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Collecting Edison discs proves to be an addictive hobby

They're rare, but they’re not exactly in demand. You rarely see them, and, when you do, you’re more likely to remark upon their size than heir contents. But, if you have the wherewithal to hunt them and the equipment on which to play them, Edison discs provide a great thrill for record collectors.

By Dave Thompson

They're rare, but they’re not exactly in demand. You rarely see them, and, when you do, you’re more likely to remark upon their size (“Oh, my goodness. That record must be a quarter of an inch thick!”) than you are their contents (“Oh, cool! Vernon Dalmart’s ‘The Wreck on the Southern Old 97.’”)

But, if you have the wherewithal to hunt them and the equipment on which to play them, Edison records — and the challenge they pose to collecting — don’t just get under your skin, they burrow right into your bloodstream. The knowledge that you will probably never complete your collection just adds to the thrill.

edison disc

This is record collecting at its most pure and primal. You’re seeking out discs that are never less than 85 years old — and anything up to 102. They can only be played on a certain type of player, and they steadfastly avoid any musical bag that gets the rest of the collecting world so hot under the collar. To collect Edison records is the epitome of devotion.

Thomas Edison phonograph 1878

In 1877, Thomas Edison (shown here circa 1878) invented the phonograph, the first device that could record and play back sound. A decade later, Edison switched his focus to improving the playback. In 1888, his company debuted its Perfected Phonograph, which played wax cylinders that could present a maximum of three minutes of recorded sound played at 120 RPM. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

Edison discs were, as their name suggests, the brainchild of Thomas Edison, inventor of more things than you’ve had hot dinners, but most feted in our world for his development of recorded sound. Except ... well, he didn’t really know what to do with it, did he?

The early cylinders were great, because they gave everyone a place to start. But when the rest of the world raced off with 78s, shellac and steel needles, Edison put his faith in the fat, flat cakes that bear his name, revolve at roughly 80 RPM and are made of condensite that’s been sprayed onto a celluloid base and bonded to a wood-flour core. And they can — or, at least, should — only be played with a diamond needle, affixed to an Edison player.
In terms of quality, durability and fidelity, Edison discs were so superior to other companies’ 78s that it wasn’t even funny. But they said that about Betamax tapes, too.

Edison released his first discs in 1912, although his personal preference appears to have been for cylinders. They were cheaper to produce, after all. But Emile Berliner’s discs had been devouring an ever-larger part of the market for pre-recorded music for more than a decade, and Edison could see the way the wind was blowing.

The first Edison discs — indeed, the first 10 years’ worth of Edison discs — rate among the most distinctive-looking discs ever produced for the mass market, because, unless you look carefully, they are utterly undistinctive. Black discs, black molded labels. Even with all the advantages of modern lighting, it’s difficult to make out what you’re about to listen to, and pity the 21st-century researcher who wants to slip a few onto his scanner to illustrate an article such as this one. Early on, gray highlighting was added to the lettering on the disc, but it was dropped because of the cost. It was 1921 before Edison approved paper labels for his discs, and even then there were troubles, Such as his apparent reluctance to use glue to affix them to the discs.

Ah, but once you jump through all the technological hoops, it is so worth the effort. According to the most complete modern catalogs, there were more than 26,000 releases on the label between Edison Records’ birth in 1912 and its closure in 1929.

According to a company catalog published in 1924, that’s 495 pages filled with tiny type that lists releases by artist name, song title and musical style. And they are distinguished (at least according to that same worthy tome) from talking-machine records because “they are true representations of vocal and instrumental music as produced by living artists. They are not mere shadows. They are the very substance of the living music, alive with all the emotions of the living artist. They are produced through a medium, not by it.”

Edison New Standard Photograph advertisement

Myriad artists recorded for Edison. Early country connoisseurs do seek out the aforementioned Vernon Dalmart. But the Edison catalog offered up a variety of artists, including vaudevillians John Orren and Lillian Drew; Hawaiian guitarists Helen Louise and Frank Ferrera; comedians Billy Golden and James Marlowe; soprano Rachael Grant; pianist Carlos Valderrama; the Jazzarimba Orchestra and the Green Brothers Novelty Band; Van Avery, “the Original Rastus;” Gilbert Girard with his animal impressions; and The Three Vagrants.

Edison record, frederick kinsley,

We believe that the medium of recorded sound — like the printed word and the developed photograph — grants a certain immortality to its subjects. To an extent, that is true. But it also serves as sobering reminder how easy it is for even the most feted celebrities of their day to be utterly forgotten, particularly as there can be few, if any, people left alive today who purchased any but the last few years of the Edison label’s output. Perhaps Arthur Fields’ Assassinators lived up to their name a little too well.

There are some true jewels to be discovered, however. Novelty pianist Zez Confrey’s eternally adorable “Kitten on the Keys.” The Imperial Marimba Band’s rendering of “12th Street Rag.” Another Vernon Dalhart stormer, “Carolina Rolling Stone.” The Premier Quartet’s “Farmyard Medley.” A wealth of patriotic songs unfurled during the Great War (including yet another Dalhart gem, the truly marvelous “Lorraine (My Beautiful Alsace—Lorraine).” And George Wilton Ballard’s “Mother of Pearl.”

We have no way of knowing how many Edison discs exist today, let alone if the titles that are to be noted online, selling on eBay or safely reposing in an archive some place, represent the mere tip of an iceberg of extant copies, or the last bold survivors of a long-exterminated pressing run. In terms of musical impact, perhaps it doesn’t matter whether there’s just one copy of the New York Military Band’s “American Eagle March” out there or a thousand, so long as that one has been digitized for posterity, so no one can accuse us of being cavalier with our heritage and so it will always be there should someone need to hear it.

Edison Records advertising

That’s not the point, but it’s better than nothing. Collectors of 78 RPM and related fields of records endeavor to create and maintain censuses noting everything from the estimated number of copies that are “out there,” to sad lists of the records that are known to have existed once, but which have yet to be rediscovered. Blues collectors are especially punctilious in that respect; Edison collectors, not so much. And so we regret that Mr. Edison had little, if any, appreciation for “race records.”

A number of what would have been termed “hot” titles did appear; the catalog notes such early pioneers as the Frisco Jass Band, Red Nichols, Red & Miff’s Stompers, Chas. Matson’s Creole Serenaders, Clarence Williams and Eva Taylor, the Five Harmaniacs, Viola McCoy, Fletcher Henderson and Josie Miles. In fact, if you really want to get archaeological about it, the very first recorded mention of the word “jazz” came courtesy of an Edison disc, a 1916 effort by baritone Arthur F. Collins and tenor Byron G. Harlan, “That Funny Jas Band From Dixieland.”

Thomas Edison phonograph 1921

When this photo of inventor Thomas Alva Edison was taken alongside his phonograph in March 1921, all was well with Edison Records. But before the decade was out, Edison was out of the record business. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.

For the most part, however, Edison’s A&R department targeted its output at an audience that appreciated waltzes and foxtrots, accordion music and polkas. The Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninov was an admirer of Edison, and he recorded many sides for his label. Other classical bodies followed him, for they agreed with Edison’s own determination that the Edison disc was a sonic step above anything available on cheaper or more popular record labels, which might be why the entire edifice came crumbling down in 1929.

As other technologies advanced, Edison’s remained the same. He pioneered what, by the day’s standards, were long-playing discs, but he refused to either share his technology with other manufacturers or adapt his own so that Edison discs could be played on other gramophones. As other companies’ prices came down, Edison’s went up.

As recording techniques improved, Edison’s stayed the same. Add to that the fact that the inventor was more or less deaf as a post, and you can feel the frustration in his son Theodore’s oft-quoted recollection of old Thomas listening to competitors’ records with the volume turned up full, and the speaker rattling with distortion: “He became so deaf that he couldn’t hear that good electrical reproduction was possible.”

It was 1929 before Edison finally agreed to make “compatible” records, by which time he had already decided to get out of the record business. The last Edison discs were produced at the end of that same year, by which time the company’s market share had shrunk to a fraction of what it had once been.

Not for the last time in the history of recorded sound, the public had been offered the choice between stunning fidelity and scratchy approximations. And it had taken the cheapest option.

A prodigious writer, fierce music lover and longtime record collector, Dave Thompson is the author of Goldmine’s “Standard Catalog of American Records 1950—1990, 8th Edition” and “Record Album Price Guide, 7th Edition,” both of which are available at Thompson is hard at work on the 8th edition of the “Record Album Price Guide,” which is scheduled to be released in spring 2015.