Go to CAPS Home Page

Go to CAPS Home Page

Antique Phonograph News
Canadian Antique Phonograph Society
1982 1983 1984 1985 1986 1987 1988 1989 1990 1991 1992 1993
1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005
2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017
2018 2019 2020 2021
Jan-Feb Mar-Apr May-Jun Jul-Aug Sep-Oct Nov-Dec
The History of Berliner Gramophones
Part Two

The following part 2 of this article will focus on the contributions made by Emile Berliner, an industry pioneer who helped usher in the era of recorded sound. His move to Canada early in this industry's history is not well documented, even though his contributions continued on for many years after leaving the United States. This second part will attempt to highlight his later contributions. A subsequent third part is planned for a future issue, to catalogue the wide variety of machines produced but never fully documented. I would like to thank Oliver Berliner (Emile's Grandson and CAPS member) for his assistance with this article and for contributing information.

Berliner in Canada

Wanting to maintain a stake in the industry and having surrendered his rights to his patents in other countries, Berliner decided to move his operations to Canada where he had been granted patents in 1897. This move was also necessary as, under Canadian law, he was required to establish production in Canada in order to maintain his patents. Berliner chose to move to Montreal as he was personal friends with many of the officials at Bell Telephone which was headquartered there, and they were able to rent him facilities. Also, having previously sold a valuable patent to Bell, he was able to do things with them that would be unheard of nowadays. This location was also ideal as it provided easy access by rail to Philadelphia, just across the Delaware River from the Victor plant in Camden, New Jersey. Once there, he opened his first Canadian retail store in 1899 under the name E. Berliner Montreal, housed in the space he rented from Bell Canada at 2315 St. Catherine Street (improperly listed as 2315-2316 in some sources) and later set up a factory to supply the company nearby at 367-368 L' Aqueduc St. (now called Lucien L'Allier St.). The first Canadian Berliner Gram-o-phones (note the difference in the way gramophone is written for the Canadian Company) sold were made up from motors and turntables imported by rail from Eldridge Johnson and installed in cabinets manufactured at the Montreal factory. This arrangement was problematic for Berliner as sometimes motors from Victor were found to be defective, with gears that didn't mesh despite the Victor inspectors' approval. Also, as gramophones were a relatively unknown product, the railroads classified them in the catchall category of explosives, which paid the highest freight rate. Edgar Berliner (Emile's son) eventually persuaded the railroad to classify gramophones as musical instruments.

Herbert and Emile Berliner, 1915
Herbert Berliner

On January 2, 1900 pressing began on 7" discs which were pressed from matrices belonging to affiliated Berliner Companies in the United States and Europe. Production quickly moved from 2000 records in 1900 to an estimated 2 million in 1901, impressive first year growth by any standard. Most early Canadian-made Berliner records can be recognized by their brown colour and brown paper label unlike the industry standard of black tinted shellac used elsewhere. On July 10th of 1900, Berliner officially registered the Nipper logo, which would reign for a half-century as the world's most famous trade-mark and is still the most recognized symbol of the recording industry. Berliner advertising from this period could also boast that Berliner's products were a recipient of a medal at the 1900 Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto. As improvements in motor technology allowed, new longer playing 10" Concert Grand disc production was begun in 1901 with the lower priced Black Label and higher priced Red Seal lines, which were followed two years later by 12" DeLuxe discs. Production of the 7 inch discs lasted until 1909 when it became evident that the 10 and 12 inch discs were to become the industry standard. In 1904,after several years of enviable growth, the company was ready for some major changes. In this year, the E. Berliner Montreal operation was incorporated with Emile's eldest son, Herbert Samuel Berliner, as a stockholder, vice-president and general manager. Emile's younger son, Edgar, an MIT graduated mechanical engineer, would also later join the company as secretary/treasurer. A new recording facility at 138a Peel St. in Montreal was set up and the company quickly made arrangements to become distributors and record pressers for Victor records and Berliner affiliates outside Canada. With this major coup, the Berliner Company grew tremendously and within 2 years had to build a new 10,000 square foot, three-story factory at the corner of St. Antoine and Lenoir streets to produce both machines and records. Almost immediately after beginning operations in the new facility, the company added a five story addition to help house their growing workforce. When completed in 1921, the final 50,000 square foot factory was one of the most modern buildings in Montreal and proudly displayed a huge billboard stating "Home of the Victrola". This success could be partially attributed to Berliner's strict requirement that its retailers sell Berliner products exclusively and at prices set by Berliner, something that became a cause of friction between the company and its dealers.

It is worth noting that Herbert Berliner's efforts to convince Victor to produce double-sided records were unsuccessful even though rival Columbia had already begun their production in 1908. This seems all the more strange when you consider that Victor held the patents on double-sided records and had spent the last few years in a fruitless court battle with Columbia trying to defend these patents. It was left to Herbert Berliner to pursue this and in 1908 Berliner released its first double-sided record coupling a new Billy Murray release with a previously released one. After a decade of successes, the company reorganized in 1909 and became the Berliner Gram-o-phone Company Limited, with Emanuel Blount as president, Herbert as vice-president and Edgar as secretary/treasurer. Emile was not active in the business and instead retired upon the royalties for the company's use of his patents.

Herbert Berliner overseeing work at his Compo company’s pressing facility, 1921

The decade that followed saw Berliner capture and maintain the Company's position as the leader in Canada with Columbia a second and Edison's prominence dropping off. Herbert also established a subsidiary of Berliner called His Master's Voice (HMV) which introduced a series devoted to Canadian artists and later expanded to a series of French-Canadian artists. Toward the end of the teens, the patents, which had allowed Berliner, Victor and Columbia to control the disc record market, began to expire. In the US, this led to an explosion of activity as many new companies began production of records. Fearing that this could lead to an influx of records into Canada, Herbert decided the wisest approach to maintain some control of the market was to establish facilities to manufacture records in Canada for these new companies. Thus, in 1918, H Berliners Compo Company Limited, Canada's first independent record pressing facility opened in Lachine, Quebec. With surplus record presses from Berliner,the company began in 1919 to press, label, package and ship records for Phonola followed by the Starr Company of Canada's Gennett label.

Herbert also began a more aggressive recording campaign, which did not go unnoticed by the Victor Company, which began to see a drop in their share of the market and the resultant loss in their royalties. As local Canadian recordings began to outnumber imported Victor recordings in the Berliner catalogue, a rift between the two companies began to grow. As a consequence of his disloyalty (via the establishment of Compo) Emile, who had seized control of the company due to its failure to pay him royalties, ousted Herbert and named Edgar as president. Neither Emile nor Edgar ever spoke to Herbert again; only Emile's youngest child, Alice, ever did. After leaving the Berliner Company, Herbert set up the Sun Record Company sales office at 210 Adelaide Street in Toronto, Canada to distribute his own labels, which included the Sun and Apex brands. Edgar acquired sole ownership of the company and Emile Berliner retired. Victor Records then began to regain its dominant position in the Berliner catalogue as the HMYV series was phased out and replaced by Victor recordings, and His Master's Voice-Canada, Ltd., Toronto, became Berliner's distributor. In order to maintain this position, it was announced in 1924 that the Victor Talking Machine Company was acquiring ownership of the Berliner Gram-o-phone Company and its subsidiary His Master's Voice by exchanging with Emile Berliner Gram-o-phone shares for Victor's. With this purchase, and a name change to the Victor Talking Machine Company of Canada Ltd., Canada's first talking machine company ceased to exist in name even though Edgar Berliner (still a stockholder) was kept on as president. This year was to be a particularly bad one for Herbert's Compo Company which suffered a $35,000 setback when, in November,the storage warehouse in Lachine went up in flames. Over the next few years, the Victor Company's decision to put pressure on Herbert to resign from the Berliner Company would come back to haunt them as Compo's share of the market increased. As Compo continually undercut Victor's record prices, a series of dealer revolts resulted in Victor having to reduce their prices. As a final blow to Victor, Herbert put his support behind the Starr Piano Company in a 1921 legal case over Victor patents on lateral cut records. Herbert's decision to turn against his former partner resulted in the court's setting aside the valuable Victor patents.

As the decade drew to a close, Emile Berliner, the father of the disc gramophone died of a heart attack at the age of 78 on August 3, 1929 in Montreal, Canada. It is a tribute to his genius and drive that three of the top record companies began from Berliner's companies; RCA descending from Berliner to Victor, EMI from his British company and Polygram from his German Deutsche Grammophone.

In the same year that Berliner died, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) merged with Victor in the US and Canada to form RCA Victor (renamed BMG music in 1987). The next year, as a result of pressure from the RCA Victor Company in the United States, Edgar Berliner resigned as president in 1930. This ended the Berliner family involvement in the original company and left only one family member remaining in the record business. The last of the Berliner family to remain in the business, Herbert Berliner, remained with his Compo Company, becoming one of the few to survive the depression. By the mid 30s, a new entrant, Decca Records, had begun eating into the profitable American market. Herbert again seeing an opportunity made a deal with Decca to begin in 1935 pressing and distributing their records. In 1955, having moved to California, Edgar Berliner died at the age of 69. This same year Edgar's son Oliver began producing records for his own label and others, while at the same time opening a music publishing business that continues to this day in California.

In 1966 Herbert Berliner (b 1882) having survived the early pioneering days, the depression, the introduction of the LP record and the 45 rpm 7" disc died in Montreal. The Compo Company was then sold to Decca Records in 1950 marking the end of the Berliner family involvement in the Canadian talking machine industry.

15 years later, MCA purchased Decca and sadly, in the early 70s, the doors closed on Canada's second- earliest record pressing facility which had been in Lachine, Quebec since 1918.