Columbia Label Photographs

Columbia Master Book, Volume I, Tim Brooks, ed.

[Editor's Note: The images associated with this section in the print version may or may not be available, but illustrative images will be forthcoming.]

Following is a brief overview of the principal label styles used by Columbia between 1901 and 1934. A complete history of Columbia labels could fill a book, as indeed it has with the recent work by collectors Michael Sherman and Kurt Nauck (see Bibliography). My thanks to them for sharing their preliminary findings.

The first Climax records did not have paper labels, instead information appeared in embossed (raised) lettering on the shellac itself. These primitive discs appear to have been on sale for only a month or so, beginning about October 1901. The lettering credited the Globe Record Company, and made no mention of Columbia (figure 1). This “Globe Climax” label was quickly succeeded by the first Climax paper label (figure 2), which proudly acknowledged “mf'd solely for Columbia Phonograph Co.” On some early discs the paper label was applied over the original embossed lettering, which is clearly visible underneath. The color scheme was gold-on-black, although a variant version, used in early 1902, is silver-on-black with a broken ring around the edge.

When Climax was replaced by Columbia in mid-1902, the label remained largely unchanged (figure 3). The word “Climax” was simply replaced by the rather obvious “Columbia Disc Record.” The color scheme became silver-on-black, which it remained for the rest of the single-face era. This design was used until 1904, with several modifications including the addition of “Grand Prize Paris 1900” and the deletion of the silver ring around the circumference. In late 1904 the label was modified to add several lines headed “conditions of sale” (forbidding duplication), and shortly thereafter “Columbia Disc Record” was replaced by “Columbia Phonograph Co.”

The next major redesign came in 1906 with the introduction of the “Grand Prize” label (figure 4), mirroring a similar redesign by Victor. The heading was now simply “Columbia Record” in large, curved lettering, but directly underneath appeared the boast “Grand Prize—Highest Possible Award, Paris 1900, St. Louis, 1904 “—to which was later added “Milan 1906.” Also in 1906 a multi-colored special label was introduced for prestige Symphony Series recordings, sometimes called the “Banner label” (figure 5). Originally used on single-faced discs, it was carried over into the double-face era and continued in use for both single-face and double-face Symphony Series discs until 1923.

The introduction of Double-Discs in 1908 called for a major overhaul, resulting in the handsome white and gold on black “Magic Notes” label, prominently featuring the new Notes logo (figure 6). This format survived for eight years. Numerous variants are found, including a pink Grand Opera label, and various color schemes for export series. Perhaps the most unusual variant did not use a paper label, but had embossed information in the center area (e.g., some copies of A5110). The raised lettering was highlighted in gold.

In 1916 the Magic Notes label was replaced by a simplified blue and gold design. Across the top was the single word “Columbia” (figure 7). This is sometimes known as the “patents label,” due to the ring of patents around the bottom half. Numerous small changes were made during its seven-year life span, including the addition of the words “Exclusive Artist” right below the word Columbia in appropriate cases in the early 1920s.

The introduction of new catalog series in late 1923 was accompanied by a switch to one of the most colorful of Columbia’s labels, the “Flag” label (figure 8). Featuring black lettering and red, white and blue draped flags set against a dominantly gold background, it must have been expensive to produce in quantity and was replaced in 1925 by the simpler gold-on-black (for popular) or blue (for classical) Viva-tonal label (figure 9). At first the words “Viva-tonal” did not appear, being added, along with “Electrical Process,” when electrical recording was acknowledged in 1926. This general layout was retained until the end of the 1930s, although in 1932 the references to Viva-tonal and Electrical Process were removed and the background color on popular issues—as well as the color of the shellac—was changed to blue (the “Royal Blue” label).

Columbia masters are of course found on numerous other labels, a sampling of which are included here. The Marconi label was marketed by Columbia in 1907 and 1908, sporting a rather handsome label, half white on gold, and half gold on blue (figure 10). The Climax name was revived in 1909 for a double-face subsidiary label, whose color scheme was black-and-gold (figure 11). For many years Columbia manufactured special pressings for Sears, Roebuck. The first of the Sears labels appears to have been Harvard (1903), whose label went through several designs, including this red-on-off white incarnation (figure 12). Another principal user of Columbia masters was a group of Chicago economy labels, which specialized in discs with oversize spindle holes (to be played on their own machines). The Chicago labels included United, with a one and one­half inch center hole (figure 13), and Aretina, with a gaping three-inch center orifice (figure 14).

After abandoning the low-priced record business in the late 1910s, Columbia returned in a big way under its new owners in the late 1920s. Most frequently found from this era are Harmony, Diva and Velvet Tone, the latter with a rather plain gold-on-blue label design (figure 15).

All following examples are from the author’s collection, except for figure one, which is courtesy of Paul Charosh. Label photography by the author.

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Contents: Columbia Master Book Table of Contents | Contents: Columbia History | Tables | Appendices

The Columbia Master Book Discography, 4 Volumes, Complied by Brian Rust and Tim Brooks. Reprinted by permission.