Columbia Corporate History: The Depression of 1908
Columbia Master Book, Volume I, Tim Brooks, ed.
The year 1908 brought a crisis that shook the company to its foundations. A financial panic in October 1907 led to a nationwide economic depression, which devastated the phonograph business, and Columbia found itself in the unaccustomed position of laying off workers and cutting salaries. Victor and Edison, with their substantial resources, were in a better position to weather the storm, but as number two in both disc and cylinder sales, Columbia was particularly vulnerable.
Founder Edward Easton, now 52 years old, went through a period of severe depression. All that he had struggled so hard to build over the past 20 years was in danger of being swept away. As his daughter Mary later recalled:
The Columbia company was on the verge of failure. A deep melancholy settled over father. He could not smile. He would hardly speak in the long evenings at home. He would sit for hours staring into space.
Hundreds of employees of the Columbia Company were laid off, and those who were still necessary to the business had their salaries cut twenty percent or more. We cut our home expenses in every possible way. Father went to the office on the train every day as usual. One day he deliberately got up from his seat in the train, opened the door to the platform and stepped off into space. The train was going over a trestle. Someone saw him fall and signaled for the train to stop.
He was not killed, but his head was injured. For weeks he was in a sanitarium, scarcely recognizing any of us. He never had any recollection of stepping off the train. I don't know how we lived through those dark days.”33
The incident, which occurred on January 23, 1908, was hushed up and Easton eventually returned to work, but in his daughter’s words, he was “never the same.” However, Easton had built a strong executive team, which developed an ingenious and daring strategy to save the company.
The Columbia Master Book Discography, 4 Volumes, Complied by Brian Rust and Tim Brooks. Reprinted by permission.