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On the Record:
Hail, Columbia!

     Although Columbia, the second pioneer company in the field of disc records, started production of them in late 1901, the firm did not set up a Canadian operation until 1904, by which time they were already established in New York, London and other major European cities. Roll Back the Years gives Columbia's initial address as 107 Yonge Street in Toronto. Further, as near as can be established, the Canadian operation served only as a distributor of American (and, later, English) records, although it was not too long until the records were pressed in Toronto from imported stampers, in all probability due to tariff considerations. To my knowledge, there is no evidence that any records were cut in Canada, as will be discussed throughout this series of articles, although I suspect the possibility that some of the French-Canadian material issued on the green-label (E-) "International" series may possibly have been recorded in Montreal.

     In any case, Columbia's "Canadian connection" was kept relatively unknown. Many of the records apparently used U.S. labels (or were themselves imported) as the records are marked with both U.S. and Canadian prices, while those pressed in Canada are only identified by a slight alteration in the license statement, which reads "... this record may not be sold in Canada ...". The similarity of the label and the typography suggest the labels may well have been imported also! English Columbia records, known at this point as "Columbia-Rena" were pressed in Toronto also, using imported labels; one unusual pressing, in fact, couples a U.S. military band number with a U.K. version of "It's A Long Way To Tipperary", with each side bearing the label and number of its original issue!

     Other than this oddity, the first items appearing in the Canadian Columbia catalogue not in either of the parent catalogues were a direct result of Canada entering World War I long before the U.S. This was the "Patriotic" series, bearing an ornamental red/white/blue label and numbers in a "P" series. The material, of course, was all war songs, varying from marches to more plebeian fare, and all that I have seen were recorded either in London or New York. The English sides may well have appeared also on U.K. Columbia, while the American sides seldom if ever appeared in their home country. Some thirty odd records appeared in this series, which inspired Berliner to deck some of his patriotic material in a similar label.

     In mid 1916, probably shortly after Berliner introduced his Canadian-content (nominally!) 216000 series, Columbia introduced an R-4000 series. Unlike Berliner records, the Columbias used American and English masters, although many if not all were made especially for Canadian issue. The scope of material was not as wide as Berliner's, either; it consisted of much English material, mostly standard, the usual national songs, and a very few popular numbers. Furthermore, while Berliner issued close to 500 records between 1916 and 1924, Columbia issued less than 60 in virtually the same period, and judging from their relative availability today, the Berliner HMV's far outsold the Columbia counterparts. In the meantime, the Patriotic series was apparently dropped in 1917 or 1918, with the last issues bearing a simpler blue-on-white version of the label.

     It was apparently around this same time that Columbia in Canada quit pressing the English Rena records as such and substituted an R-series using the North American label. The records were issued under their U.K. number with an R- prefix (indicating Rena?). It is not clear at this point if these were issued similarly in the U.S. As with R-4000 series, the majority of the issued material is of minimal interest to all but the most dedicated musical masochist, with the exception of sides by Joe Hayman (of "Cohen" fame) and Billy Williams.

     Shortly thereafter, in late 1916, Canadian Columbias became slightly more recognizable. The labels still bore no mention that a Canadian operation existed, other than the slight rewording of price and license information, but the typography of the credits began differing noticeably from the U.S. issues, apparently indicating that Canadian-manufactured labels were in use. This produced at least one interesting situation: the Canadian issue of the Dance version of "Whispering" was issued with titles (not labels) reversed, which must have confused the north-of-the-border buyer somewhat!

     One interesting sidelight of Columbia's Canadian operation, at least to some collectors, is the existence of two specifically Canadian demonstration records (one and one half, in reality). When the second of the two records extolling Columbia Double-Discs appeared, it appeared in both an American and Canadian version, with the Canadian records selling for 30 cents rather than 25 cents. Further, when the Patriotic series was introduced about 18 months later, Columbia took advantage of the interest in it to recouple the promotional announcement with one of these sides. One further visible, bit not audible, variation exists: apparently at some point the Canadian operation either ran out of their demonstration records or were delayed in issuing them, and copies of the U.S. issue have been noted with the price overstamped with "30 cents".

     The entire Columbia operation in North America was, however, falling on hard times by the early 1920s, as economic slowdown and the coming of radio combined to seriously affect the record market. Columbia issues grew less in number and major artists moved to other labels. Finally, in late 1923, a rescue operation was called for.