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History of the Victor Phonograph

The foundation of the Victor Talking Machine Company goes back to the late 1880's, when a creative entrepreneur named Emile Berliner invented the mass-producible flat phonograph record. Edison had invented the cylinder phonograph in 1877, but there was no practical way to mass-duplicate cylinders at that time. The flat disc design allowed copies to be made in the manner of a printing press. The story is complicated, but Berliner asked Eldridge Johnson, the owner of a small machine shop in Camden, New Jersey, to assist him in developing and manufacturing a low-cost spring wound motor for his disc phonograph. Following a complex series of patent infringements, legal wrangling and lawsuits, Berliner was severely restricted from selling his products in the USA, and subsequently moved to Canada. After the dust cleared and following some legal reorganization, The Victor Talking Machine Company was officially founded by Johnson in 1901. It quickly became a major player in the rapidly growing phonograph market. From his experiences with Berliner, Johnson had already learned a great deal about the emerging home entertainment market.

Johnson (and his growing staff) made several improvements to the phonograph in those early years, including a tapered tonearm, improved soundboxes and quieter, more stable running spring motors. The phonograph market grew significantly, and due to a creative and well-funded advertising campaign, Victor's sales steadily increased. Johnson cleverly arranged to have renown opera stars and musicians endorse his products, which spurred additional sales at an advertising cost of almost 50% of the company's total profit. However, increased competition from other manufacturers and ongoing objections to the huge and ungainly phonograph horns limited Victor's market. At that time, all manufacturers used a large external horn to "amplify" the playback sound. While this system worked quite effectively, the stark horn tended to dominate the average parlor, and many people felt that it created an unsightly appearance. To make matters worse, the horn was prone to being bumped or damaged (picture at left). In addition, Victor's profits were continually threatened due to the the massive numbers of lawsuits filed by competitors, which became  a constant battle in the phonograph business during the first decade of the 20th Century.  Victor won most suits and was able to survive (in no small part due to some very expensive legal representation). Sustaining a strong profit through the fierce competition and legal turmoil was certainly a challenge though, as most phonographs were essentially similar in appearance and function. Around 1905, Victor began to experiment with a novel idea to make the phonograph more acceptable and convenient. The horn was folded downward into a large floor standing cabinet, so that the horn opening was below the turntable. Two doors were used to cover the opening. This concept had an added advantage in that the doors acted as a crude but effective "volume control"; when they were open, the sound was loud, when they were closed, the volume was reduced.

This idea was quickly patented, and the copyrighted name "Victrola" was given to this new invention. The term Victrola thus applies ONLY to internal horn phonographs made by the Victor Talking Machine Company, and is not a generic term for all old phonographs. The first internal horn phonograph, initially designated as The Victor-Victrola, was marketed in 1906. Since Victor did not have sufficient manufacturing facilities to produce the large cabinet, the Pooley Furniture Company of Philadelphia was contracted as a cabinet supplier. The machine was intended for sale for wealthy customers, as the initial sale price was a lofty $200 (the most expensive Victor with an external horn sold for half that price). In spite of the cost, the machine sold briskly, and Victor knew it had an immediate success on its hands.

The original flat-top Victrola design had several deficiencies, the most problematic being the need for the user to awkwardly "reach way down" into the deep cabinet opening in order to change a record or lift the needle (picture at right). In less than a year, this was resolved through the use of a domed lid, which allowed the turntable and tone arm to sit nearly flush on top of the cabinet. Only several thousand flat-top Pooley Victrolas were produced, making them highly sought-after by collectors today. 

The earliest Victrolas were designated by a "VTLA" (an abbreviation for Victrola) identification on the dataplate, although they were soon marketed as "Victrola the Sixteenth" or VV-XVI. Victor also experimented with marketing a more deluxe model, designated "Victrola the Twentieth" (VV-XX), which sold for $300, with gold plated trim on the cabinet. Only a few hundred of these models were produced before being discontinued due to the high cost. Production of the XVI model ramped-up quickly, and the VTLA identification was superseded by "VV-XVI" on the dataplate in early 1908. At about the same time Victor rapidly expanded its cabinet manufacturing operations, and the services of Pooley were no longer required. Victor added different finish choices, including oak, walnut, and even custom painted versions.

By the middle of 1909, Johnson knew he had a huge hit on his hands; approximately 15,000 Victrolas had already been sold, and Johnson decided to capitalize on his success by introducing a lower priced model. Thus, in 1909, the tabletop Victrola XII was introduced, selling for $125. This first attempt to make a low-price compact Victrola was not successful, as the horn opening was too small for adequate volume in a large room. In 1910, two new tabletop models replaced the XII, the Victrola X ($75.00) and Victrola XI ($100.00). These tabletop models had much better performance than the XII, and began to sell quite well, even though the price was still prohibitive for many Americans. A smaller version of the VV-XVI was also introduced, named Victrola the Fourteenth or VV-XIV ($150.00) (picture at left).

In 1911, with an eye on the average family's budget, Victor introduced several new low-priced models, the VV-IV, VV-VI, VV-VIII and VV-IX, with prices ranging from a remarkable $15.00 up to $50.00. Shortly thereafter, the VV-X and VV-XI were converted from tabletop models to low priced floor models.

The new low priced machines were a smashing success, and Victrola production rose from several thousand per year in 1906, to approximately 250,000 per year by 1913. While the Victrola model lineup remained relatively unchanged through World War I, several deluxe models were introduced in the mid-to-late 'teens, including the VV-XVIII ($300.00) and the VV-XVII ($250.00). By 1917, Victor was making well over a half million Victrolas per year. The VV-XI floor model was the most popular of all, selling over 850,000 copies during its production run (1910-1921). For the wealthy customer, Victrolas were also available in a variety of custom designs, with hand painted images, exotic wood, and Japanese lacquer finishes. This machines were produced in low quantities, and are highly desirable today. 

In 1913, the first electric motor option became available on the Victrola XVI, eliminating the need for cranking after every few records were played. Victrolas with electric motors were called "Electrolas".  This option didn't really catch-on until well into the 1920's, as electrical power was not yet readily available, and the added cost of the motor was prohibitive for most buyers. 

Due to national defense needs, production decreased during World War I. Victor transitioned production to biplane wings and other war materials. When the war was over, the demand remained strong, but Victor found that it had a lot of new competition from small upstart companies, who often made cheaper (and usually inferior) phonographs. Thus, by late 1919, sales started to wane. Victor redesigned most of its lineup in the early 1920's with scores of new models, including some horizontal console styles such as the VV-210 ($100.00) (picture at right) and the VV-300 ($250.00). These Victrolas sold well for a short while, but the increasing popularity of newly developed home radios began to take their toll on the phonograph market. Radio offered endless variety, better sound quality, and best of all, the consumer didn't need to purchase records. By 1923, Victor offered a few phonographs (with an "S" prefix before the model identification) that would allow an aftermarket radio to be installed in the cabinet alongside the turntable (using the Victrola's horn as a "speaker"), but this did little to improve sales. By late 1924, the bottom literally fell out of the phonograph business, and Victor had to make some major changes in order to survive. Some documents indicate that literally hundreds of thousands of unsold Victrolas were sitting in warehouses by early 1925. In order to move this stock, a huge "half-price" sale was held during the summer of 1925, wherein every unsold Victrola would be offered at half the usual list price. Both dealers and the company "ate" the losses. The sale was a success, but the valuation of Victrolas (including the market value of the entire company) took a serious tumble. Dealers who had sold an elegant VV-125 to a customer for $275 in 1924 would offer only $25 for the same model as a trade-in one year later (and today we think that computers depreciate too fast!!). Obviously, this created some bad press for the company and the dealer network.

In November, 1925, Victor introduced the "Orthophonic" Victrola, which utilized the latest sound reproducing technology offering far superior reproduction. The old style Victrolas sounded anemic compared to these products. Dramatic improvements were made in the design of the horns and the soundboxes, in part based on signal transmission theory developed during World War I. This was achieved without the use of electronics, but rather though sophisticated acoustic designs. The tinny Victrola sound was now replaced with a rich tone that was superior to all but the best radios. In addition, phonograph records were for the first time being recorded electrically, which also improved the sound quality. Selling for as little as $50.00 (and for more than $1000.00), these machines were an immediate success, and quickly brought profitability back to Victor (picture at left).

The rapid expansion of the radio market caused a quick decline in the price of electron tubes and components, and by the late 1920's, the combination electronic radio-phonograph was becoming quite popular. These machines could now use the radio's amplifier for reproducing records, and the need for the horn was replaced by the small paper-cone speaker. Fidelity was also much improved. Some models even had sophisticated record changers, which would allow a complete symphony to be played without having to stop and manually change records (picture at right). Victor entered into an agreement with RCA for the use of RCA's electronics in Victor's products, and produced a number of radio-phono combination sets which were quite successful. By the late 20's, Victor's founder, Eldridge Johnson, now a millionaire, was growing weary of the business, and decided to retire. In 1929, RCA purchased The Victor Talking Machine Company, and the new company was called "RCA Victor". By this time, the popularity of the acoustic phonograph was quickly diminishing in favor of the louder and more flexible electronic combination systems, and only cheap portables and children's phonographs continued to utilize acoustic reproduction. In October 1929, the onset of The Depression literally killed the sales of all non-essential commodities, and not until the late 1930's did RCA Victor again experience significant sales of phonographs.




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