Early Edison Record with a stamped Label

Edison Disk Records

They’re rare, but they’re not exactly in demand. You rarely see them, and, when you do, you’re more likely to remark upon their size (“Oh, my goodness. That record must be a quarter of an inch thick!”) than you are their contents (“Oh, cool! Vernon Dalmart’s ‘The Wreck on the Southern Old 97.’”) These records are actually 1/4 inch thick.

We are fortunate to have five of these early Edison Recordings in our collection, four of them prior to 1921 with the stamped label in the centre.

Record 1

side A Brighten The Corner Where You Are by Chas. H. Gabreli no:8054L

Side B A Mighty Fortress is Our God by The Calvary Choir no:80504R

Record 2

Side A Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep by J.P. Knight basso and choir with orchestra Frank Croxton no 80072L

Side B The Bloom is on the Rye by Henry R. Bishop, Tenor and Baritone with orchestra John Young and Frederick J. Wheeler

Record 3

Side A Old Folks at Home by Sigmond G. Foster

Side B Annie Laurie by Anna Case

Record 4

Side A Jesus Lover of my Soul – mixed voices with orchestra Metroplitian Quartet

Side B The Glory Song – Tenor and Baritone with orchestra John Young and Frederick J. Wheeler

Record 5 Paper Label produced after 1921

Side A Not Half Has Ever Been Told- mixed voices with orchestra Metroplitian Quartet no. 80703L

Side B Oh Day Of Rest and Gladness mixed voices with orchestra Metroplitian Quartet no. 80703R

On the Left an Edison 1/4″ thick record, on the right a normal 78 rpm Record

Edison discs were, as their name suggests, the brainchild of Thomas Edison.

The early cylinders were great, because they gave everyone a place to start. But when the rest of the world raced off with 78s, shellac and steel needles, Edison put his faith in the fat, flat cakes that bear his name, revolve at roughly 80 RPM and are made of condensite that’s been sprayed onto a celluloid base and bonded to a wood-flour core. And they can — or, at least, should — only be played with a diamond needle, affixed to an Edison player.
In terms of quality, durability and fidelity, Edison discs were so superior to other companies’ 78s that it wasn’t even funny. But they said that about Betamax tapes, too.

Edison released his first discs in 1912, although his personal preference appears to have been for cylinders. They were cheaper to produce, after all. But Emile Berliner’s discs had been devouring an ever-larger part of the market for pre-recorded music for more than a decade, and Edison could see the way the wind was blowing.

The first Edison discs — indeed, the first 10 years’ worth of Edison discs — rate among the most distinctive-looking discs ever produced for the mass market, because, unless you look carefully, they are utterly undistinctive. Black discs, black moulded labels. Even with all the advantages of modern lighting, it’s difficult to make out what you’re about to listen to. Early on, gray highlighting was added to the lettering on the disc, but it was dropped because of the cost. It was 1921 before Edison approved paper labels for his discs, and even then there were troubles, such as his apparent reluctance to use glue to affix them to the discs.

According to the most complete modern catalogues, there were more than 26,000 releases on the label between Edison Records’ birth in 1912 and its closure in 1929.

A company catalogue published in 1924, that’s 495 pages filled with tiny type that lists releases by artist name, song title and musical style. And they are distinguished (at least according to that same worthy tome) from talking-machine records because “they are true representations of vocal and instrumental music as produced by living artists. They are not mere shadows. They are the very substance of the living music, alive with all the emotions of the living artist. They are produced through a medium, not by it.”

An Edison Recording with a paper label produced after 1921

Myriad artists recorded for Edison. Early country connoisseurs do seek out the aforementioned Vernon Dalmart. But the Edison catalogue offered up a variety of artists, including vaudevillians John Orren and Lillian Drew; Hawaiian guitarists Helen Louise and Frank Ferrera; comedians Billy Golden and James Marlowe; soprano Rachael Grant; pianist Carlos Valderrama; the Jazzarimba Orchestra and the Green Brothers Novelty Band; Van Avery, “the Original Rastus;” Gilbert Girard with his animal impressions; and The Three Vagrants.

There is no way of knowing how many Edison discs exist today, let alone if the titles that are to be noted online, selling on eBay or safely reposing in an archive some place, represent the mere tip of an iceberg of extant copies, or the last bold survivors of a long-exterminated pressing run. In terms of musical impact, perhaps it doesn’t matter whether there’s just one copy of the New York Military Band’s “American Eagle March” out there or a thousand, so long as that one has been digitized for posterity, so no one can accuse us of being cavalier with our heritage and so it will always be there should someone need to hear it.

That’s not the point, but it’s better than nothing. Collectors of 78 RPM and related fields of records endeavour to create and maintain censuses noting everything from the estimated number of copies that are “out there,” to sad lists of the records that are known to have existed once, but which have yet to be rediscovered. Blues collectors are especially punctilious in that respect; Edison collectors, not so much.

A number of what would have been termed “hot” titles did appear; the catalogue notes such early pioneers as the Frisco Jass Band, Red Nichols, Red & Miff’s Stompers, Chas. Matson’s Creole Serenaders, Clarence Williams and Eva Taylor, the Five Harmaniacs, Viola McCoy, Fletcher Henderson and Josie Miles. In fact, if you really want to get archaeological about it, the very first recorded mention of the word “jazz” came courtesy of an Edison disc, a 1916 effort by baritone Arthur F. Collins and tenor Byron G. Harlan, “That Funny Jas Band From Dixieland.”

For the most part, however, Edison’s A&R department targeted its output at an audience that appreciated waltzes and foxtrots, accordion music and polkas. The Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninov was an admirer of Edison, and he recorded many sides for his label. Other classical bodies followed him, for they agreed with Edison’s own determination that the Edison disc was a sonic step above anything available on cheaper or more popular record labels, which might be why the entire edifice came crumbling down in 1929.

As other technologies advanced, Edison’s remained the same. He pioneered what, by the day’s standards, were long-playing discs, but he refused to either share his technology with other manufacturers or adapt his own so that Edison discs could be played on other gramophones. As other companies’ prices came down, Edison’s went up.

As recording techniques improved, Edison’s stayed the same. Add to that the fact that the inventor was more or less deaf as a post, and you can feel the frustration in his son Theodore’s oft-quoted recollection of old Thomas listening to competitors’ records with the volume turned up full, and the speaker rattling with distortion: “He became so deaf that he couldn’t hear that good electrical reproduction was possible.”

It was 1929 before Edison finally agreed to make “compatible” records, by which time he had already decided to get out of the record business. The last Edison discs were produced at the end of that same year, by which time the company’s market share had shrunk to a fraction of what it had once been. (information taken from various sources)

 

The paper Label of an Edison record produced between 1921 and 1929

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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