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Victor Talking Machine Company

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Victor Talking Machine Company

Victor Talking Machine Company
Industry Record industry
Founded 1901
Founder Eldridge R. Johnson,
Emile Berliner
Headquarters Camden, New Jersey, U.S.

The Victor Talking Machine Company was an American flagship record company headquartered in Camden, New Jersey.

The company was founded by Eldridge R. Johnson, who had previously made gramophones to play Emile Berliner's disc records.[1] After a series of legal wranglings between Berliner, Johnson and their former business partners, the two joined to form the Consolidated Talking Machine Co. in order to combine the patents for the record with Johnson's patents improving its fidelity. Victor Talking Machine Co. was incorporated officially in 1901 shortly before agreeing to allow Columbia Records use of its disc record patent.


  • Inception 1
  • Name and logo 2
  • Acoustic recording era 3
  • Electrical recording era 4
  • Acquisition by Radio Corporation of America 5
  • Subsidiaries, partners, and plants 6
  • Archives 7
  • Victrola and other products 8
  • See also 9
  • References 10
  • Further reading 11
  • External links 12


Victor had acquired the rights in the United States and Latin America to use the famous trademark of the fox terrier Nipper listening to a gramophone when Berliner and Johnson joined their fledgling companies. (See also His Master's Voice.) The original painting was an oil on canvas by Francis Barraud in 1898 as a memorial to his deceased brother, a London photographer, who willed him his estate including his DC-powered Edison-Bell cylinder phonograph with a case of cylinders—some home-recorded—and his dog Nipper. Barraud noticed that whenever he played a cylinder recorded by his brother, the little dog would run to the horn, cock his ear and listen intently. Barraud's original depicts Nipper staring intently into the horn of an Edison-Bell while both sit on a polished wooden surface. The horn on the Edison-Bell machine was black and after a failed attempt at selling the painting to a cylinder record supplier of Edison Phonographs in the UK, a friend of Barraud's suggested that the painting could be brightened up (and possibly made more marketable) by substituting one of the brass-belled horns on display in the window at the new gramophone shop on Maiden Lane. The London branch was managed by an American, William Barry Owen. Barraud paid a visit with a photograph of the painting and asked to borrow a horn. Owen gave Barraud an entire gramophone and asked him to paint it into the picture, offering to buy the result. The original painting still shows the contours of the Edison-Bell phonograph beneath the paint of the gramophone when viewed in the correct light.[1] Only 13 originally commissioned "His Master's Voice" paintings were commissioned by the company and the original belongs to the archives at EMI (the successor company to Victor's partner in the United Kingdom).

In 1915, the "His Master's Voice" logo was rendered in immense circular leaded-glass windows in the tower of the Victrola factory building. The tower remains today with replica windows installed during Radio Corporation of America's ownership of the plant in its later years. Today, one of the original windows is located at the Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C.[2]

There is some controversy as to how the name came about. Fred Barnum (RCA historian)[3] gives various possible origins of the "Victor" name: in "'His Master's Voice' In America",[4] he writes, "One story claims that Johnson considered his first improved Gramophone to be both a scientific and business 'victory.' A second account is that Johnson emerged as the 'Victor' from the lengthy and costly patent litigations involving Berliner and Frank Seaman's Zonophone. A third story is that Johnson's partner, Leon Douglass, derived the word from his wife's name 'Victoria.' Finally, a fourth story is that Johnson took the name from the popular 'Victor' bicycle, which he had admired for its superior engineering. Of these four accounts the first two are the most generally accepted."

Acoustic recording era

Enrico Caruso with a Victrola phonograph in 1918

Before 1925, recording was done by the same purely mechanical, non-electronic "acoustical" method used since the invention of the phonograph nearly fifty years earlier. No microphone was involved and there was no means of amplification. The recording machine was essentially an exposed-horn acoustical record player functioning in reverse. One or more funnel-like metal horns was used to concentrate the energy of the airborne sound waves onto a recording diaphragm, which was a thin glass disc about two inches in diameter held in place by rubber gaskets at its perimeter. The sound-vibrated center of the diaphragm was linked to a cutting stylus that was guided across the surface of a very thick wax disc, engraving a sound-modulated groove into its surface. The wax was too soft to be played back even once without seriously damaging it, although test recordings were sometimes made and sacrificed by playing them back immediately. The wax master disc was sent to a processing plant where it was electroplated to create a negative metal "stamper" used to mold or "press" durable replicas of the recording from heated "biscuits" of a shellac-based compound. Although sound quality was gradually improved by a series of small refinements, the process was inherently insensitive. It could only record sources of sound that were very close to the recording horn or very loud—preferably both—and even then the high-frequency overtones and sibilants necessary for clear, detailed sound reproduction were too feeble to register above the background noise. Resonances in the recording horns and associated components resulted in a characteristic "horn sound" that immediately identifies an "acoustical" recording to an experienced modern listener and seemed inseparable from "phonograph music" to contemporary listeners.

From the start, Victor pioneered manufacturing processes and soon rose to preeminence by recording famous performers. In 1901 Victor made a three-track puzzle record (single-sided A-821) and in 1903, a three-step mother-stamper process to produce more stampers and records than previously possible. After increasing the quality of disc records and phonographs, Johnson began an ambitious project to have the most prestigious singers and musicians of the day record for Victor Records, with exclusive agreements where possible. Often these artists demanded fees which the company could not hope to make up from sale of their records. Johnson shrewdly knew that he would get his money's worth in the long run in promotion of the Victor brand name. These new "celebrity" recordings bore red labels, and were marketed as "Red Seal" records. For many years these recordings were single-sided; only in 1923 did Victor begin making double-sided "Red Seal" records. Many advertisements were printed mentioning by name the greatest names of music in the era, with the statement that they recorded only for Victor Records. As Johnson intended, much of the public assumed from this that Victor Records must be superior to cylinder records.

In the company's early years, Victor issued recordings on the Victor, Monarch and Deluxe labels with the Victor label on 7" records, Monarch on 10" records and Deluxe on 12" records. In 1905, all labels and sizes were consolidated into the Victor imprint.[5]

A Victor Talking Machine

The Victor recordings by Enrico Caruso between 1904–1920 were particularly successful, with those recorded until mid-1916 usually conducted by Walter B. Rogers and the remainder conducted by Josef Pasternack and Rosario Bourdon. They were often used by retailers to demonstrate Victor phonographs; Caruso's rich powerful low tenor voice highlighted the best range of audio fidelity of the early audio technology while being minimally affected by its defects. Even people who otherwise never listened to opera often owned a record or two of the great voice of Caruso.

Victor recorded numerous classical musicians, including Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler, Victor Herbert, and Sergei Rachmaninoff in a series of recordings at its Camden, New Jersey studios. Rachmaninoff, in particular, became one of the first composer-performers to record extensively; he recorded exclusively for Victor from 1920 to 1942.

The origins of country music as we know it today can be traced to two seminal influences and a remarkable coincidence. Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family are considered the founders of country music and their songs were first captured at an historic recording session in Bristol, Tennessee on August 1, 1927, where Ralph Peer was the talent scout and sound recordist for Victor Records.

Electrical recording era

Victor "scroll" label from 1930, featuring the company's house band directed by Nathaniel Shilkret

The advent of radio as a home entertainment medium in the early 1920s presented Victor and the entire record industry with new challenges. Not only was music becoming available over the air free of charge, but a live broadcast made using a high-quality microphone and heard over a high-quality receiver provided clearer, more "natural" sound than a contemporary record. In 1925, Victor switched from the acoustical or mechanical method of recording to the new microphone-based electrical system developed by Western Electric. Victor called its version of the improved fidelity recording process "Orthophonic", and sold a line of new designs of record players to play these improved records, called "Orthophonic Victrolas". Victor electric recordings began being issued in spring 1925. However, in order to manufacture a sufficient supply of the electric recordings to satisfy anticipated demand and to allow dealers to liquidate their stock of acoustic recordings, Victor and its rival, Columbia, agreed to keep secret from the public, until the end of 1925, the fact that the recordings using this new process offered a vast improvement over the older acoustical recordings. With a large advertising campaign, Victor introduced its Orthophonic records on "Victor Day", November 2, 1925.[1]

The "VE", indicating a Victor electrical recording

Victor's first commercial electrical recording was made at the company's Camden, New Jersey studios on February 26, 1925. A group of eight popular Victor artists, Billy Murray, Frank Banta, Henry Burr, Albert Campbell, Frank Croxton, John Meyer, Monroe Silver, and Rudy Wiedoeft gathered to record "A Miniature Concert". Several takes were recorded by the old acoustic process, then additional takes were recorded electrically for test purposes. The electric recordings turned out well, and Victor issued the results that summer as the two sides of 12-inch 78 rpm record Victor 35753.[6]

Victor quickly recorded the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Stokowski in a series at its Camden, New Jersey studios and then in Philadelphia's Academy of Music. Among Stokowski's first electrical recordings were performances of Danse Macabre by Camille Saint-Saëns and Marche Slave by Peter Tchaikovsky. Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra made a series of recordings for Victor, beginning in 1925, first in Victor's Chicago studios and then in Orchestra Hall. The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra conducted by Alfred Hertz made a few acoustical recordings early in 1925, then switched to electrical recordings in Oakland and San Francisco, California, continuing until 1928. Within a few years, Serge Koussevitsky began a long series of recordings with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Boston's Symphony Hall. Toscanini made his first Victor electrical recordings with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1929.

Acquisition by Radio Corporation of America

In 1926, Johnson sold his controlling (but not holding) interest in Victor to the banking firm of Seligman & Spyer, who in 1929 sold to the Radio Corporation of America, which then became known as the Radio-Victor Division of the Radio Corporation of America, later RCA Victor. (See RCA and RCA Records for later history of the Victor brand name.)

Subsidiaries, partners, and plants

Victor and its executives became extremely wealthy by the 1920s and in doing so were able to establish markets outside of the original Camden, NJ base of operations. Having established a hand-shake agreement with Emile Berliner in forming Victor Talking Machine Co, Berliner was sent from the U.S to manage the remaining holdings of the Gramophone Co. (a company in which Victor owned a significant portion in part due to patent pooling agreements, and Victor's success in its first two decades). Eventually, this meant that Victor (in addition to owning studios, offices, and plants in Camden, New York City, California, South America) also owned controlling interests in the Gramophone Company of Canada and England, as well as the Deutsche Gramophone Co. in Europe. Soon, Victor formed the Victor Company of Japan (JVC), founded in 1927. As Radio Corporation of America acquired Victor, the Gramophone Co. in England became EMI giving RCA a controlling interest in Victor, JVC, Columbia (UK), and EMI. During World War II, JVC severed its ties to RCA and today remains one of the oldest and most successful Japanese record labels as well as an electronics giant. Meanwhile, RCA sold its remaining shares in EMI during this time. Today the "His Master's Voice" trademark in music is split amongst several companies including JVC (in Japan), HMV (in the UK), and RCA (in the US).


Victor kept meticulous written records of all of its recordings. The files cover the period 1903 to 1958 (thus including the RCA Victor era, as well as the Victor Talking Machine Co. era). These written records are among the most extensive and important sources of available primary discographic information in the world. There were three main categories of files: a daily log of recordings for each day, a file maintained for each important Victor artist, and a 4"x6" index card file kept in catalog number order.

There are about 15,000 daily log pages, each titled "Recording Book," that are numbered chronologically. Each recording was assigned a "matrix number" to identify the recording. When issued, the recording had a "catalog number," almost always different from the matrix number, on the record label.

As of 2010, the remaining pages available at the Victor archives go only up to April 22, 1935. Victor's original pages after this date were apparently discarded at some point. However, Victor's ties with EMI in England, and at Hayes, Hillingdon, in London, EMI has more recent pages. These pages were sent at the time they were first written and therefore do not have the annotations made afterwards.

Most, but not all, daily log information for recordings made for synchronization with motion pictures were kept separately, and the separate synchronization recording information is missing from the Victor archives.

Victor also issued catalogs, usually annually, with supplements issued during the year, that were carefully prepared and also provide useful information.

The Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings (EDVR) is a continuation of a project of Ted Fagan and William Moran to make a complete discography of all Victor recordings.[7] The Victor archive files are a major source of information for this project.

In 2011, the Library of Congress and Victor catalog owner Sony Music Entertainment launched the National Jukebox offering streaming audio of more than 10,000 pre-1925 recorded works. This made the recordings, much of them not widely available since World War I, available for listening by the general public.[8][9]

Victrola and other products

In September 1906, Johnson and his engineers designed a new line of gramophones with the turntable and amplifying horn tucked away inside a wooden cabinet. This was not done for reasons of audio fidelity, but for visual aesthetics. The intention was to produce a phonograph that looked less like a piece of machinery and more like a piece of furniture. These internal horn machines, trademarked with the name Victrola, were first marketed to the public in August of that year and were an immediate hit. Soon an extensive line of Victrolas was marketed, ranging from small tabletop models selling for $15, through many sizes and designs of cabinets intended to go with the decor of middle-class homes in the $100 to $250 range, up to $600 Chippendale and Queen Anne-style cabinets of fine wood with gold trim designed to look at home in elegant mansions. Victrolas became by far the most popular brand of home phonograph, and sold in great numbers until the end of the 1920s. RCA Victor continued to market record players under the Victrola name until the late 1960s.

Other products Victor issued included the Electrola (an electrified record player), Radiola (a radio often paired with a record player which was a joint venture with RCA prior to their acquisition of the company), and musical instruments (including the first electronic instrument, the theremin).

See also


  1. ^ a b c Gelatt, Roland, The Fabulous Phonograph: 1877--1977, MacMillan, New York, 1954. ISBN 0-02-542960-4
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ Barnum, Fred, "'His Master's Voice' In America", General Electric Co, 1991. ISBN 0939766167, ISBN 978-0939766161
  5. ^
  6. ^ Victor Recording Book log, pp. 4761 and 4761A.
  7. ^ Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings (University of California, Santa Barbara)
  8. ^
  9. ^

Further reading

  • Instructions for the setting up, operation & care of The Victrola, Spring Type, Victor Talking Machine Company, Camden, NJ., c. 1924. (from The Roaring 20's Victrola page)
  • Bryan, Martin F. Report to the Phonothèque Québécoise on the Search for Archival Documents of Berliner Gram-O-Phone Co., Victor Talking Machine Co., R.C.A. Victor Co. (Montréal), 1899-1972. Further augmented ed. Montréal: Phonothèque Québécoise, 1994. 19, [1] p.

External links

  • Music Rack Victor 78 Discography
  • University of California Santa Barbara: Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings
  • [1]
  • [2]
  • Acoustic side of Victor 19571, "You and I" on YouTube
  • Electric side of Victor 19571, "You and I" on YouTube
  • Victor "Pre-Dog" single-sided A-821 "Two Fortunes and a Song" puzzle record on YouTube
  • Timeline of Victor recording events, 1903-1931
  • iTunes of the 1920s Historical Victrola advertisements from the 1920s
  • Radio Corporation of American records (1887-1983) at Hagley Museum and Library. This collection includes company historian’s files pertaining to the history of the Victor Talking Machine Company and RCA-Victor.
  • Radio Corporation of America photographs (1878-1960) and the Victor Talking Machine Company, Radio Corporation of America and General Electric photograph collection at Hagley Museum and Library consists of photographs and negatives relating to Radio Corporation of America (RCA), the Victor Talking Machine Company, which was purchased by RCA in 1929, and the RCA-Victor Division of Radio Corporation of America.
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