components resulted in a characteristic “horn sound” that immediately identifies an “acoustical” recording to an experienced modern listener and seemed inseparable from “phonograph music” to contemporary listeners.
From the start, Victor pioneered manufacturing processes and soon rose to preeminence by recording famous performers. In 1901 Victor made a three-track puzzle record (single-sided A-821) and in 1903, a three-step mother-stamper process to produce more stampers and records than previously possible. After increasing the quality of disc records and phonographs, Johnson began an ambitious project to have the most prestigious singers and musicians of the day record for Victor Records, with exclusive agreements where possible. Often these artists demanded fees which the company could not hope to make up from sale of their records. Johnson shrewdly knew that he would get his money’s worth in the long run in promotion of the Victor brand name. These new “celebrity” recordings bore red labels, and were marketed as “Red Seal” records. For many years these recordings were single-sided; only in 1923 did Victor begin making double-sided “Red Seal” records. Many advertisements were printed mentioning by name the greatest names of music in the era, with the statement that they recorded only for Victor Records. As Johnson intended, much of the public assumed from this that Victor Records must be superior to cylinder records.
Popular vaudeville performer Cal Stewart‘s “Uncle Josh” comic monologues were enormously successful for Victor.
The Victor recordings by Enrico Caruso between 1904–1920 were particularly successful, with those recorded until mid-1916 usually conducted by Walter B. Rogers and the remainder conducted by Josef Pasternack and Rosario Bourdon. They were often used by retailers to demonstrate Victor phonographs; Caruso’s rich powerful low tenor voice highlighted the best range of audio fidelity of the early audio technology while being minimally affected by its defects. Even people who otherwise never listened to opera often owned a record or two of the great voice of Caruso. Caruso and Victor Records did much to boost each other’s commercial popularity. He made his final recordings in September 1920, only three months before his final appearances at the Metropolitan Opera.
Victor recorded numerous classical musicians, including Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler,Victor Herbert, and Sergei Rachmaninoff in a series of recordings at its Camden, New Jersey studios. Rachmaninoff, in particular, became one of the first composer-performers to record extensively; he first made several recordings for Thomas Edison in 1919, then became an exclusive Victor artist from 1920 to 1942.
A Victor V phonograph, about 1907
A Victor VV-VI phonograph from 1916
Orchestras were at a disadvantage in acoustical recordings, due to the limited frequency and dynamic range of the recording equipment. Musicians had to gather as closely as possible around the recording horn. Percussion instruments, in particular, were used sparingly since many of them could not be heard on the recordings. However, Victor made numerous recordings with bandmaster Arthur Pryor conducting his own “Pryor’s Orchestra” in 1904-06, and Victor staff conductor Walter B. Rogers directing Victor’s own “house” orchestras, the Victor Orchestra (for popular works) beginning in 1904 and the Victor Concert Orchestra (for more “classical” literature) beginning in 1907. (A very few 1903-04 14-inch issues are credited to the “Victor Symphony Orchestra”; these may have been conducted by either Pryor or Rogers.) The concert orchestra of Victor Herbert made several recordings for the company in 1903; these early discs may not have been conducted by Herbert himself, but Victor signed Herbert and his orchestra to a long-term contract in 1911, engaging them to record symphonic and theatre music under Herbert’s direction (most of the labels credit “Victor Herbert’s Orchestra/Personally directed by Victor Herbert”). Victor also imported early orchestral recordings made by its European affiliates, notably performances by the La Scala Orchestra under Carlo Sabajno and the New Symphony Orchestra of London under Landon Ronald. Victor expanded its American orchestral recording program by making recordings of the Boston Symphony Orchestraconducted by Karl Muck and the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski in 1917; Victor’s relationship with Stokowski and Philadelphia remained firm for decades. In 1920–21, Arturo Toscanini made his first recordings, conducting the La Scala Orchestra, which was then on an American tour. Victor went on to record the New York Philharmonic Orchestra withWillem Mengelberg and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with Rudolph Ganz from 1922, and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra under Alfred Hertz from 1925; Hertz’s earliest discs, made at Victor’s new Oakland studios (opened in 1924), were the company’s last acoustical orchestral sessions.
The origins of country music as we know it today can be traced to two seminal influences and a remarkable coincidence. Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family are considered the founders of country music and their songs were first captured at an historic recording session in Bristol,Tennessee on August 1, 1927, where Ralph Peer was the talent scout and sound recordist for Victor Records.
During the 1920s Victor also released “race records” (that is, records recorded by and marketed to African Americans). These records were scattered in Victor’s regular popular music series until July, 1928 when they started the V-38000 series (which lasted until V-38146 in 1930). They then started a new “hot dance” series 23000-23041, which ran 1930-31 followed by a new race series 23250-23432 running through 1933.
Emile Berliner emigrated to Montreal, Quebec, Canada in 1900, probably to escape the legal chaos created by his erstwhile “sales manager,” Frank Seaman, in the United States, since he still owned his Canadian patents for his lateral disc records. He set up the Berliner Gram-O-Phone Company to merchandise his machines and disc records. The company was eventually controlled by Emile’s son, Herbert Berliner. Note that Herbert established his own, essentially competing, record company, the Compo Company, also in Montreal. In fact, in 1919 the Compo Company pressed records credited only to “Famous Tenor,” which used Victor sides cut by John McCormack; these were quickly withdrawn, to be replaced by the same titles cut by Ernest Hare doing a creditable McCormack impression.
Herbert Berliner left Berliner Gramophone of Canada in 1921 and developed Compo into a full-fledged record company.
A few years later, Victor acquired its Canadian counterpart, Berliner Gramophone of Canada, in 1924. Interestingly enough, when Victor introduced electric records in 1925, the Canadian firm immediately announced “the new V.E. Process” records; this was probably because the Compo Company had begun issuing electric recordings, promoted as such, in late January 1925. As a result, a special record, “You and I” by Jack Shilkret, promoting “the new V.E. Process” was issued; this was Victor 19571, with the Canadian promo version pairing acoustic (as issued in the U.S.) and electric (apparently recorded in Montreal) versions of 19571-A.
Electrical recording era
Victor “scroll” label from 1930, featuring the company’s house band directed by Nat Shilkret.
The advent of radio as a home entertainment medium in the early 1920s presented Victor and the entire record industry with new challenges. Not only was music becoming available over the air free of charge, but a live broadcast made using a high-quality microphone and heard over a high-quality receiver provided clearer, more “natural” sound than a contemporary phonograph record. In 1925, Victor switched from the old acoustical or mechanical method of recording to the new microphone-based electrical system developed by Western Electric. Victor called their version of the improved fidelity recording process “Orthophonic”, and sold a line of new designs of phonographs to play these improved records, called “Orthophonic Victrolas“. The large top-of-the-line “Credenza” models of Orthophonic Victrolas had a 1.8 m (6 foot) long horn coiled inside the cabinet, and are often considered the high point of the development of the commercial wind-up phonograph, offering audio fidelity seldom matched by most home electric phonographs until some 30 years later. Victor electric recordings began being issued in spring 1925. However, in order to manufacture a sufficient supply of the electric recordings to satisfy anticipated demand and to allow dealers to liquidate their stock of acoustic recordings, Victor and its rival, Columbia, agreed to keep secret from the public, until the end of 1925, the fact that the recordings using this new process offered a vast improvement over the older acoustical recordings. With a large advertising campaign, Victor introduced its Orthophonic records on “Victor Day”, November 2, 1925.
The “V. E.” in a circle, indicating an electrical recording.
Victor’s first commercial electrical recording was made at the company’s Camden, New Jersey studios on February 26, 1925. A group of eight popular Victor artists, Billy Murray, Frank Banta, Henry Burr, Albert Campbell, Frank Croxton, John Meyer, Monroe Silver, and Rudy Wiedoeft gathered to record “A Miniature Concert”. Several takes were recorded by the old acoustic process, then additional takes were recorded electrically for test purposes. The electric recordings turned out well, and Victor issued the results that summer as the two sides of 12-inch 78 rpm record Victor 35753.
However, the first recorded commercial electrical recording was not the first issued commercial electric recording, and Gelatt notes for the first issued commercial electric recording that, “chronological pride of place goes to Victor 19626”, with both sides being selections from the (University of Pennsylvania’s) Mask and Wig Club’s production Joan of Arkansas conducted by Nathaniel Shilkret. The A-side was recorded on March 16, 1925 and the B-side on March 20, 1925
Victor quickly recorded the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Stokowski in a series of electrical recordings, initially at its Camden, New Jersey studios and then in Philadelphia’s Academy of Music. Among Stokowski’s first electrical recordings were performances of Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns and Marche Slave by Peter Tchaikovsky. Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra made a series of recordings for Victor, beginning in 1925, first in Victor’s Chicago studios and then in Orchestra Hall. The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alfred Hertz made a few acoustical recordings early in 1925, then switched to electrical recordings in Oakland and San Francisco, California, continuing until 1928. Within a few years,Serge Koussevitsky began a long series of recordings with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Boston’s Symphony Hall. Toscanini made his first Victor electrical recordings with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1929.
In 1926, Johnson sold his controlling (but not holding) interest in Victor to the banking firm of Seligman & Spyer, who in 1929 sold to theRadio Corporation of America, which then became known as the Radio-Victor Division of the Radio Corporation of America laterRCA Victor. (See RCA and RCA Records for later history of the Victor brand name.)
The Victor Company of Japan (JVC), founded in 1927, severed its ties to RCA Victor at the start of World War II, and is still one of the oldest and most successful Japanese record labels as well as an electronics giant. It also retains the Victor name and “His Master’s Voice” trademark in commercial operations in Japan.
Victrola Model XVI, 1910s
In September 1906, Johnson and his engineers designed a new line of phonographs with the turntable and amplifying horn tucked away inside a wooden cabinet. This was not done for reasons of audio fidelity, but for visual aesthetics. The intention was to produce a phonograph that looked less like a piece of machinery and more like a piece of furniture. These internal horn machines, trademarked with the name Victrola, were first marketed to the public in August of that year and were an immediate hit. Soon an extensive line of Victrolas was marketed, ranging from small tabletop models selling for $15, through many sizes and designs of cabinets intended to go with the decor of middle-class homes in the $100 to $250 range, up to $600 Chippendale and Queen Anne-style cabinets of fine wood with gold trim designed to look at home in elegant mansions. Victrolas became by far the most popular brand of home phonograph, and sold in great numbers until the end of the 1920s. RCA Victor continued to market phonographs with the “Victrola” name until the early 1970s.
The Victor archives
A 1916 advertisement for Hawaiian music records from Victor Talking Machine Company.
Victor kept meticulous written records of all of its recordings. The files cover the period 1903 to 1958 (so this discussion is pertinent to RCA Victor as well as The Victor Talking Machine). These written records are among the most extensive and important sources of available primary discographic information in the world. There were three main categories of files: A daily log of recordings for each day; a file maintained for each important Victor artist; and a 4″x6″ index card file kept in catalog number order. As of 2010, the Victor archives were owned by Sony and kept in New York City.
There are about 15,000 daily log pages, each titled “Recording Book,” that are numbered chronologically. Each recording was assigned a “matrix number” to identify the recording. When issued, the recording had a “catalog number,” almost always different from the matrix number, on the record label. For most recordings the information given in the daily log included the following:
- recording date
- matrix number
- instrumentation (e.g., “2 violins-piano,” with only the important artists or important Victor house musicians named, e.g., “violin-L. Raderman-piano-N. Shilkret“)
- author(s) (lyricist(s) and composer(s))
- take number (e.g., B 27413-3 for the third attempt at recording matrix B 27413)
- disposition (“D” for destroy, “H” for hold, “M” for master), which was written in by hand after the entry was made
- a date which may have been the date disposition was made
For many recordings the following additional information was written:
- catalog number, which was written by hand after the entry was made
- city in which the recording was made
Some pages have letter suffixes; e.g., page 5417A follows page 5417. Frequently, but not always, the pages with letter suffixes were used for recordings made other than in the New York area; e.g., page 5417A lists recordings made in Chicago. Pages with letter suffixes are sometimes slightly out of chronological order.
As of 2010, the pages available at the Sony’s Victor Archives go only up to April 22, 1935. Victor’s original pages after this date were apparently discarded at some point. However, Victor had ties with EMI in England, and at Hayes, England EMI has more recent pages. These pages were sent at the time they were first written, and they do not have the annotations made afterwards.
Most, but not all, daily log information for recordings made for synchronization with motion pictures were kept separately, and the separate synchronization recording information is missing from the Sony Victor archives.
The files by artist were also maintained chronologically and had information similar to that in the daily log sheets, and also some technical information such as information about the horns used for acoustical recordings. E.g., there is an approximately 350-page file labeled “International Novelty Orchestra–Export.” The word “Export” indicated that only the recordings made for export to Central and South America were included in the file.
The 4″x6″ index cards are on blue stock, and, thus, are usually referred to as “the blue cards” or some variant of this. The blue card file consists of approximately a quarter of a million cards arranged in catalog number order. The blue cards contain much of the same information as the daily log and also additional information, such as the date a master was tested. In some cases, record sales are indicated on the back side of the card.
Victor also issued catalogs, usually annually, with supplements issued during the year, that were carefully prepared and also provide useful information.
The Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings (EDVR) is a continuation of a project of Ted Fagan and William Moran to make a complete discography of all Victor recordings. The Victor archive files are a major source of information for this project.