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The Columbia Phonograph Company of Canada
Fig. 1

This is the second in a series of articles authored by the late Brian Boyd. a well-known and respected collector and discographer, and a member of CAPS. Brian, who died on February 26th 1991, built up over many years an extensive collection of "personality" records, mostly of popular vocalists of the 1920's and 30's. He was a regular speaker at CAP meetings.

Brian dictated the articles in January 1991 without access to his collection; he relied on memory alone. Brian wanted the reader to know that for some of his statements he had no concrete proof. Rather, they are the product of years of careful study of the records. He hoped that the. articles would stimulate other collectors to engage in research and publish their findings.

The Editors are indebted to Jack Litchfield for his cooperation in making possible the publication of these articles. The record labels used to illustrate this particular article are from Jack's own collection and that of Colin Bray.

The Columbia Graphophone Company of Canada was established in Canada around the turn of the century to compete with the cylinder manufacturers. As far as I know, it was a subsidiary of the American company. After the introduction of the disc record, Columbia played a fairly important role in Canada, because they had the lateral-cut patent in conjunction with Berliner in Canada. and could manufacture records to compete directly with the Berliner product. They did so somewhat aggressively, although they didn't have the stellar classical catalog and the artists that Victor did.

Columbia tried to play a unique role in Canada during the first World War. There were various patriotic records with the Union Jack label that promoted the war effrot. (Fig. 1) They also had an interest in trying to market recordings by French Canadian classical or light classical artists. So they weren't taking second place, any more than they had to, to a company like Berliner.

Columbia disc records were probably pressed in Canada almost from the introduction of the disc record. How would you distinguish a Canadian Columbia pressing from an American one from around World War I? In general, I can't say. I just don't have enough records in my collection from that period. The standard popular series for American Columbia and Canadian Columbia in the teens was the "A" series an "A" followed by a four-digit number by the time of the First World War. In Canada there was also an "R" series. I don't know if it was European or French Canadian material, or whether it extended to British-imported masters, or Canadian recordings by various Canadian artists. But the "R" distinguishes it as a Canadian-only product not marketed or sold in the U.S.A.

There were improvements in the American lamination process, so that by late 1924 the laminated surfaces on the American pressings was virtually as good as the later Viva-Tonal surfaces. In my Marion Harris collection, which includes mostly American records, the last half-dozen issues have a glossy perfect laminated surface, equal to the surfaces used during the Viva-Tonal era. But I just don't have enough records from that period to be able to say whether there were enough substantial improvements in the surface of Canadian pressings.

Columbia introduced what is popularly known as the flag label in 1923, but it was not a success as a label. It didn't have the coated finish like the later Victors and Columbias, and the colours were not easily seen or read from a distance; the copper colour in the flag design was really something of a failure. Still, it appears that the flag label was used slightly longer in Canada than in the U.S.A. Perhaps that is because the Canadian outfit was a subsidiary of the American one and corporate changes took longer to filter down.

It wasn't long before the American Columbia instituted the Viva-Tonal process and label. However this change was not, at first, indicated on the label the Canadian company shortly followed suit.

In 1925, Columbia, like Victor began to sell electrically-recorded records. But they made no attempt to show that the records were "new process" until 1926. Their main concern was to get rid of their acoustic stock. The Berliner company in Canada had big sales in the spring of 1925 to reduce its stocks, because they knew that they were going to be advertising a much improved product and they didn't want to be stuck with the old product.

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

I'm most familiar with the period beginning in the mid-'20s. I am quite convinced that the Columbia company in Canada continued to press records in Canada and to retail them through Canadian distributors and dealers. The records were not imported from the United States, as many people have assumed (because the labels on the Canadian records are indistinguishable from American labels). The masters, of course, originated in the United States, but the records themselves were made here.

There were some interesting differences between the American and Canadian Columbia pressings, both at this time with the transition to the black-and-gold label, and right through until 1828. The Canadian records were being pressed on old presses that nobody seemed to have the inclination to upgrade. It appears that Canadian Columbia was continuing to use equipment that it had already been using for its acoustic pressings and for the flag label pressings.

There are other smaller physical features of note. The Canadian records often have a slightly uneven finish they look a little like some of the Brunswick pressings that don't have a perfectly flat surface, with little rises and dips in them. They are also lighter in weight, as a rule, than equivalent American pressings. However they were laminated records so it's not as though they were being made differently.

You can distinguish a Canadian pressing from an American one by noting certain physical differences, almost from the introduction of the black-and-gold label, such as indented ring, roughly three centimeters in diameter, around the center hole and pressed right into the label itself. That was a consistent feature of American Columbia pressings right up into the 1930's. This is not true of the Canadian pressings. (Fig. 2.) The indented ring on the Canadian pressings does not appear until 1928, when they undoubtedly obtained the same pressing equipment as American Columbia. (Fig. 3.)

Up until late 1927/early 1928, the Ruth Etting records owned by Jim Kidd, had that perfectly flat label with no indented ring. To my knowledge they were all purchased in Canada by a Canadian collector. I think that confirms my theory that these were Canadian records, pressed in Canada by Columbia, and not imported from the U.S.A.

Fig. 4

Fig. 5

The highest numbered record that I can think of in my own collection which doesn't have the indented ring is a Paul Whiteman potato-head record on Columbia 1464-D. Do other collectors have such Canadian Columbias with a higher number?

There's another important characteristic, which I can't claim is definitive but certainly indicates that a particular Columbia record is a Canadian pressing. That's the information embossed in the wax at the top of the record outside the label in the roughly twelve o'clock position. The American pressings have three letters and numbers. The first is the take number, the second is a letter which I believe represents a metal mother, and the third character on the American issues is a stamper number. A number of stampers would be made up from a particular metal part in order to press the number of copies necessary for sales and distribution in the U.S.A. In Canada there were only two characters. There was the take number followed by a letter, which represents the metal mother. For one reason or another (maybe because they didn't often go to a second stamper) the Canadian issues never show that third character.

Things become a bit dicey when you reach the period around 1930-31. Columbia sales were falling drastically in the U.S.A., They were in virtual bankruptcy and in fact, they did go bankrupt in 1932. Similarly in Canada, sales were extremely low. Some of these characteristics are less consistently followed. Many of the American issues now have just the take number and the letter representing the metal mother, and no stamper number appears. I think that is just an indication that there wasn't a need for multiple stampers when sales were so very, very, low. In Roland Gelatt's book The Fabulous Phonograph, he states that "a total of six million records were sold in the United States during 1932, approximately six percent of the total record sales in 1927". A big seller for Victor, even, was 40,000 records in the U.S.A. Many records sold 5,000 or 10,000 copies. They didn't need a lot of metal parts to press such a small number of records.

In the United States, the Columbia Company was taken over by Majestic Radio, which was backed by the Grigsby-Grunow Company, which made refrigerators in addition to radios. From the time of the bankruptcy of the Canadian company, all Columbia records sold in Canada right up until the late '30s were imported from the United States probably commanding a higher price because they were an imported product. Sales were so incredibly low that it just didn't make any sense to try to manufacture them in Canada.

Interestingly, Columbia is one of the few lines that Compo didn't acquire. When Brunswick went bankrupt, Compo got the Brunswick trademark name in Canada and pressed its version of Brunswick records. Idon't think rights to press Columbia were ever given to Compo. I don't know if there were copyright or patent problems, or whether there simply wasn't a market. By 1933/34 the Columbia label wasn't even important in the U.S.A. But people still remember those blue wax surfaces and the wonderful recordings they provided. Compo never seems to have pressed ARC-owned Columbia masters, which began around 1934 using the ARC series rather than the old Columbia "W" series for the assignment of the master (matrix) number.

Fig. 6

Fig. 7

I believe that in the late '20s and early '30s Columbia produced a French series which had a five-digit number followed by an "F". There were other European-inspired series. Although they look like an American product, I think they were only issued in Canada. There wasn't a market for that material the French material in particular in the United States. I haven't enough copies to be able to confirm this by examination of the pressing characteristics, but I think it's an interesting avenue that bears pursuit.

In Canada, Columbia pressed two of their budget labels. Harmony was pressed for a brief period in 1925 and 1926. Some labels had a price that was followed by "West of the Rockies" (Fig. 4.) and some "West of the Great Lakes" (Fig. 5.) But I don't know what legends are used in Canada. For some reason, the Harmony label didn't survive in Canada. Maybe there wasn't enough of a market smaller population and fewer chain stores to carry the budget labels or maybe Columbia decided to concentrate on their full-price product.

In 1829, the Velvet Tone label was introduced in Canada. Although I think the initial Velvet Tones used the standard American label (Fig. 6.), there also appeared a slightly smaller sized label reading "Reg. in Canada" below the Velvet Tone trade name (Fig. 7.). I think that's an indication that the name hadn't been previously registered in Canada, and there was a need to show this was protected for trading purposes. The Velvet Tone label appears to have been made in its original form, almost to the very end of the American Columbia company, which was probably sometime in the very first part of 1932. The Canadian company went bankrupt at the same time as the American company, and never again existed in Canada as a separate entity until Columbia Records was established by CBS Radio in the late '30s using the Sparton works in London, Ontario, for their Canadian pressings.

One piece of evidence that the Velvet Tone label was pressed almost to the very end in Canada is the jazz record that Jim Kidd found in Montreal, which was purportedly never issued in the U.S.A. It is Velvet Tone 7121-V. The 7000 series was a jazz and hot-dance series. Yet a pressing was found in Canada - it didn't accidentally slide across the border from the United States. Probably it had already been pressed when word came down to quit pressing records because the company was going out of business. Corporate communication is always a little slow, and I think that's a reasonable explanation of why that unique copy was found in Canada.

It's obvious why the Diva label was never pressed in Canada. It was a house label for the W.T. Grant department stores. Clarion was a very late entry in the budget label market by Columbia, and, again I think the sales in the U.S.A. didn't warrant coming up with a Canadian version.