Thursday, August 30, 2012

How did so many early recordings made in the 1890's and 1900's survive to see the 21st century?

When we look at an early recording made in let's say 1902. You think that this recording has survived 110 years?  How did such a thing happen?
These records were made of shellac and hard rubber and easily break. I know I have sadly done so a few times. But how did so many of these recordings survive. I have around 500 recordings made between 1895 and 1910. I often just marval at how they have survived to see the year 2012. I am not really speaking of cylinders right now as they are another amazing story in themselves. The composition of those early cylinders was something called metallic soap and they were very fragile and how they survived is amazing as well. But what I will focus on here is the more familiar disc record.

These records were Berliner, Climax  (1901-02) Columbia 1902 on, Eldridge Johnson's Improved Gramophone, Improved Record, Victor, Monarch, Deluxe records, Leeds and Zonophone.  Berliner was the first to make disc records commercially in and around 1894 in Washington DC, and by 1900 was out of the business. By 1902 you had Columbia making two different labels, Climax and Columbia, Zonophone started in 1899, and by this year the Victor Talking machine Company which had  several names before finally joining with Berliner in creating that company. Lastly Leeds and Catlin were a relatively patent-less company that kind of borrowed things from everyone till they were put out of business after an amazing run of years. 

When these records were first made they were the technological marvels of their time. But by the 2nd decade of the 20th century they were looked at as old and not too useful. Many were thrown out, but many as well were put away in attics, cellars or in a few cases remained right where they were.

By 1916-17 there were record drives to donate your old records for the war effort. Hundreds of thousands of records went to these drives. In the 1920's the radio became the main area of entertainment and more records and machines to play them were tossed. By the time of WW2 there were severe shellac shortages and there were massive drives to get all the olf records around the house and donate them... Millions of records went the way of the War Bond.  But still many survived.

By the 1950's and 60's anything old was looked at as useless and many phonographs, victrolas, graphonolas, amberolas, and the like went into the trash. I remember that myself when I was a kid seeing tons of great what we call antiques on the corner waiting for the junk man or the garbageman. at that time I knew no better. but my memories haunt me today.

One of the last indignities offered to these early recordings was to make dishes or ash trays out of them!  This was done a lot in the 1950's and 60's. I remember seeing many a record dish or ash tray at various peoples homes.  But still many survived!

So after all of this why did hundreds of thousands of records and cylinders from the 1890's, 1900's survive to see another century?  I guess it was because of a few things. One reason would probably be that who ever owned them did not care to get rid of them. Another was that they had forgot they even had them. Lastly, many people saw that is was wise not to destroy recordings from it very dawn.

  I guess I can say jokingly that there were a few unpatriotic souls out there who were not going to give a thing to the war effort or they still liked listening to Harry MacDonough, Sousa's Band, George Washington Johnson, The Metropolitan Orchestra,  Bert Shepard, Fred Hagar, and a bunch of other very early recording artists.

 But what ever the reason I give a big yell of thanks. Because when I listen to a record from the dawn of sound recording, I am listening to a time capsule from a time a place so far away it is hard to dream of.  I was listening today to an Climax Record from 1901 and I could hear Fred Hagar who was the conductor say ready 1..2..3   and the band played.....

So I enjoy my records and will do my best to take care of them to make sure another amazed person will write what I do at the dawn of the 22nd century as he or she listens to a recording made by that time 200 years earlier and marvels at how it survived the ages.

 Cause as much as I like them, they will long outlast me and my times. Just like they have the times in which they were that marvel of the age   I wonder how many tapes, CD's, DVD's or chips will be working like these true amazing recordings of over 100 years ago when they reach that age?  I kind of doubt they will as they are more complex and require much more to make them work.  The old records of the 1895 - 1910 period were simple. But in the words of many a wise person ...The simpler it is the better it will work. And in this case will keep working for centuries to come....But how they made it to this point in which they are treasured...still so amazes me.