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Edison Diamond Discs: 1912 - 1929

By Tim Gracyk

Edison Diamond Discs

Diamond Discs--I love 'em! Non-collectors who come across Edison discs characterize these records by their thickness. "I saw some old records that are a quarter of an inch thick," they tell me. Yes, they are thick! Diamond Discs were a unique product in the record industry. They were NOT like Victor or Columbia products during the same era.. Some songs and artists are the same as what we find on Victor and Columbia records, but the technology differs, the same way Beta differs from VHS (remember Beta back in the 1980s?), or DVD differs from VHS, or Apple computers differ from IBM (not compatible!).

Dealers and beginning collectors should know at least this ONE THING about Diamond Discs. Edison's discs cannot be played on Victrolas--I mean those wonderful cabinet machines made by the Victor Talking Machine Company. I define "Victrola" here since some people use this same term for Edison phonographs, a common mistake.

Here is another crucial fact. Steel needles will NOT play a Diamond Disc! You need a diamond stylus!

Moreover, Victor products cannot be played on an Edison disc machine unless the machine has a special adapter. Edison's company made "lateral" soundboxes (to play non-Edison discs, such as Victor 78s--Diamond Discs are called "vertical"). They originally sold for $1.50 but are rare today. The Victor company never made such adapters. Various small companies also made such adapters. Sadly, the adapters usually perform poorly.

To play Diamond Discs on vintage equipment (they play at 80 rpm), one must use a diamond stylus designed by Edison engineers. A diamond stylus lasts a long time but not forever, so today's Edison machine owner should inspect the stylus to see if it needs replacing. The radius for Edison styli is 3.5 mils or .0035 inches (according to files at the Edison National Historic Site), though some collectors claim that 3.3 mils also gets good results.

Edison discs are as interesting as Blue Amberol cylinders. You find some of the same performances on each since Edison dubbed from discs onto cylinders using a horn-to-horn process, with the first dubbings released in January 1915.

For four decades, beginning in 1877, Edison was committed to cylinders, which created an opportunity for Emile Berliner to develop a market in America for discs in the 1890s (Berliner's company evolved into the Victor company). Finally, Edison decided that he was ready to enter the disc market though he also issued cylinders since they were very profitable (cylinders cost very little to make--Edison discs were relatively expensive to produce). Diamond Discs were issued from 1912 to 1929.

Arthur Fields Record

You can determine the decade in which an Edison disc was manufactured by knowing about the two basic labels. From 1912 to mid-1921, Edison relied on "molded labels." A prepared plate was pressed into the record surface, leaving an engraved impression. Most are solid black and are notoriously hard to read except for the very early issues that have a gray background that highlights the lettering (this was too expensive and time-consuming, and was dropped from the production line).

Then, beginning in mid-1921, paper labels were used on Diamond Discs. The Edison Company was better than other companies at keeping popular titles in stock, so songs recorded in the 'teens were often available into the 1920s and can be found with paper labels as well as on discs featuring the earlier engraved surface.

Edison would have switched to paper earlier except for problems with "pressure-bonding" paper labels to the disc. Edison's first paper label came out on June 6, 1921 (#50818--"Sunnyside Sal"). The label problem was not licked since paper labels fall off Edison discs easily, and if a label is gone, identifying a record is hard (though not impossible)! Labels never fall off my Victor or Columbia 78s whereas I have glued many labels back onto Edison discs. Why did Edison not use the label technology used by other companies? I suppose to avoid paying for technology patented by others.

The company at first stamped issue numbers on the edge of the Diamond Disc, like a number in the 50,000 series for popular songs. You need thick records to do that! Actually, this was a problem since moisture could enter the records through these stamped numbers, and you never want Diamond Discs to get wet! They are so thick that I have never seen a broken Diamond Disc, but they warp if exposed to water, so don't wash them.

Need to clean a Diamond Disc? You may use tissue paper dampened with unscented rubbing alcohol. Quickly dry the record. Sadly, some surfaces have bad lamination cracks and are unplayable.

Although they may look pristine, some Edison discs have bad surfaces, which you discover as you play them. Ones from the earliest years and from the 1920s have better surfaces--and better sound--than discs made around 1917-1920, the peak years of production. Wartime shortages affected quality and there are other reasons why quality was not consistent. Surfaces on pre-1916 discs are smooth since condensite was applied to a smooth Celluloid base bonded to a wood "flour" core. Discs made from around 1917 to 1920 had an overly thin coat of condensite (maybe "Condensite" with a capital letter?) sprayed onto a rough core. When output was high, few coats of condensite varnish were applied because of time needed for drying (when output was low--such as around 1921-1922, when the economy was in recession--more coats could be applied). There is no shellac in a Diamond Disc, unlike in Victor discs.

According to Ron Dethlefson, the expert on Edison discs and Blue Amberol cylinders ("rdeth@pacbell.net"), Diamond Disc cores were made from finely ground wood flour (not coarse sawdust, as some have speculated) together with an asphaltic binder. In 1921 the core or "powder blank" composition was changed to include china clay and lesser amounts of wood flour. This was done because it was found that wood flour absorbed moisture readily whereas china clay did not. The china clay cores did provide protection from moisture. Torture tests at the Edison Lab revealed that these records could stay submerged in water for 15-20 minutes before moisture damage. However, the china clay discs were heavier. Ron wrote to me via email, "Pity the poor dealer who had to pay still higher shipping costs for his Diamond Discs after 1921!"

Collectors seek early classical Edison discs in original and fancy cardboard boxes (very rare!). Most discs came in sleeves or "jackets," many of which discussed artists and songs although these notes were gone by 1921. On early discs some artists go unidentified, with the record merely saying "baritone" or "soprano." This allowed Edison to change artists but not change labels! If you need an artist identified, drop me a message and I can identify that artist for you.

The discs are ten inches but can hold more music than 12 inch discs made by other companies. Some Diamond Discs play up to five minutes per side. If you find a 12 inch Edison disc made in 1926, it is a long-playing record, or "LP." It plays up to 40 minutes and is a valuable item.

Clean Edison discs can sound great, but many collectors complain that the music is dull. Perhaps much music on Diamond Discs won't suit the typical listener, but it is a myth that Edison never recorded good dance music or blues or jazz. Excellent dance titles, blues numbers, and jazz tunes can be found on Edison discs. "Hot" numbers may not pop up as often as a Walter Van Brunt disc or a waltz, but Edison did record artists such as Fletcher Henderson, Clarence Williams and Eva Taylor, Red Nichols, Josie Miles, and other greats. Edison deserves more credit for recording blues and hot jazz artists than some collectors today give him.

Until 1924 or so, the busy Thomas A. Edison personally decided what was issued, approving or rejecting takes. He preferred simple melodies and basic harmonies, disliking jazz, dissonance, loud accompaniment. This created tension at the Edison company, with the A & R staff fighting with Edison over choices of titles issued.

There are countless exceptions to the claim made by some that Diamond Discs, especially in the first decade, are dull. My Diamond Discs give me great pleasure, starting with the very first one issued in the popular series: Collins and Harlan singing "Moonlight in Jungleland" (50001, the beginning of the 50000 series, recorded in 1912).

Many discs offer great performances of classical music, with some opera discs being highly collectible. Fine singers who made Edison discs include Claudia Muzio, Frieda Hempel, and the tenors Zenatello, Martinelli, and Urlus. Great instrumentalists made Edison discs. The pianist Rachmaninoff made Edison discs and was very proud of them.

Some jazz and blues performances are so "hot" that I wonder if marketing folks at the Edison site had to sneak these records past the inventor as he napped. I mean not only Josie Miles and Fletcher Henderson but also Red & Miff's Stompers, the Five Harmaniacs, Viola McCoy, Chas. Matson's Creole Serenaders. I think by this time, the A & R staff "won" the battle with Edison since he stopped interfering with what titles were issued.

Don't mistake a band called Earl Oliver's Jazz Babies for King Oliver's classic band since this is a Harry Reser outfit. Reser's discs are fun, which is true for other "common" artists like Billy Murray and Ada Jones. Walter Van Brunt appears often since Edison loved this tenor's voice. B.A. Rolfe made superb dance band records. By 1929, Rolfe was getting $1000 per side, making his orchestra Edison's highest paid musical group.

A Collins and Harlan disc (#50423) is the first ever to mention the new word "jazz." "That Funny Jas Band From Dixieland," which satirizes the jazz played in cafes, was recorded on December 1, 1916, months before the first jazz record was issued! Listen to the different takes from this recording session and you'll hear interesting variations in the Edison studio musicians attempting to play "jass"!

For more information about Edison discs, I recommend books by Ron Dethlefson. Sadly, his books about Edison discs are out of print. He hopes to have at least one of the books published in a new edition after he finishes his current project, a history of the Pathe company.

Thomas A. Edison was amazing. He invented the phonograph in 1877 and made countless improvements despite being fundamentally deaf (actually, until 1905 he had much of his hearing but after an ear infection and operation, he could hear almost nothing). Edison himself saw nothing ironic about working closely with sound, claiming that he was driven to improve the phonograph until the results satisfied his defective hearing. He also improved the telephone transmitter.

Edison Diamond Disc Reproducers

Edison made good profits. Some record collectors say he was out of touch to make cylinders as late as 1929 but they forget that Edison was making profits from cylinders for much of the1920s! However, he made some bad business decisions. For example, until 1928 he was against the idea that his company should enter the new radio market. For years his odd opinions about music influenced what was released on records, which made his company less successful than market-driven companies like Victor and Columbia. The fact that a deaf and musically untrained Edison decided (along with a committee) what music was issued by his company is testimony to--well, I dislike the word "pigheadedness" since I admire Edison, so let's say he could be wrong and stubborn.

Edison scoffed when Victor and Columbia switched in 1925 to an electric recording process, or the microphone. Theodore Edison recalled his deaf father listening to competitors' electrical recordings with volume all the way up, which distorted sound. The son stated in an interview, "He became so deaf that he couldn't hear that good electrical reproduction was possible." Edison let business be hurt by his faulty hearing.

Edison's company eventually made changes to keep up with competitors, even by late 1927 adopting the electric recording process and by 1929 making "needle-type" discs that could be played on competitors' equipment. Look hard for the 52,000 series. Sadly, changes came too late. When the last Edison records were issued in late 1929 (cylinders ceased with the June 1929 list), an era came to an end.

I have to agree with Jim Walsh, a writer who is widely regarded as this century's authority on acoustic era recording artists. He claimed that nothing sounds better than a clean Diamond Disc played on a well-restored Edison machine. Only the best Victor machines matched the Diamond Disc machine, and no other machines came close. I have listened to some carefully restored machines (my reproducers have been lovingly serviced--and only a few people are qualified to do this tricky work), and sound is spectacular. It is like having the singers in your living room! Edison's tone-tests in the late 'teens and the early 1920s were successful because the machines really did sound like the artists who were standing next to the machines. The artists would sing, then the machine would play, then the lights would go out and the audience had to guess who or what was doing the singing. It was a remarkable way to sell a machine!

Some of the First Diamond Discs

Below are some of the first Diamond Discs from the company's popular 50,000 series. The index described above is much more informative than the list below--but the titles, artists, and numbers below may interest people who don't care to get the detailed Diamond Disc index.

"50001","BELOW THE MASON-DIXON LINE","Reed","ARTHUR COLLINS"

"50001","MOONLIGHT IN JUNGLELAND","Dempsey-Schmid","COLLINS & HARLAN"

"50043","AS WE PARTED AT THE GATE," HINDERMYER & D. CHALMERS

"50043","CLOSE TO THEE","Crosby-Vail","YOUNG & WHEELER"

"50051","FAIREST ROSE WALZE","Engelmann","CHARLES DAAB (Xylophone)"

"50051","L'ELEGANTE POLKA","Damar\'82","CHARLES DAAB (Xylophone)"

"50052","APPLE BLOSSUMS","Roberts","AMERICAN SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA"

"50052","FLOWER SONG","Lange","VENETIAN INSTRUMENTAL QUARTET"

"50053","BROKEN HEART","Gillet","STRING QUINTET & HARP"

"50053","LARGO","Handel","AMERICAN SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA"

"50054","BEAR'S OIL","","GOLDEN & HUGHES"

"50054","TWO POETS","","GOLDEN & HUGHES"

"50055","MY LADY LU","Brill","WALTER VAN BRUNT"

"50055","SOME DAY","Wellings","ELIZABETH SPENCER"

"50056","MY UNCLE'S FARM","","GOLDEN & HUGHES"

"50056","THE SHIPMATES","","GOLDEN & HUGHES"

"50058","FOROSETTA---Tarantella","Arditi","AMERICAN SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA"

"50058","SOUTHERN ROSES WALTZ","Strauss","AMERICAN SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA"

"50060","MASA'S IN DEL COLD, COLD GROUND","Foster","METROPOLITAN QUARTET"

"50060","OLD FOLKS AT HOME","Foster","CHRISTINE MILLER"

Edison Supplements

You should look for a copy of the complete and accurate Index of Diamond Discs, which lists all of the thick discs made by Thomas A. Edison's company from 1912 to 1929. This book is about 300 pages (9 inches by 11 inches paper, spiral binding) and it lists every Diamond Disc issued. Thousands of titles are listed numerically, beginning with 50001 from 1912 ("Moonlight in Jungleland" and "Below the Mason-Dixon Line") through 52651, the last of the Diamond Discs issued in 1929 (this features Vaughn de Leath). Also in the index are the classical and semi-classical 80,000 and 82,000 records. Even the 57000 series (German), 58000 (French), 59000 (Scandinavian), etc.

Demonstration, special purpose, and sample records are listed (for example, the rare "Holiday Greetings from the Bunch at Orange" with Edison's own voice--issued in 1924). Edison's rare lateral cut records are here, too. At the end of the book is an index of Edison's musical artists (this tells you which artists are on which Diamond Discs, useful information for any serious collector). Other information in the book: matrix numbers, date when the disc was issued, date when disc was deleted from the catalog. For example, Diamond Disc 50194, "He's a Rag Picker," sung by the Peerless Quartet, was available from October 1914 until June 1919--Billy Murray sings "California and You" on the reverse side. There is even an indication of which side was intended by the company to be the "A" side and "B" side (information not on all of the discs themselves--but the "R" means "right side," or "A" side, and "L" means "left side," or "B" side!). A wonderful yet elusive reference book--a nice index was added by someone (the original lacked this index), so this copy of the Diamond Disc book is actually more useful than the original from the 1970s.