Top of page

Collection Emile Berliner and the Birth of the Recording Industry

The Berliner Recordings

Berliner Recordings at the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress possesses one of the largest collections of Berliner discs, including many zinc experimental discs, several zinc "letters" that apparently were mailed between Washington, D.C., and Hanover, Germany, and several pirated discs with all references to Berliner erased. There are very rare early celluloid discs and rare early rubber discs. Most remaining Berliners are those pressed in a shellac compound by the Duranoid Company or, by the Burt Company. All of these published discs are approximately seven inches in diameter. They do not have paper labels--that was an innovation by Eldridge R. Johnson after the turn of the century--but in the center portion of each disc is hand-written information giving the selection title and the name of the performer. To insure that the performer was named, an autograph inscribed by the performer was usually etched into the master and appeared on each copy. The place and date of recording were often inscribed as well. All of this etched information has been a great boon to record historians in view of the few catalogs that have survived the years.

For a long time it was thought that the Library's List of Plates dated January 1895 was the earliest existing  list of Berliner records; however a scrapbook acquired later through the generosity of the Berliner descendants includes a brief supplemental list dated November 1, 1894. The 1895 List of Plates shows the major types of recordings being issued. Of special interest is that as early as 1895 Berliner had published three discs containing nine examples of the music of the American Indian. The Library has what are apparently the original zincs for this collection of ghost dance chants, received from Robert Sanders, a grandson of Berliner. Recorded in July and August 1894, presumably by ethnologist James Mooney, they are not the first recordings ever made of American-Indian music, but they are surely the earliest such recordings ever published.

List of Plates

James Mooney of the Smithsonian Institution journeyed to the Western Plains from 1890 to1891 to study the ghost dance ceremonies. His report, The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890, was printed in the Smithsonian's fourteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology in 1896. In the introduction, Mooney acknowledges Emile Berliner and the Berliner Gramophone Company for recording the music and John Philip Sousa and F. W. V. Gaisberg for arranging it. It is unlikely that Mooney carted the heavy and cumbersome gramophone machine around the Great Plains recording the chants there. More likely is that Mooney recorded the chants himself in the Berliner studio in Washington and that Sousa and Gaisberg transcribed the music. Excerpts from Mooney's report with lyrics and translations of the chants are included in this collection.

View the list of recordings »

The Performers and the Repertoire

Between 1889 and 1895, as the recording industry slowly began to develop, most recordings were made by lesser-known artists and even by amateur talent. Fred Gaisberg, one of Emile Berliner's assistants, plucked monologist George Graham off a Washington street corner where he was overheard selling some kind of an elixir. Columbia Records promoted John Y. Atlee, a Treasury Department clerk. The New England Phonograph Company discovered a young member of the Boston Theater Stock Company named Russell Hunting (also recorded by Berliner) who had a talent for telling funny Irish dialect stories. Often home-grown talent faded into obscurity in a year or two; however, Graham, Atlee, and Hunting became quite famous through their recordings.

One exception to this dependence on lesser-known talent was in the field of popular instrumental music, where excellent performers abounded. Before the turn of the century there were many recordings by the U.S. Marine Band, Patrick Gilmore's Twenty-second Regiment Band, the Sousa Band, and the Banda Rossa of Italy. These were all considered among the finest bands in that era of great band music. Also well represented on early recordings are such famous instrumental soloists as Herbert L. Clarke, Jules Levy, W. Paris Chambers, Arthur Pryor, Simone Mantia, and Vess Ossman.

Many of the best nineteenth-century recordings were those issued by the Berliner Gramophone Company. The Berliner repertory deviated little from the repertory of other recording companies of the period. A typical repertory was made up of popular and traditional songs, funny stories, band pieces, miscellaneous solos played on those instruments that recorded well (such as the cornet, trombone, and piccolo), whistling solos, and a few dramatic recitations. The performers would have been Washington residents and perhaps a few others who came to town to make recordings for the fast growing Columbia company  and were glad to earn a few more dollars from Berliner. One notable exception was the U.S. Marine Band, which did not record for Berliner until 1899. Apparently Francesco Fanciulli, John Philip Sousa's successor as leader, felt that the Columbia Company was keeping his men busy enough. For band recordings, Berliner used Will Haley's Concert Band of Washington, a group about which nothing else is known. Apparently the very earliest records were issued without any reference to the performer, as with record number 205, an anonymous cornet solo recorded in 1892, which is in the Library's collections. Some of the earliest advertisements and lists from early 1895 only occasionally name the performers as well. The Library's 1895 broadside List of Plates cites about eighty-six records, but only David C. Bangs, "the eminent, versatile elocutionist," is named as a performer.

Numbering System for the Catalog

The 1895 broadside also indicates that Berliner had been using the block numbering system for some time. Block numbering allows a company to classify its records through their catalog numbers, a system felt to be advantageous to both the company and the public. All band records, for instance, were numbered between 1 and 149, records by male singers had numbers between 150 and 199, and cornet and bugle recordings were numbered 200 through 249. As a block was filled by records, another block of numbers was opened farther ahead. The allowance of only fifty numbers for male singers proved to be not nearly enough, so the 500 to 549 block was opened. This too was filled so a larger block, 900 through 999, was set aside. This was evidently still not enough, so a very large block, 1600 through 1999, was used. Since women were used sparingly on early recordings (it was felt their voices did not record particularly well), their blocks were correspondingly small. However, it is interesting to see that there was some early attempt at separating sopranos from contraltos, while there is little or no evidence of separate blocks for male voices.

Titles seem to have been frequently withdrawn or remade. Poor sales may have been a factor, but the main reason for substitution of titles was probably the fact that the stamper made from the zinc master would not stand up after more than a certain number of pressings (only one stamper was made). This meant that a piece either had to be rerecorded or else dropped from the catalog and a different selection substituted for it. If a selection was selling well and the company wanted to retain it in the catalog, they would try to call back the recording artist to rerecord. . If he was available, the new recording would be made. If the performer was not available  then a different performer would be used. Many–perhaps hundreds–of Berliners were recorded at least twice by different artists. Some selections, such as the popular song "Put Me Off at Buffalo," were recorded by three different singers, but the records all bore the same catalog number. There are even examples of the same title with the same catalog number recorded by four different performers.

In order to control these remakes, Berliner devised a system of letter suffixes to the catalog number, namely the letters Z, Y, X, W, and V, with Z being the first remake and V the last. Occasionally one finds double letters such as ZZ or YY. It appears that after the fifth remake the letter series was begun again with double letters. This happens only with certain very popular titles. To further complicate matters, letter suffixes were also used with a slightly different meaning. Record 901X is La Marseillaise, first verse, while 901Y is La Marseillaise, second verse. Again, record 3409 is Last Rose of Summer and 3409Z is Last Rose of Summer with variations. In such instances as these, the letters are used to indicate variant recordings or some departure from the original, although in another sense they can be considered remakes.

In 1899, in order to keep better control over its recording operations, the company abandoned this cumbrous cataloging system. Instead it began an entirely new system in which every catalog or label number was prefixed by "0." Record 01, a recitation by Len Spencer of the Lord's Prayer and the Twenty-third Psalm, was recorded on April 8, 1899. The block numbering system was totally eliminated and from then on numbers were assigned more or less in consecutive order. To replace the block system of classification, a series of letters was stamped on the record which indicated the class into which it fell. For instance, all band records carried the letter A, spoken recordings carried the letter U, instrumental solos with piano had the letter G, instrumental ensembles had H, vocal ensembles had N, and so on. This system allowed the company to stop assigning catalog numbers on the basis of record content and instead assign them in the order in which the recordings were made. A slight disarrangement was caused by the practice of assigning a large group of numbers for a particular recording session or sessions. For instance, from June 6 through June 10, 1899, the Sousa Band recorded seventy-three selections which were issued as records 0175 through 0247. During that period other recordings were being made and had to be numbered either just before or just after the Sousa Band series. But on the whole, a list of these Berliners by their catalog numbers will also be a chronological list by their recording dates.

The Final Berliner Recordings

Original Recording of The Star Spangled Banner

By 1900, business was continuing to boom. Recording sessions were becoming lengthy and when a popular artist became available for work the company attempted to obtain as many recordings as possible. For instance, not only did the Sousa Band make the seventy-three consecutive recordings already mentioned, the trombone virtuoso Arthur Pryor made forty recordings in about two days, the visiting Banda Rossa of Italy made a group of thirty recordings, and the versatile Len Spencer made eighteen discs in possibly only one day. Another notable change from the early years was that frequent remakes were no longer needed because technology now allowed a much greater number of pressings to be made from a master. When a remake was called for, the company usually rerecorded the entire selection, either with the same artist or another, and issued the recording under a new catalog number. Only two or three examples of a remake published under the earlier catalog number are known in the "0" series.

The Berliner Gramophone Company of Philadelphia discontinued production in 1900. The last record known to have been issued was number 01304, Doan You Cry My Honey, sung by a famous early vocal group, the Haydn Quartet.