Columbia Corporate History: Introduction

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

Columbia’s recording activities began a dozen years prior to the starting point for this volume.2 The company was organized in 1888 and incorporated in January 1889 by a group of Washington, D.C., businessmen and visionaries led by 32 year-old court reporter Edward D. Easton and William Herbert Smith. At the time all rights to exploitation of Edison’s phonograph and Bell and Tainter’s competing Graphophone were held by the North American Phonograph Company, a marketing organization. Columbia became North American’s local agent for the territory covering Delaware, Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Most of the local agencies franchised by North American, including Columbia, initially attempted to market the phonograph as an office dictation machine. They encountered considerable resistance due to the unreliability of the equipment and were soon forced to find other ways to stay afloat. One idea was to sell pre-recorded musical cylinders to exhibitors and coin-slot operators. Edison resisted this “cheapening” of his invention, but in the end he could not stop it. The infant Columbia Phonograph Company, tottering on the brink of insolvency, was one of the first to grasp this opportunity. It soon became the chief promoter of musical recordings, much to the disgust of Edison and other traditionalists. From the vantage point of today it is obvious what direction the phonograph would take, but it was much less obvious then; in fact, it seemed quite possible the “talking machine” would remain nothing but a curiosity. Easton risked his career and personal savings on the belief that it would become something more than that, and he and his associates worked tirelessly to make his vision a reality.

The earliest known reference to Columbia’s recording activities was in a brochure dated November 15, 1889. By 1890 the company had published its first “catalog” (a one page listing), with selections by its star attraction, the United States Marine Band, which was conveniently based in Washington. Its cylinders were billed as “superior in loudness, clearness and character of selections to any band records yet offered.”

From this point on Columbia relentlessly promoted musical recordings. Some of the other regional North American agencies also made recordings, as did Edison himself for a time, but Columbia claimed that it outsold all others—and it probably did. It certainly out-advertised all others in the limited trade press of the day, and there is evidence that it shipped its products all over the country, despite a ban on doing so (each North American agency was supposed to have exclusive marketing rights within its territory). Columbia was also the first to promote individual recording “stars,” among them the Marine Band, piercing whistler John Y. Atlee, the Brilliant Quartette, and “Leather Lunged Auctioneer” W. O. Beckenbaugh.

Sustained by its musical recording business, Columbia survived the economic depression of the mid-1890s, which saw North American bankrupt and most of the other local distributors moribund. Even Edison abandoned the field for a time (because of litigation). Columbia continued to push the sale of musical cylinders to the small exhibition and coin machine trade, and it also absorbed one of the two principal phonograph manufacturers, the American Graphophone Co., with which it had long been allied. American Graphophone, successor to the Bell-Tainter interests, was by this time a mere shell of a company, but Easton recognized the value of its patents. In 1895, freed from the constraints of the North American contract, Columbia opened its first office and studio outside the Washington area, in New York City.

Small spring-driven cylinder phonographs suitable for the home were introduced in 1894, and Columbia moved quickly to supply this new market. Hundreds of titles were now listed in its regular catalog, often accompanied by pictures of the artists. The company absorbed several competitors, including the Chicago Talking Machine Co. in early 1897 and the Northern Talking Machine Co. of Buffalo a few months later. It also lured away the artists and chief recording engineer of the U.S. Phonograph Co. (maker of “New Jersey” cylinders), a principal competitor, leading to that company’s collapse.3 Branch offices were opened in St. Louis (1896), Philadelphia, Chicago, Buffalo, Paris (all 1897), San Francisco (1898) and London (1900).

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