1914 - America and the phonograph industry on the eve of the Great War, Page 3

April 2003
This article is part of the Noteworthy News archives.

Keenophone advertisement
Post-mortem: At the beginning of the year, Keene-o-phones were liquidated at discounts of 50% and more by retailers such as Gimbel's. By the end of the year, upstarts such as Pathe and Sonora challenged Victrola dominance.
(Click on the image to view the ad full size.)

Meanwhile, the remaining inventory of the unsuccessful Keene-o-Phone experiment was either liquidated at a substantial discount or cannibalized for parts by its successor, the Rex Talking Machine company.

A serious challenge to the Big Three’s hegemony wasn’t mounted until the fall, with the advent of internal horn machines from Aeolian, Pathe, Cheney, and Sonora.

Aeolian had reported in September that it had contracted to display a complete stock of Grafonolas and Columbia records at its flagship Aeolian Hall in New York, but then a few months later surprised the trade with its line of Vocalian machines.

Pathe Freres announced in October that it was ready to enter the American market with machines and double-sided hill-and-dale discs, featuring artists of international renown, such as Slezak and Tita Ruffo, although as it turned out sales didn’t really get rolling until 1915. This was no small news, because Pathe was a European powerhouse not only in phonographs but also in motion pictures.

Cheney was bankrolled by department store magnate Marshall Field, who furnished an elegant talking machine parlor on the third floor of his Chicago emporium.

The talking machine business was a seasonal business--strong in the winter, sluggish in the summer, when the dealers turned to complementary items such as bicycles. July 1914 was no exception, and as people stopped dancing in the heat they stopped purchasing dance records. There was also fear of war -- not with Germany but with the Huerta government in Mexico, where President Wilson had ordered the Marines to seize Veracruz.

The jobbers also held their annual convention in July; most of the talk this year was about price maintenance agreements. Price maintenance, common in many American industries at this time, allowed the manufacturer to set the final retail price of his product. The Progressive movement had another name for it, a name associated with a hated and dishonorable practice of the railroad trusts: price fixing.

Price maintenance had not been adjudicated illegal in 1914, but two recent Supreme Court decisions led to the conclusion that the Court was trending in that direction. The jobbers and small dealers strongly favored price maintenance--”protection of all,” they said--because it immunized them from price cutting by the emergent chain stores, and the dealers had in fact formed a committee to lobby Congress to retain the manufacturer’s right to control who sold his products, and at what value.

Installment sales, something relatively new, were another topic at the convention. The manufacturers encouraged it and issued suggestions for dunning delinquent customers, but it was the dealer who financed it and assumed the risk. The thought was ventured that the dealer should be permitted to charge interest, perhaps as much as six percent.

As the weather cooled business picked up. In September, dealers reported that the new Victrolas X and XI were selling well, particularly in the new English Brown. The dance craze continued hot and heavy; one bemused midwest dealer noted that people were purchasing only popular tunes -- not “real music like Caruso.” A new dance, the Fox Trot, displaced all other dances. A combination of the of the One-Step and the Two-Step, the Fox Trot was attributed--nobody knows if correctly-- to an improvisation by a New York vaudeville personality named Harry Fox.

In September the Little Wonder, a record 5” in diameter that played for two minutes, was cutting into Victor and Columbia profits. It sold for first 15 cents, then later 10 cents, and in about three months was purchased by Columbia.

In August for obscure reasons a Great War broke out in Europe. The American phonograph trade was little touched, save for a few executives on Continental vacation who were inconvenienced and had to scurry home. The British gramophone industry came to a dead halt for lack of buyers and lack of parts (precision parts had been of German manufacture), and the Gramophone Company’s City Road facility was turned over to the British war effort. A song that had been rejected by at least 20 London publishers, “Tipperary,” became the unofficial anthem of the British army.

Pianos were pitched off British warhips in favor of Victrolas, and gramophones could be heard resonating through German trenches. Americans followed the plight of the million man armies with keen interest, though most of the news received was of British origin, for the English had severed the German trans-Atlantic cable

Edison factory fire
Tragedy at West Orange: This postcard captures the devastation in the aftermath of the Edison fire. Miraculously, only one life was lost. COURTESY ALLEN KOENIGSBERG

On Dec. 9 disaster struck home when a fire consumed the Edison plant in West Orange, New Jersey. Leaping from a can of highly combustible celluloid film, the flames destroyed the Film Works, Diamond Disc Works, Cylinder Phonograph Works, and Administration Building as Edison’s fire department fought impotently. Edison vowed to rebuild “strong enough to withstand anything but an earthquake,” and was again shipping out records after one month.

As the trade prepared for the all-important Christmas season of 1914 it seemed prospects were very favorable. Victor launched unprecedented full-page ads in major metropolitan dailies listing the names and address of local dealers.

The only noticeable effect of the war thus far was seen in the ethnic communities of large cities such as New York, an increasing demand for recordings of patriotic airs of the warring nations.

It was felt that the European War might be good for American business. America was neutral, and President Wilson had always espoused an isolationist policy. There might be a good market for American grain, meat and cotton--cotton being not just for clothing but also as the raw stuff of munitions.

In the fall of 1914 America had been blessed with an especially bountiful harvest. The European War seemed very far away, and besides, all the experts had assured that it would be over in just a few months.

Sources: Koenigsberg, Allen. Patent History of the Phonograph.
Castle, Irene. Castles In the Air.
Fabrizio, Tim. Interview.
Talking Machine World, 1914.

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