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Berliner Records
History of Recorded Sound in Canada


by Steven C. Barr

     The one characteristic of the earliest "made in Canada" records that makes them both recognizable and in demand by collectors, particularly those in the United States, is the fact that from 1900 to about 1910 the Montreal-pressed records of Emile Berliner were, unlike any others at the time, on a light to medium brown material, known to collectors as "brown wax", although wax was never used for disc records and only for the earliest cylinders. These records were apparently introduced in early 1900, shortly after Berliner set up operations in Montreal. The first issues, like the U.S. Berliners in size and often in musical content, were 7-inch records which, unlike their earlier American counterparts, had a brown and gold paper label. They were known as "Gram-O-Phone" or "Improved Gram-O-Phone" records, crediting the Berliner Gram-O-Phone Company of Montreal.

     In the following year, 1901, the U.S. Victor firm introduced the 10-inch "Monarch" record and these appeared in Canada as the "Berliner Concert Grand" record. Shortly thereafter, probably late 1902 or 1903, the familiar figure of Nipper appeared on a label similar to the Victor/ Monarch label, then in use in America, and the brand name was simplified to "Concert Record" while the label colour was lightened to match the milk-chocolate colour of the actual record. During this period, and probably until 1904, the Canadian records differed from their U.S. counterparts in two respects; first, they were numbered in their own sequence, with most in a 5000 series (even though the majority were pressed from Victor matrices), and second, the centre holes of the records were protected by a brass ferrule - a feature which would have saved many a record for today's collectors, as the automatic changers introduced in the late 1930s had a tendency to chew away at the hole in the record!

     In early 1905 the "Monarch" and "Deluxe" labels, identifying 10 and 12-inch Victor records respectively, were replaced by the Victor name, which henceforth appeared on virtually all the records of the company. At the same time or shortly later, the "Concert" label was replaced by a "Victor" label on Berliner's records from U.S. matrices, with a notice announcing that the record was specifically "for sale or use in Canada only". (It is not known just who dealt with the offenders, - and how - , who were bold enough to play one of these in Detroit or Buffalo!) It was at or near this time that the Canadian number sequences were dropped and Victor numbers were used. Somewhat later, the phrase "His Master's Voice" was added above the "Victor Record" which appeared on each side of the centre hole, so that the trade name appeared to read "His Master's Voice-Victor", a phrasing which was used until 1947 on Canadian Berliner and Victor products, with the exception of Berliner's Montreal-recorded products from 1918 until 1924 and a handful of records pressed from U.S. matrices which possibly used leftover labels from the Canadian records. These bore the legend"His Master's Voice" without "Victor".

     The use of brown material for records continued through at least most, if not all, of 1909, and through the first 100-odd double-sided issues in the 16000 series. At some point late in 1909 or early 1910, the brown records were quietly discontinued, and Berliner's products appeared in the familiar black. This was the last North American appearance of brown or "red" records until Aeolian Vocalion introduced their label in late 1918. Ironically, the Canadian equivalent of this label appeared on black records! There were two rather odd types of records of the "brown wax" period. The first is the pre-1909 Canadian Red Seal series, brown material but with the familiar crimson label; the second apparently resulted from some frugal manager in Berliner's operation being unwilling to discard the brown labels left over from the matching records, and appears as occasional black records bearing two (or less often, one) brown labels.

     In late 1909, Berliner introduced the first of their Canada-only issues since Victor masters had replaced the early Montreal-recorded sides. These were, however, not recorded in Montreal but were European (French) and English recordings which the firm felt would appeal to Canadian talking machine owners. Several series were introduced: the fairly common 120000 (10") and 130000 (12") black-label series, the violet label 100000 (10") and 110000 (12") single-sided series and a 183000 Red Seal series, with the 121000 series (which included but one record, the "puzzle record") added shortly thereafter. These were broken up into blocks which appear almost without logical reason, so that establishing dates for them by number is a frustrating task. The initial records (or at least the initial numbers) were all European-recorded French-language sides; however, the French records were shortly thereafter assigned to the 120/130500 block, and then made obsolete by Montreal-recorded material after 1918.

     Although the French records are seldom found in Ontario, the 120-130000 series records turn up often enough to indicate that material from "The Old Country" proved quite popular with British and Scottish record buyers. In 1914, the more patriotic selections, along with a handful of records from the regular catalogue, acquired a fanciful red-white-and-blue label with the Union Jack prominently displayed. Once the patriotic fervour of wartime had diminished, the series reverted to the usual label which it would wear from then on. Around this time, the numbering was started at 120700 for the 10" series and continued from there until it jumped to 120800 when electric recording was introduced (with the 12" electrics starting at 130800). Moogk's Roll Back the Years lists two oddities in this series: numbered 120900 and 120901, they are apparently sides recorded in the U.S. during WWI for Canadian issues!

     In 1916 the Berliners resumed recording in Montreal on a regular basis, and began issuing another series, the Canadian-recorded 216000 series. This started slowly, with a pair of poems recorded experimentally much earlier and three records by one "Canadian Cohen" (actually Herbert Berliner!) but picked up once the war ended. Although Canadian talent was used to some extent, many of the records were made by established American artists, and a fair number were, in fact, "cover versions" of records on competing labels, using artists such as Billy Jones, Milo Rega and Harry Raderman who did not record for Victor. By 1920, the majority of Berliner's black label issues were in this series, and the Victor company in the U.S. began to look askance at the situation. This was responsible for another unique Canadian item: when a popular U.S. record duplicated one of Berliner's own sides, he simply deleted that side from the Canadian version of the Victor record and substituted a different pairing. For that reason, a number of Canadian Victors have a different pairing of songs than the U.S. issue with the same catalogue number!

     Finally, in late 1921, pressure from the Victor firm slowed the 216000 issues to a trickle once again. In the meantime, Emile's son, Herbert, had resigned from his father's firm, moving to the Compo Company which he had started in 1918. Victor was evidently still somewhat less than happy about being dependent on the independent company for its Canadian operations, and continued pressure on Berliner until Victor finally acquired the company in early 1924, renaming the operation "The Victor Talking Machine Company of Canada" and making the Victor name more prominent on an altered label.