Introduction: On the Gramophone

Berliner Gramophone Records: American Issues, 1892-1900, compiled by Paul Charosh

 In 1892, Emile Berliner penned a brief autobiographical note. He writes of immigrating to the United States in 1870, passing four years in Washington, moving to New York and “later out West to see the world,” trying “various occupations, bookkeeper, teacher, draughtsman, commercial traveller and assistant in a chemical laboratory.” Back in Washington in the autumn of 1876, he “commenced to experiment on electrical and acoustic researches with reference to the transmission of speech and the improvement of the speaking telephone.”

Writing in the third person, as if to attribute authorship to an independent interested party, Berliner concludes:

In 1887 he invented the Gramophone which is based on the Scott Phonautograph of 1857 and on the original idea of Cros for reproducing speech. At the date of this writing (1892) Berliner was engaged with completing a plant for duplicating sound records in hard rubber and in getting the invention ready for the market.1

He does not mention Edison or competitors Bell, Tainter, and others who vied for receipt and control of cylinder-related sound-recording patents; for Berliner’s conceit to record on disc, incising a groove of even depth, distinguished his invention from the others and made the gramophone’s initial, independent development possible. It is described in Electrical World of 12 November 1887, the year of his first patents. The article cites his prediction “that the gramophone is destined to fulfill many of the expectations which were placed 10 years ago on the phonograph, and which are partially realized by the graphophone.” He expected that within a few years “we may have our choice of phonautograms recorded by popular orators, writers, singers, actors, etc.… For even at this early stage in the art of gramophony a recognition of the voice is unmistakable and the only practical problems now are to produce an even and regular motion and to find the most suitable material in which to mold the reproducing plate.”2

The device was presented at the Franklin Institute in 1888, and a number of documents describing it and predicting its ultimate success have come down to us from this period. Although Berliner went to Germany in late 1889 and began marketing it there before July 1890, 3 its invention was still offered as news in this country. The heading of an article in The New York Times of 24 October 18904 tells us: “Sound Etched on Zinc / Electrician Berliner Has an Invention He Calls the Gramophone.” On 17 December 1890, The New York Times reported its exhibition before the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in New York, where a large audience “applauded the singers who had sung into the gramophone as heartily as though they had been present.… The concert consisted of cornet and clarionet solos, brass quartets, and some contralto selections sung by Mrs. J. Esputa Daly of Washington into the instruments.”5 An interview during 1888 tells us that

though the gramophone is intended for commercial use, its immediate mission… is to provide a means of amusement for concert halls or parlors, which will always be available. The hostess ‘has a few friends’ and has no one to sing for them. A disc of Patti in La Sonnambula, or Gerster in Lucia, is put into the instrument and everyone is delighted. If a little instrumental music is wanted, Joseffy, or a Liszt rhapsodie, will probably fill the bill. If the young people want a dance, the latest waltz, rendered in the most approved fashion, may be reproduced.6

The phonograph and graphophone passed through a phase in which their function was subject to conflicting definitions. Were they to be used seriously or frivolously, as mechanical stenographers or for entertainment purposes? Ultimately they served both functions, but in their early days the latter prevailed for practical reasons: cylinder machines of the time worked too unpredictably as office dictating machines, exhausting the patience of those who rented or purchased them; but as coin-in-slot devices on public display, they were appreciated by casual users who enjoyed the entertainment cylinders with which they were equipped. Moreover, they earned a nickel each time they were played and, ultimately, more than the cost of their keep and maintenance. Such cylinders had been marketed since the spring of 1889,7 their content establishing a precedent followed by Berliner when he began selling discs in this country several years later.

Although Berliner intended to place the gramophone in the world of commerce, its recording principles rendered it unsuitable as a dictating device in such a setting. Discs could be made only in an appropriately appointed laboratory under the supervision of a trained technician. Nevertheless, when its potential function was proposed on a commercially released disc, a humorous monologue titled “On the Gramophone,” its ability to produce speech was cited exclusively. A transcript of the text follows:

Friends, allow me to introduce myself. I am the gramophone. I can talk longer, talk louder, and talk upon more different subjects than any other instrument that has ever been invented. Now, friends, whatever you talk into me I talk back to you. Whatever you talk here on these plates it stays for years and years. You can talk into me and talk a letter and send it off to your mother, your father or your sweetheart and they can hear your own beloved voice many miles away.

I can tell you there is nothing like a gramophone and girls, it is the greatest thing for you because if a young man is going to propose to you, make him talk it into the gramophone and you’ve got him dead. There’s no occasion to go to law and institute a case of breach of promise when you have the ______ one.

Now another thing: whatever you say into the gramophone it’s bound to have the 1st word; so be careful and don’t leave it around when your wife and mother-in-law can hear it. Why friends, you can send letters of advice to the president of the United States and tell him how to conduct his He needs a little good advice and the gramophone can give it. But friends, I haven’t much time to tarry ‘cause I have to go ‘round the world on my triumphant tour, telling the glad tidings and speaking the good news of the gramophone everywhere. In conclusion, mark my words well, the gramophone is destined to be one of the grandest inventions of modern times. Then good night, folks, good night.8

Ultimately, spoken discs comprised less than ten percent of Berliner’s known output. They include a few sacred texts, fragments of speeches, comic monologues, and minstrel specialties. The first extant list of gramophone discs for sale dates to 1894 and features performances by anonymous artists or those better known to record collectors today than to audiences of the time. Berliner, like Edison and those connected with the Columbia Graphophone, was still years away from attracting the likes of Patti and others whose voices they alluded to in the visionary lectures of the 1870s and 80s. For some today, these discs are interesting primarily as artifacts of the history of sound recording, and collectors focus on their physical properties: their composition, the patent dates given on the face of the disc, the arrangement of recording information around the center hole, and so on. For those with broader scholarly concerns, these discs are also valuable sources of information about American culture.

The gramophone was marketed as an inexpensive popular entertainer for use by respectable people. The final page of a catalogue tells us: “It fills the church. And of course any parlor or ordinary sized room.” Priced at twenty-five dollars or less, it was within the financial reach of families with modest incomes and could be operated by any member. An early advertising booklet shows a hand-cranked machine operated by a little girl. This discography represents a map of the universe of popular culture (both musical and spoken) in which its audience resided.

It is impossible to determine the degree to which Berliner’s catalogue was planned by the inventor and his associates, and the extent to which it merely reflects the repertoire of the performers who, over the years, recorded for the gramophone. The fare offered on these discs is, of course, necessarily limited by its two-minute playing-time and the state of the recording technology in general. Joseph Sanders, an employee and nephew of Berliner, remembered that “the cornet and banjo were amongst the easiest to record and were considered good, and were popular.”9 But the content is not always clearly a function of the technology. There are few piano solos (although it recorded well) despite the American public’s affinity for the instrument and its ominipresence, along with piles of its music, in the parlors of musical families and those who used it as a symbol of their gentility and “cultivation.”10 Discs include short extracts of music from types of pieces more properly performed in longer segments or in their entirety, while some types suitable in length are absent or underrepresented. There are severely abridged selections from musical comedies and operas in a variety of instrumental arrangements. The compiler has found no recordings devoted to piano ragtime.11

We can identify twenty-one titles recorded ten times or more, including re-makes of the same catalogue number. The list follows.12 Recording frequency is bracketed.

  • My Old Kentucky Home (Stephen C. Foster, 1853) [25]

  • A Hot Time in the Old Town (Joe Hayden, Theodore M. Metz, 1896) [15]

  • Nearer My God to Thee (Lowell Mason, Sarah F. Adams, 1859) [15]

  • Old Folks at Home (Stephen C. Foster, 1851) [15]

  • The Palms [Les Rameaux]l (Jean Baptiste Faure, 1872) [15]

  • Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep (Joseph P. Knight, Mrs. Willard, 1840) [15]

  • The Blue Bells of Scotland (anonymous, c. 1800) [14]

  • The Stars and Stripes Forever (John Philip Sousa, 1897) [14]

  • At a Georgia Campmeeting (Kerry Mills, 1897) [13]

  • Home, Sweet Home (Henry R. Bishop, John Howard Payne, 1823) [13]

  • Marching Through Georgia (Henry Clay Work, 1865) [13]

  • [Listen to] the Mocking Bird (Richard Milburn, Alice Hawthorne, 1855) [13]

  • The Holy City (Stephen Adams, Frederick Edward Weatherly, 1892) [12]

  • Cavalleria Rusticana: Intermezzo (Pietro Mascagni, 1890) [11]

  • Just One Girl (Karl Kennett, Lyn Udall, 1899) [10]

  • King Cotton (John Philip Sousa, 1895) [10]

  • Robin Hood: Oh, Promise Me (Reginald De Koven, Clement Scott, 1889) [10]

  • The Sweetest Story Ever Told (R. M. Stults, 1892) [10]

  • Il Trovatore: Miserere (Giuseppe Verdi, Salvadore Cammarano, 1853) [10]

  • The Whistling Coon (Sam Devere, 1888) [10]

  • Yankee Doodle (anonymous, eighteenth century) [10]

Understanding the distribution of the gramophone’s repertoire requires knowledge of nineteenth-century musical types, entertainment venues and the social meaning associated with them. We must recognize that distinctions between classical and “light,” popular music were already in place decades before the end of the century. As early as 1858 editor and music critic James Sullivan Dwight had written of this distinction, identifying the former as “more solid, serious, earnest, of deeper import dealing with greater subjects, stirring deeper feelings, taxing higher powers of appreciation” when contrasted with “the mere music of an hour’s amusement, the waltzes, polkas, variations, trifling or weakly sentimental songs, light operas, &c.”13 Dwight, later joined by Theodore Thomas and others associated with the musical cognoscenti, used the instrumental and vocal music of Germany as their classical models. They venerated Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn. To some, Wagner’s compositions represented the “music of the future.” Of the nearly 2,300 catalogue numbers cited in this discography, few were assigned to instrumental music from the pens of these or similar composers.

Berliner recorded almost nothing from the classical vocal or “art song” repertoire, the latter a term in use at least since the 1880s.14 One finds a few songs by Mendelssohn, Schubert’s “Serenade,” and several extracts from oratorios. American songs by Beach, Chadwick, Parker, MacDowell and other composers cited by William Treat Upton in Art Song in America15 are virtually absent. There is no music by Ethelbert Nevin except for “Narcissus,” arranged for band, banjo, clarionet, and cornet.

“Popular” and “classical” represent the poles of a qualitative continuum of music, and some selections fall between the two, their precise place disputable. Musicologist H. Wiley Hitchcock, whose terms “vernacular” and “cultivated” describe an analogous dichotomy, writes of music that “had an aura of pretentious gentility about it; it derived from and lay within the cultivated tradition rather than the vernacular, although its accessibility to both performer and listener kept it near the latter.”l6 The term “light classical” is used today to describe such music, and a century ago some publishers used the term “high-class ballad” to identify songs of arguably superior quality. Alfred Robyn’s “Answer” (1885), a strophic song recorded by several cultivated singers in the twentieth century and cited eight times in the discography, is perhaps such a piece. Others of this sort also appear.

One does find Italian opera well-represented. Byt the nineteenth century, it held a dual position as a performance medium supported by a social elite asserting its status through its patronage, and as popular entertainment enjoyed by and familiar to ordinary folk.l7 Those who did not witness performances in an “opera house” heard its music at band concerts. Among the contexts providing public musical entertainment, these were the most accessible and respectable. A history of the medium tells us:

Just as baseball was to become the sport of the people, bands were understood to provide the music of the people. A concert review published in the Minneapolis Tribune in 1875 reflects the typical attitude: ‘These concerts are the contribution of art to the people, to be enjoyed by the occupant of the humblest cabin and by the master of the mansion, and harmonizing all classes in the democracy of music.l8

It has been estimated that as many as ten thousand bands existed in 1889.19 Like the programs of band concerts, the repertoire of Berliner’s artists was aimed at the popular ear.

More than forty percent of the catalogue numbers assigned were of instrumental recordings. All dated before 1896 are of anonymous orchestras, bands and soloists. One suspects that they represent local talent. John Prosperi’s organization, active since the 1870s, recorded for Columbia early in the 1890s, and possibly for Berliner as well. Another group active during that decade was the Washington Military Concert Band. Conducted by William Haley, it contributed discs under this name beginning in 1897. It may be that he and his musicians also recorded anonymously during earlier years.20 The legendary Sousa’s Band joined the Berliner roster in 1897 and a substantial number of instrumental solos and duets were recorded by its members. In general, the band music reflects the pieces one might expect to find at public concerts: selections from operas and the musical theatre, waltzes, polkas and other dance music, and arrangements of songs from both an older, standard repertory and the newer products associated with the vaudeville stage.

The banjo, associated with the minstrel stage, is well-represented beginning in 1896. The first discs are by a Stephen B. Clements, unknown today among historians of the instrument, and evidently a local artist with a very limited career.21 Vess L. Ossman joined Berliner in 1897, as did the team of Cullen and Collins. Ossman had a substantial career as a public performer. Cullen and Collins’ names appear in banjo-manufacturers’ advertisements.

Vocal music accounts for over fifty percent of the catalogue numbers cited, and it consists generally of older, strophic, “standard” pieces (e.g., “Annie Laurie”), sacred selections used in Protestant churches, and secular songs of verse/chorus structure. The latter represent a type in vogue at least since the 1840s on the minstrel and later, the variety and vaudeville stages. Those of the 1890s are early examples of what came to be called “Tin Pan Alley” songs.

Charles K. Harris’ “After the Ball” (1892), which was touted by its composer as the most popular song of the decade and has come to represent the music of the era that spawned it appears only twice: as a band selection on a “list of plates in stock” during November 1894, and as a tenor solo in Spanish. No surviving copies are known to the compiler. “Daisy Bell” (1892), also associated now with the songs of the “gay nineties” is completely missing. But there are multiple recordings of “A Hot Time in the Old Town,” “She Was Bred in Old Kentucky,” and others that appear on latter-day lists of “hits” of the decade; and there are many songs recorded within a year of publication and not again. It may be that the vogue for “After the Ball” and “Daisy Bell” had passed before gramophone marketing began, in earnest, during 1895, and the songs re-emerged, many years later as “standards.”

The vocal music, characteristically vernacular, is contributed by such artists as John W. Myers, George J. Gaskin, Dan W. Quinn, and other minor performers whose careers on the vaudeville stage are traceable only through diligent reading of The Clipper and other theatrical publications of the period. Ferruccio Giannini was the first trained singer to record consistently, from 1896-1899. A tenor with a brief career in opera, he offered operatic arias, standard songs in English and selections in the Romance languages. Except for an early disc of “Say Au Revoir, But Not Goodbye,” he avoided Tin Alley products. Today he is remembered outside of record-collecting circles as father of a soprano of the 1920s, “the famous Dusolina Giannini.”22 Most notable among the cultivated vocal artists is Emilio De Gogorza who contributed nearly three dozen discs during 1899 and 1900, at the beginning of his career. Singing under the pseudonym “E. Francisco” in Spanish, French, and Italian he recorded a mix of song-types in these languages. His selections in English are sacred or “light classical.” Some artists performed songs from both Tin Pan Alley and more cultivated environs, a practice less frequently followed in later decades. Maud Foster, for example, recorded both “Sweet Rosie O’Grady” (Nugent) and “Beauty’s Eyes” (Weatherly—Tosti [Frederic Edward Weatherly, lyricist, and F. Paolo Tosti, composer]).

Writing of his experiences working with the gramophone, Berliner associate Eldridge R. Johnson (founder of the Victor Talking Machine Company) remembered that “not a singer of any reputation would touch the talking machine business. You were scratched off the list of the elite if you looked at one.… I remember that we had no place for the singers to record except in a loft that you got to with a ladder. I would scurry around and get some poor devil to come and sing for a dollar in real money and then I’d push him up the ladder and try to get a record.”23 Fred Gaisberg, an early employee of Berliner who introduced the gramophone to England and continental Europe, remembered that in 1900, when approaching “great artists, they just laughed at us and replied that the gramophone was only a toy.”24 The medium was an entertaining curiosity with no prestige and could not attract well-established performers, especially those accustomed to earning substantial performance fees. Soprano Virginia Powell Goodwin, an obscure soprano who Berliner asserted was “known all over the world,”25 earned five dollars for recording six songs.26

Nevertheless, beginning late in 1897, gramophone advertising promised the public “those much advertised entertainers from the music halls of London and Paris, whose enormous salaries are told of in the newspapers.” A supplement to The Cosmopolitan tells us:

Today the great Patti can sing her immortal songs in her castle in Wales and be heard, through the needle’s point, in San Francisco and Honolulu and a hundred other places at the same time. And so of the world’s great orators and entertainers, the great thinkers who stir the heart, and the merry people who aid digestion. In fact, whatever the cities have in their theatres and churches and concert halls that is the best worth hearing and may be heard quite conveniently, and with only the slightest falling off in quality, by the denizens of the most remote village, by dwellers on the distant alkali plains, by lonely huntsmen in the woods—and all through the point of a needle—the needle of the gramophone…

The article suggests that “girls of the family can in a few hours make up a programme of discs that will afford their friends far more pleasure than any ordinary party,” and offers a “specimen program which speaks for itself. “ The program does not and could not include the voice of Patti, because she did not make gramophone discs until 1905. Instead, it features eighteen minor vocal and somewhat better-known instrumental artists, their records programmed to create what we would today call a “pops” concert, interspersed with humorous monologues appropriate to the vaudeville or minstrel stage. The selections suggested appear in the following endnote.27

Berliner’s claims of October 1897 anticipated what he was actually able to deliver to gramophone users during the following months. Although unable to engage important speakers and entertainers on a regular basis, he managed to induce some to record one or perhaps several discs. In February 1898 he offered records spoken by Chauncey M. Depew, Dwight L. Moody, and Robert G. Ingersoll, “the three best-known public speakers in America.”28 Their records appear in the discography, along with the voices of other celebrities who recorded during the spring of 1898 (e.g., the Reverend T. DeWitt Talmage, “Buffalo Bill” Cody, and operetta’s Jessie Bartlett Davis). Curiously, these discs never appeared in catalogues known to the compiler, and can be included only because specimens have surfaced. The discs of other celebrities advertised—Maggie Mitchell, Mme. Januschek, W. H. Crane, and Marshall P. Wilder, for example—have not been reported, do not appear in known catalogues, and therefore are missing from the discography.

The scarcity of these discs and their absence from known catalogues suggests that Berliner failed in his attempts to develop the gramophone into a performance vehicle for celebrities. The last gramophone catalogue, dating to the spring of 1900, contains the same kinds of records by the same kinds of performers who might have been featured at a gramophone “concert” of 1897. Anyone looking to Berliner’s gramophone discs for substantial quantities of stellar performances by extraordinary artists will be disappointed. For such people, gramophone fare is hopelessly mediocre.

But this mediocrity is also its strength. A history of the moving picture citing only Academy Award winning performers and films would be incomplete and distortive, as would be a general history of other media focusing only on “stars” in “never to be forgotten performances” of a period’s “biggest hits.” Berliner’s fare, both in terms of the material rendered and the performers featured, is representative of what the public was offered in popular concerts, at minstrel shows, and on the vaudeville stage. One need only peruse the programs offered by these media during the 1890s to confirm this observation; and one need only peer into the attics of older homes to find sheet music of songs long unsung, never having found their way into the “standard” repertoire, but recorded for the gramophone by artists forgotten along with their music. If we want to know what popular culture was like during this decade, in detail, we can look to these gramophone records for guidance.


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Berliner Gramophone Company Table of Contents

Berliner Gramophone Records in America: A Discography. Compiled by Paul Charosh. Reprinted by permission.