1914 - America and the phonograph industry on the eve of the Great War

April 2003
This article is part of the Noteworthy News archives.


In the year 1914 the world had barely begun to cohere into a shape that you would recognize as modern.

There was no radio, no television, certainly no internet (only a trans-Atlantic cable), no air conditioning, no antibiotics. There was limited electrification. There was--in a way that would feel different though comfortingly familiar--telephone service, brand name merchandise, credit purchases, magazines and newspapers of mass circulation, and big corporations, derogitorily referred to with the epithet of The Trusts.

Suffrage was not yet universal; only a dozen states granted women the right to vote. Around 70% of the nation was freed of the plague of intoxicating liquor thanks to the efforts of groups such as the Anti-Saloon League. Victorian mores had begun to crumble, but had not collapsed.

There were motor cars, and early in January Henry Ford had scandalized American business when he announced that he would pay his workers the unprecedented amount of $5 per day, a sum up to five times the prevailing wage. Ford believed, it was theorized, that this would give workingmen the capital to purchase motor cars, and other consumer goods.

The business of America was not business, it was the betterment of mankind. It was the peak of the Progressive Movement, a time when Americans felt that the purpose of government ought to be to meliorate the abominations of sweatshops, tenement housing, poisonous food and drugs, and unchecked concentrations of economic power. In 1912 the nation had elected as president a progressive Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, the former head of Princeton University.

There was of course a well established talking machine industry, so impregnably divided among three companies that special cash registers for the trade offered only three keys: Edison, Victor, and Columbia. An industry fortress had been dismantled in 1914: the Victor needle-in-the-groove patent had expired, and although Victor owned several other patents upon which it could force competitors to defend, principally the tapering tone arm patent, the Big Three nervously eyed the competition and the burgeoning anti-trust movement.

The year opened on a hopeful note as the results of the all-important Christmas season of 1913 were tallied. 1912 had not been a good year. Christmas 1913, though not what it should have been, saw dealers reporting sales up 50% and more. Edison announced a $450 machine in Circassian walnut, but dealers reported scant interest in higher priced machines, with most sales in the under $200 range, and in fact this trend would hold true throughout 1914.


Everybody's doing it: marathon dancers are the display in this dealer's storefront.

But there was something else going on in 1914 with records, something that drove sales of records to a fever pitch, a pitch so high that all year long the industry could not race fast enough to keep up with demand. That something was the dance craze.

America was dance mad. A full-frontal assault upon Victorian sensibilities, the dance craze had actually begun in the fall of 1913 and continued gay and unabated.

MORE: 1914, Page 2

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