The Kansas City Talking Machine Company And Its "Original" Recordings of 1898

May Hyers

By Tim Gracyk

To the right is a page from a mid-1898 catalog issued by the Kansas City Talking Machine Company. May C. Hyers was the first African-American female to make recordings. Her records were issued as brown wax cylinders, but none are known to have survived. She covered a variety of genres from sentimental favorites, such as "Ben Bolt," to hits of the day, including "Pumpkin Colored Coon" (KCTM cylinder #203). The above image of Hyers was made in the months that record companies began to take notice of a new American musical form, namely ragtime. The words "rag" and "ragtime" were first added to record titles and record catalogs in the summer of 1898.

I have studied two different 1898 catalogs issued by the Kansas City Talking Machine Company. The one duplicated here is from around June 1898, the other being from around August of that year. The differences between the catalogs are fascinating! The company had grown within a few months! For historians of popular music, the most significant difference is that by August (or September) of 1898, the company was adding the word "ragtime" to some titles. This word is absent from the June catalog. The earlier catalog--what I will call the June catalog--refers to the Battle of Manila, which happened on May 1, 1898, but includes no songs from late 1898. That enables me to date the earlier catalog at around June 1898. The later catalog refers to the famous captureof Cuba's San Juan Hill--of Teddy's Rough Riders fame--so I assume it was issued about 2 or 3 months later. Neither catalog refers to events of late 1898 nor to songs composed in late 1898.

It is especially interesting that by mid-1898 the company had recorded dozens of titles sung by an African-American female singer. Her name was May C. Hyers.

The Kansas City Talking Machine Company, with "office and factory" located at 425 Delaware Street, primarily distributed Columbia products, not only pre-recorded brown wax cylinders but the Columbia Eagle ("Clock-work motor...Price $10.00"), the Columbia Graphophone ("larger and more finely finished than the Eagle"), the "New Graphophone Nickel-In-The-Slot Machine" ($20), hearing tubes, "nickel connections," belts, speaking tubes, main springs.

The company also sold Edison products. It lists the "New Standard Phonograph" at $20 ("this is the cheapest genuine Edison Phonograph made"), the Edison Home Phonograph at $30, an Edison Coin-in-the-Slot Phonograph at $50, an Edison Spring Motor Phonograph at $75 ("No electricity...No battery."), and an Edison "M" at $110. Shaved Edison cylinders, "ready for use and packed in cotton and box," cost twenty cents or $2.25 a dozen.

Kansas City Talking Machine Company

At this time hearing tubes were still being used, though horn machines were also available. In announcing female comic singer May C. Hyers, the catalog states, "These records have been made by the use of a new process which we control exclusively and they possess the sweetness of voice which is so lacking in many records made by the female voice. They are suitable for either horn or tube use, as the enunciation is perfect."

A page giving ordering instructions states, "Our records are all originals and we ask all to be very specific and state whether they wish the records for horn or tube use. We can then fill orders intelligently, as we have records so loud that they could not be used for tube use with satisfaction, as they can be heard with the horn several blocks away."

Most importantly, the company made and sold its own recordings, over a thousand titles. These cylinders recorded in Kansas City sold for fifty cents, or a dozen for five dollars. The catalog states, "All records with our announcement on and bought direct from us are fully warranted to be originals and not duplicates" (emphasis added). The catalog states, "[W]e have no agents."

A few of these cylinders exist today, and announcements do indeed identify them as Kansas City Talking Machine Company products. Chuck Haddix of the Marr Sound Archives at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, knowing my interest, sent a cassette of six cylinders issued by the company. From various auction lists, I know that other K.C.T.M.C. cylinders have survived.

Hattie Nevada, a song-writer and mezzo soprano, is one artist whose cylinders were sold by the Kansas City Talking Machine Company and perhaps by no other company in the nation. Deakins reports in Cylinder Records that she was married to Frank H. Woodbury, who founded the company in 1897. This is the same Woodbury mentioned in the March 1910 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly, which gives a list of injunctions granted in restraint of price cutting. EPN names the case involving Woodbury as "Edison Phonograph Co. and National Phonograph Co. vs. Frank H. Woodbury, U.S. Circuit Court, Western District of Missouri, Western Division." When this particular injunction was handed down is not stated. (The October 1914 issue of EPN profiles The Phonograph Company of Kansas City, but this is a different outfit.)

From a researcher named Harland McWilliams, who knew the son of Hattie Nevada and Frank H. Woodbury, Deakins learned about the company's origins. Deakins also learned about the company from an artist who had decades earlier "made whistling selections" for the company. Deakins does not name the artist but this must be George C. Fultz.

Deakins writes, "Originally cylinder phonographs and records were involved in the business only as premiums to be given away to purchasers of a certain quantity of cigars, etc. But eventually the records and machines of both Edison and Columbia were sold, Woodbury having obtained a franchise giving him sole rights to sell them in a four state area." The company began making its own cylinders in 1898.

Hattie Nevada composed the 1897 song "The Letter Edged in Black," which was widely recorded in the late 1890s and was revived by Vernon Dalhart in the 1920s and Bradley Kincaid in the 1930s. Several singers hired to make "original" records for the company recorded Nevada songs. Other Nevada compositions include the ballad "On The Old Missouri Shore," "I'm Just an Old Vagabond," "I'll Come Back When the Hawthorn Blooms Again," "My Father Was A Sailor On The Maine," and the very popular "While the Leaves Come Drifting Down." May Irwin popularized this last song in Kate Kipp Buyer and in a few years it would be recorded for Victor by Harry Macdonough with A.D. Madeira as his duo partner, then with S. H. Dudley. Byron G. Harlan and Madeira recorded it for Edison in late 1899.

George J. Gaskin recorded all six of the Nevada songs mentioned above, probably during a stopover in 1898 in Kansas City.

When I compare the K.C.T.M.C.'s catalog with other Columbia catalogs of the period--namely, one issued in June 1897 by the Columbia Phonograph Company, another issued in mid-1898 by the Columbia dealership in Boston called The Eastern Talking Machine Company--I am struck by significant differences. The K.C.T.M.C. catalog allows us to view the industry from a new angle.

Paradoxically, the more I learn about recordings of the 1890s, the more I realize that much about the phonograph business of the 1890s might never be known.

The Kansas City Talking Machine Company proudly sold "original records" in addition to selling Columbia cylinders. The catalog states, "We are the largest 'original' record manufacturers in the world!" The emphasis on "original" is in the catalog. It also proclaims that the K.C.T.M.C. "is the ONLY COMPANY in the UNITED STATES Listing and Selling ORIGINAL RECORDS."

It is not true that it was the only company making "original records" in 1898. Many phonograph dealers made them--enough, according to Ron Dethlefson, for Edison to frown on the practice of sending out large shipments of blanks. Certainly the Edison franchise on Market Street in San Francisco--called the Bacigalupi and MacDonald Phonographic Arcade in or about 1895, the Edison Phonograph Parlor in 1897, and the Edison Phonograph and Graphophone Agency in 1899--made original records in the late 1890s. Billy Murray and Matt Keefe made such recordings for owner Peter Bacigalupi in 1897 or 1898.

The catalog may be correct in claiming the Kansas City company is the "largest" manufacturer of "original" records (Edison and Columbia cylinders were not what is here called "original" records). The company heavily pushed its "original records" in the catalog, stressing their superiority to cylinders that the company called "duplicates." Originals must have been profitable for the company to push them so heavily. Deakins reports in Cylinder Records that the artist who had made whistling selections for the company (again, Deakins does not name him but it must be George C. Fultz) recalled whistling into five machines at once and receiving 11 1/2 cents for each record.

The catalog implies that if a cylinder is not an "original," then it is a "duplicate" made by the crude process of one machine recording a cylinder while another machine plays the music. This is unfair if the Columbia cylinders in stock had been made by a pantograph system.

The catalog states that "original records" are superior in sound and last longer. Regarding durability, it states, "The best records are the cheapest in the end...they will wear FOUR TIMES as long as Duplicates. Ask any Phonograph Man, who has large experience, and he will tell you, 'I would not have a Record-- except it was Original--if I could help it.'"

It also states, "Original records are such as are produced by either singing, talking or playing directly to a record placed on the receiving machine. Such records will possess all the fine intonations of the instruments or voice and will not lack the finer tones or notes which go to help make a complete and pleasing record. Such records when taken by the aid of the best made machine and by skilled artists cannot [but?] help to increase the demand for good records."

Again, the catalog unfairly suggests there are only two kinds of cylinders--original VS. duplicate, direct recording VS. acoustic dubbing. It fails to acknowledge the use of a pantograph system, thereby doing Columbia cylinders a disservice. Naturally "original" records are better than what is described as a "duplicate."

The catalog states, "To make duplicate records the first essential is to have a good ORIGINAL Record. (Can any one say these duplicates will be as good as the original it was made from?) The next requisite is to have two Talking Machines and then let one do the reproducing while the other records. The result is a record which most companies sell and pretend to say it is as good as the one from which it was made. Anyone can try the experiment by using of our High Grade Original records and see the result they get as compared with the original."

Some artists featured on "original records" were traveling performers who recorded in various places. Edward M. Favor made many "original records" for the Kansas City company. Favor was at this time an established recording artist. Around 1893 he recorded "The King's Song" (Columbia cylinder 6544). From another hit musical of this period in which he appeared, Ship Ahoy, he recorded "The Commodore Song" (North American 772), with the opening announcement stating, "Edison Record 772, The Commodore Song from Ship Ahoy as sung by the original commodore Mr. Edward M. Favor of Rice's 1942 Company."

Favor was by the late 1890s one of the most popular recording artists. He made records between vaudeville engagements, working for virtually all companies. Billy Murray later recalled seeing Favor sing into eight cylinder phonographs at the headquarters of the Bacigalupi Brothers. Favor, who was then appearing at the Orpheum Theater, must have made an impression for Murray to remember, decades later, how Favor would cup his hands behind his ears to determine whether the tone was hitting the horn straight in the center.

Favor worked often for Columbia, beginning in the 1890s and continuing into the disc era. Interestingly, he is in Columbia's 1897 catalog but not the 1898 catalog issued by the New England dealer. Favor selections are listed in the K.C.T.M.C. as "warranted original records," and, with only a few exceptions, the titles do not match those of the 1897 Columbia catalog. One title that Favor recorded for Columbia in 1897 and also the K.C.T.M.C. is "What Do You Think of Hoolihan," which is not surprising given the song's popularity. I own a Will F. Denny brown wax cylinder with the original Columbia paper slip giving the title as "What Do You Think of O'Hoolihan" (5068). The slip gives addresses of Columbia dealers in eight American cities, including St. Louis (at 720-722 Olive St.), and in Paris and Berlin. Kansas City is not one of the cities.

He recorded Hattie Nevada compositions in Kansas City, including "The Letter Edged in Black" (325), a rare instance of Favor being paid to record songs composed by his employer.

We know that Favor made "original" records for both the Kansas City outfit and the Bacigalupis in San Francisco. Where else did he make "original" records?

This kind of recording activity--making records in different cities as performers traveled across the continent--stopped after Edison's gold-moulded process for cylinders was introduced in 1902. The earlier process of making cylinders from a pantograph was labor intensive, with the relatively high production cost passed on to dealers in wholesale prices, so some dealers could earn higher profits by making their own cylinders. However, the new gold- moulded process was superior to earlier processes and was not labor intensive. Dealers could not match the quality of gold-moulded records and gave up making their own cylinders. Artists could no longer earn much money making "original" records, which may account for some artists forsaking their recording careers by the early 1900s.

Artists whose Columbia cylinders were stocked by the Kansas City dealership--that is, records sent from the East coast--include Gilmore's Band, Charles P. Lowe, the Columbia Orchestra, Len Spencer, John York AtLee, Minnie Emmett, Billy Golden, Dan W. Quinn, George W. Johnson, George J. Gaskin, and George Schweinfest. Their titles and numbers in the Kansas City catalog generally match those in the Columbia catalogs issued in June 1897 and June 1898, with some Columbia titles not available in Kansas City.

The Kansas City catalog lists over a dozen artists who made "original" records. Many of these names appear in no other catalog. The artists include female cornetist Linnie Biggs, cornetist L. Leverich, piccolo soloist Arthur Wehl, the National Orchestra, James' Military Band ("The Klondyke March" and "Phonograph March" are performed, among other numbers), the Symphony Orchestra, tenor Arthur Gladstone, the Third Regiment Band, xylophone soloist J.W. Drew, Morris Manley, Frank Butts, David C. Bangs, Col. Robert G. Ingersoll, the Mozart Male Quartette, the Flower Sisters (they recorded sometimes as a brass quartet and other times as a vocal quartet), banjoist James A. Dunn, Hattie Nevada, May C. Hyers, clarionet soloist William N. Hummer, and whistler George C. Fultz.

Most of these names will be unknown even to those who study the brown wax cylinder era. The names familiar to me are baritone David C. Bangs, who recorded nearly a dozen titles for Berliner from 1895 to 1896; Robert G. Ingersoll, who recites on 2 Berliners; the Mozart Quartet, which made 4 Berliners; and tenor Arthur Gladstone, who made 3 Berliners. Aside from Edward M. Favor, none of the artists who made "original" records in Kansas City were associated with Edison.

The Kansas City catalog lists over a dozen titles featuring David C. Bangs, including "Casey at the Bat" (3502), "Stump Speech on Love" (3513), and "The Idiot Boy" (3517). His recording days with Berliner were over. The Kansas City catalog proudly announced that Bangs was an exclusive K.C.T.M.C. artist: "The long and successful reputation of Mr. Bangs as a record maker is a sufficient warranty of the high order of his work. As a versatile artist he has no superior, and his selections, whether grave or gay, have that touch of naturalness and finesse that few public speakers possess. A voice of great strength, flexibility and sweetness makes his records greatly sought after. Mr. Bangs is now exclusively connected with our record department, and his original records can only be had with our announcement."

The Kansas City catalog lists a few dozen Arthur Gladstone titles, stating, "As a ballad singer Mr. Gladstone has no superior and his reputation for singing patriotic songs and ballads is international. Mr. Gladstone's voice is Tenor robusto of marvelous sweetness as well as strength." One number he sings is Paul Dresser's "Just Tell Them That You Saw Me" (4010), followed in the catalog by George M. Cohan's "I Told Them That I Saw You" (4011). Other Gladstone selections, among nearly a hundred, include Nevada's "Letter Edged in Black" (4000), Harris' "After the Ball" (4012), Davis and Trevelyan's "Down In Poverty Row" (4013), and Davis' "In The Baggage Coach Ahead" (4047).

The 11 titles recorded in Kansas City by banjoist James A. Dunn need to be added to Uli Heier and Rainer E. Lotz's The Banjo On Record when that banjo discography is revised. I know from an auction list put out by Ray Phillips that at least one Dunn cylinder has survived: "The Cocoanut Dance."

Tenor Frank Butts, like banjoist James A. Dunn, may have recorded only for the Kansas City Talking Machine Company. The catalog lists a few dozen Butts titles and states, "Mr. Butts is so well known throughout the United States and Canada as a soloist and chorus leader for the leading Evangelists in the Evangelistic meetings that he needs no introduction...He possesses a marvelous voice, full, rich and resonant. His reputation as a strong singer assures his records being extremely loud, clearly enunciated and can be heard a very long distance. Choice records for concert work and religious gatherings."

Butts recorded nearly one hundred titles, and some fit his characterization as a singer of religious songs, such "The Ninety and Nine" (4223) and "Nearer My God To Thee" (4225). But he was a versatile singer, singing many comic numbers. Other titles include "Beer, Beer, Glorious Beer" (1233), "All Coons Look Alike To Me" (4247), "Every Nigger Had A Lady But Me" (4242), "My Girl's A Corker" (4208), and "A Convivial Man (Laughing Chorus)" (4212).

I earlier mentioned a cassette of K.C.T.M.C. recordings sent by Chuck Haddix. On it are two selections sung by Butts: "My Dad's The Engineer" and "Almost Persuaded."

Linnie Biggs may be the first female cornetist to make recordings. Listing over 20 Biggs recordings, the catalog states, "These cornet solos are the first we have ever listed as played by a female. They possess the distinct tones of the cornet as played by a master hand and with variations as only can be made by an artist." Titles include "Electric Polka" (1101) and "Surf Polka" (1107).

May C. Hyers was an African-American female singer whose versatility as a recording artist is remarkable. The catalog states, "Miss May C. Hyers (one of the Hyers Sisters) possesses a marvelous, rich and powerful contralto voice of rare brilliancy. She is so well known to the music loving public that we need not more than announce her name as being the maker of the list of records enumerated below..." Titles include the comic "Pumpkin Colored Coon" (204), the sentimental "Oh Promise Me" (207), the patriotic ""My Father Was A Sailor On The Maine" (213), the comic "May Irwin's Frog Song" (212), the emotional "Take Back Your Gold" (222), the sentimental "Ben Bolt" (230), "Hot Coon From Memphis" (237), and the classic "Chauson du Toreador" from Carmen.

Brown wax cylinders made by the Kansas City Talking Machine Company are rare today. Deakins reports that five machines were going when titles were recorded, which suggests only five copies of any one title were made (perhaps singers repeated the most popular songs so more copies were available for sale?). By the century's turn, many would have been shaved for new or home recordings. Many would have eventually been destroyed by mold.

If the Kansas City catalog has a date in fine print, my copy does not show it. It could not have been printed before July 1898. A "descriptive" cylinder performed by the Columbia Orchestra is titled "Capture of Santiago." The Cuban city was occupied by U.S. forces on July 17, 1898. It was one of the key events of the Spanish-American War, which ended on August 12.

Another "descriptive" cylinder is titled "Charge of Roosevelt's Rough Riders," which refers to the capture of San Juan Hill in Cuba shortly before the battle for Santiago.

A third "descriptive" cylinder performed by the Columbia Orchestra is titled "Battle of Manila" and a fourth is titled "Speech of Commodore Dewey Before the Battle of Manila." This battle began on May 1, 1898. A related title is sung by Dan W. Quinn: "What Did Dewey Do to Them?" (5342). Quinn recorded this for Berliner on May 19, 1899, as "What Did Dewey Do?" Arthur Collins' 1898 version is on Edison 5468.

The contemporaneous event that inspired the greatest number of popular songs listed in the catalog was the sinking of the United States battleship Maine, anchored at Havana, Cuba, on February 15, 1898. Hattie Nevada's song "My Father Was a Sailor on the Maine" is shown as recorded by several artists. Nevada's composition should not be confused with the more popular "My Sweetheart Went Down With the Maine," composed by Bert Morgan and listed as a selection sung by Frank Butts, a tenor.

Several songs refer to the ship. The song "Remember the Maine" is listed as a Will F. Denny selection. "The Wreck of the Maine" is listed as a George J. Gaskin selection. "The Brave Crew of the Maine" is a Dan W. Quinn selection. A descriptive cylinder is titled "The Blowing Up of the Maine--Very Realistic."

The catalog was printed in probably August or September 1898. I look in vain for other popular songs published in 1898 with the exception of Braisted and Carter's "She Was Bred in Old Kentucky," sung by George J. Gaskins (4166). Other 1898 songs that I sought but did not find listed include Gray's "She Is More To Be Pitied Than Censured," Thornton's "When You Were Sweet Sixteen," Cohan's "I Guess I'll Have to Telegraph My Baby," Harry Von Tilzer's "My Old New Hampshire Home," and Giefer's "Who Threw the Overalls in Mistress Murphy's Chowder?" If the catalog had been printed in late 1898, I would expect one of these songs to be listed.

Consider that Victor Herbert's "Gypsy Love Song" is not in the catalog. The song was from the show The Fortune Teller, which opened on September 26, 1898. Eugene Cowles recorded it for Berliner on October 20, 1898, and presumably Columbia would not have waited much longer.

The Kansas City catalog most resembles the mid-1898 catalog put out by the Eastern Talking Machine Company, which was Columbia's New England headquarters. Whereas the 1897 catalog put out by the Columbia Phonograph Company makes no reference to ragtime, the 1898 Eastern Talking Machine Company catalog makes four references to the new music then gaining in popularity (I suspect the Eastern Talking Machine Company catalog was printed in the autumn of 1898--perhaps September). A Vess Ossman cylinder, #3830, is called "Rag Time Medley," and I know from other catalogs that the medley consisted partly of "All Coons Look Alike To Me" and "Oh, Mr. Johnson." The phrase "rag time" appears after two Len Spencer titles: one is "You'll Have To Choose Another Baby Now (rag time)," 7363; the other is "My Coal Black Lady (a new hit in rag time)," 7420. A third Len Spencer selection has "rag time" in its title: "The Wench With The Rag Time Walk," 7422.

The Kansas City catalog also lists "The Wench With The Rag Time Walk" (7422), "My Coal Black Lady" with the added words that this is "a new hit in rag time" (7420), and the Vess Ossman number. It differs from the Columbia catalog in that it fails to list "You'll Have To Choose Another Baby Now (rag time)" but does add the phrase "popular rag time" to the title "You've Been A Good Ole Wagon, But You're Done Brown Down" (7309), sung by Len Spencer. One other Spencer selection, "I Love My Little Honey" (7311), is characterized as a "rag time melody"--neither the 1897 Columbia nor the 1898 Eastern Talking Machine Company catalog shows this as available.

In short, the Kansas City catalog refers to ragtime five times. I had hoped to find additional ragtime titles in its list of "original records" since the company was in Kansas City, Missouri, a state then giving birth to ragtime, with much activity in Sedalia and St. Louis. Imagine Scott Joplin traveling the short distance from Sedalia to Kansas City to record his soon-to-be published "Maple Leaf Rag"! Joplin was unknown in 1898, but for him to travel to Kansas City in late 1899 to record is more plausible. I concede that among the artists who made "original" records in Kansas City, none made solo piano recordings.

With evidence of a Kansas City dealer making and selling by mid-1898 over a thousand of its own cylinder titles, we have to acknowledge that within the year a ragtime pioneer--perhaps Joplin himself--could have made recordings. Catalogs simply have not survived, and only a fraction of the brown wax cylinders made in the 1890s exist today. We cannot know today every artist who made "original" records for dealers in cities such as Kansas City and San Francisco. Did a St. Louis dealer make "original" records, and if so, did ragtime pianist Tom Turpin make a few cylinders? Again, we cannot know every artist who made early recordings.

I have identified a random dozen titles that were made available in 1898 by Berliner, Edison, Columbia and the Kansas City Talking Machine Company (in the latter's case, in the form of "original records"). A song had to be popular to be offered by all four companies. In compiling this list of twelve, I ignored warhorses such as "Nearer My God To Thee" and "Swanee River," instead looking for songs that were wildly popular but also were, within two or three years, no longer fashionable, swept aside by new musical trends. Here are a dozen truly popular songs in 1898, with most having been published in 1896 or 1897:

  1. Put Me Off At Buffalo
  2. And The Parrot Said--
  3. Pat Malone Forgot He Was Dead
  4. All Coons Look Alike To Me
  5. Hot Time In The Old Town Tonight
  6. Take Your Clothes and Go
  7. On The Banks Of The Wabash, Far Away
  8. What Do You Think of Hoolihan?
  9. Take Back Your Gold
  10. Mr. Johnson, Turn Me Loose
  11. Just Tell Them You Saw Me
  12. The Blow Near Killed Father

Although "Silver Threads Among The Gold" was probably recorded by more artists than any other popular song during the acoustic era, this 1873 Rexford and Danks song was rarely recorded in the 1890s. Richard Jose's recording of it would become the first to enjoy popularity. He sang it for Victor on October 27, 1903. I could compile a list of the hundred odd artists who recorded it from 1905 onwards, but almost nobody in the 1890s made cylinders of the song.

How late was the Kansas City Talking Machine Company in business? At least as late as mid-1910. Allen Koenigsberg sent to me a list of Lambert cylinders sold by the company, which establishes it was still in business in 1903 or so. Chuck Haddix sent xeroxed copies of company correspondence, and one undated letter shows the company was Kansas City's "sole distributor" of American blue discs, so this letter must be circa 1905. Most importantly, another letter shows that the company was active--still at 425 Delaware St. (the building was demolished long ago)--as late as July 29, 1910.

The first issue of my journal, VICTROLA AND 78 JOURNAL, duplicates Columbia's June 1, 1904, record supplement, which gives the address for the Columbia dealership in Kansas City as 1016 Walnut Street. The Kansas City Talking Machine Company would clearly have been a competitor.

V78J Issue 8