Columbia Corporate History: The End of an Era and New Directions

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

The industry was thrown into an uproar in late 1914 with the introduction of another kind of record, the 10¢ “Little Wonder.”49 Although Little Wonder was not owned by Columbia, the 5½” discs were manufactured at Columbia’s Bridgeport plant under protection of the company’s patents. They were single-sided and only had room for a single verse and chorus of a song, but at such a low price they sold like hotcakes. Reportedly a total of 4.5 million were sold in January 1915 alone, and 20 million by mid-1916. Little Wonder was run by music publisher Henry Waterson, but it soon became known that Columbia executive Victor Emerson, who had authorized the use of the company’s facilities and patents, was personally profiting from them as well. As a result he was forced out of Columbia, which eventually took over the label and wound it down. Like the huge-selling Columbia Demonstration records, Little Wonder demonstrated that there was an enormous potential market for low-priced records, posing an obvious threat to Victor and Columbia’s high profit margins. As long as the two companies could maintain market control and keep prices high through their patent monopoly, they had no intention of undermining profits through price-cutting.

The following year marked the end of an era at Columbia. Founder Edward D. Easton died on April 30, 1915, severing the last link with the company’s earliest days. Although he had been intermittently ill and less involved in day-to-day affairs in recent years, he was a symbol of continuity. Most of the other top managers of the early 1900s were gone as well. Paul Cromelin and Victor Emerson had left, and inventor and factory chief Thomas Macdonald had died in 1911. Former General Manager George W. Lyle left the company shortly after Easton’s death.50 Ace attorney Philip Mauro, responsible for the patent victories that had kept Columbia alive at the tum of the century, was apparently less involved in company affairs as well.

Easton’s son Mortimer Easton served briefly on the Board of Directors after his father’s death, but the “founder’s era” was over. As a sidelight, it is interesting to note the relative wealth gained by the various participants in Columbia’s success. Easton’s estate was estimated at $1 million, a considerable sum for 1915.51 When Macdonald’s estate was probated in 1911, it was estimated to be worth only $25,000.52 It pays to own the company.

Of course Easton’s fortune paled in comparison with that of Victor founder Eldridge R. Johnson, who sold his Victor stock in 1927 for $28 million.53

A new generation of management now took over. Industrialist Philip T. Dodge, longtime head of the Mergenthaler Linotype Co., and the man who in 1914 had saved the financially troubled International Paper Company, was recruited as the new president of Columbia.54 He immediately put his stamp on operations, which may have helped precipitate a bitter strike later in the year that closed the Bridgeport plant for more than two weeks.55 After about two years Dodge moved up to the new post of Chairman of the Board and was replaced by Francis S. Whitten. In December 1917 the new management reorganized the parent American Graphophone Co., giving it the new and rather descriptive name, the Columbia Graphophone Manufacturing Co. “American Graphophone,” a name that dated from the birth of the industry (1887), was no more.

Columbia continued to be an aggressively managed company, number two in sales to Victor but always looking for any ways to increase its market share. It pioneered the recording of first-class symphony orchestras in 1916, and in late 1917 concluded a deal with Harper & Co. publishers to manufacture 5½” recordings of children’s songs (numbered in the Little Wonder series) for inclusion in Harper’s “Bubble Books” for children. These were best sellers. 

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