Columbia Corporate History: The Awards Wars

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

An important element in the battle for prestige was the competition for awards at the great expositions of the day. Columbia and Victor both exhibited at these celebrations of America’s consumerism, often showcasing special “advanced” phonographs especially designed for the event. The exhibits were seen by hundreds of thousands of visitors, and any awards won could be trumpeted in advertising long afterwards. Columbia scored early in the “awards wars” by winning a prize at the Paris Exposition of 1900 for a three-horned Graphophone which played a single long cylinder containing three tracks. (The only known example of this machine was sent to the Shah of Persia, evidently a man who had to have everything.) For the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Fair in St. Louis, Thomas Macdonald came up with an even more bizarre machine, a four horned, four turntable disc phonograph.27 Columbia’s huge, temple-like exhibit was presided over by company Vice President Paul Cromelin.

The 1904 competition turned somewhat comical when Columbia and Victor each insisted that it had won the “Grand Prize” at the fair (both were right; each got an award from a different jury). The dispute spilled over into a court case, but both companies boasted “Grand Prize—St. Louis, 1904” on its labels for several years thereafter, no doubt confusing buyers.

Columbia snared yet another Grand Prize at the Milan Exposition in Italy in 1906, for another four-horned monstrosity, this one with four morning-glory horns intertwined like a tangle in an untrimmed garden.28

The year 1905 brought the belated introduction of Columbia 12” discs in July, and a major price reduction in December (10” discs went from $1 to 60¢, and 12” from $1.50 to $1). This matched a similar reduction by Victor. Net earnings for the year were $804,000, setting another all-time record.29

By 1907 Columbia was boasting that it had 9,000 dealers natiollwide.30 It was not too difficult to become a dealer, however. In a February 13, 1908, letter, a Columbia executive advised a local Pennsylvania man that “in order to become a dealer in Columbia goods you place an order for 2 machines of your own choosing and 150 cylinder records, or 100 disc records, 10”. The total investment is very modest and after the initial order everything you buy is at best dealer’s discount, no matter what the quantity.”31 The initial investment, at list, could thus be as little as $100. The subsequent dealer’s discount on records and on most machines was 40%, and the company provided circulars, window strips and store signs for free. 

Back to Leased Masters | Forward to The Marconi Label

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

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