The phonographic menagerie

Nipper wasn't the only animal salesman

September 1994
This article is part of the Noteworthy News archives.

Victor Ape

Nipper was the most famous member of the phonographic animal kingdom, but he wasn't the only one. Salesmen of years past were wise to the appeal of beasts both great and small: here's an abbreviated zoological survey of some of the species in the phonographic menagerie.

1898. A feisty rooster.
It was France, 1894. The Pathe brothers, restauranteurs, wandered into a fair in Vincennes where they observed the crowd abuzz over a coin-in-the-slot Edison, and where they observed the take. Calculating the profits, the brothers installed one machine in their establishment.

One year later the brothers were out of the restaurant business and into the phonograph business. In 1898 official Price List #1 was published, embellished by a strident rooster. In four years, the brothers had progressed from marinating roosters to lithographing them.

Ask any Frenchman and you would learn that the feisty rooster was the symbol of France, the crafty Chanticleer of French folklore. The bird's motto, "Je chante haut et clair," translates as "I play loud and clear."

On March 16, 1902, Pathe registered the rooster trademark in the United States, even though no machines were sold here during the outside horn era. Just when the rooster really strutted onto the American market is unclear.

The evidence shows Arthur J. O'Neil, father of the Busy Bee and Aretino machines, opening the State St. Pathephone Parlor in Chicago in 1914--O'Neil was always on the cutting edge of the phonograph business.

American made Victrola clones were sold. Vertical cut Pathe records ("no needles necessary") were probably introduced in 1916 as an accompaniment to the Brunswick phonograph.

A few lifesize red roosters from this period, rendered from plaster and horsehair, have been discovered by collectors. Curiously, although intended as dealer display, these effigies are unknown in France.

Meanwhile, the other arm of the Pathe business was the film empire, originally headed by brother Emile. Emile's department put the rooster in the news business, making him as famous an announcer as Lowell Thomas: well into the 1930s, a live cock continued to crow at the start of every RKO Pathe newsreel.

But years earlier, another specimen was being selected for the phonographic menagerie.

1899. The devoted dog
In 1899 English artist Francis Barraud painted his brother's dog Nipper listening to an Edison Bell business phonograph. He approached the overseas Edison office--would they be interested?

No, the Edison company already had a trademark, Mr. Edison's famous signature. Undaunted, Barraud tried again. He had been trying to market Nipper, already dead for five years, for a long time. At one point he had solicited a beer company with a photograph of Nipper next to a keg of beer.

Barraud carted the painting to English Victor. The British company already had a trademark, the Recording Angel, but agreed to purchase the picture if Barraud would paint in a Gramophone. He was paid 50 pounds for the painting, and fifty pounds for the worldwide copyright authorization.

British Victor didn't make any substantial use of Nipper until late 1908 but Eldridge Johnson in a flash of genius quickly recognized the brilliance of the little fox terrier. Nipper debuted between the grooves of a 7" Berliner record in late May, 1900. The little dog was decorative, but he also stood guard as an anti-piracy device. If a thief electroplated the record Nipper would appear too. Nipper next was seen on the back of a June, 1900 catalogue and was trademarked July 10, 1900.

Barraud's original painting had portrayed Nipper sitting on his brother Mark's casket. It wasn't uncommon in Victorian funerals for a phonograph with the deceased's last words to be placed on the casket. However, as the years went by and public taste changed the casket was seen to be increasingly morbid and was de-emphasized in the painting so as to be indistinguishable.

Sometime in 1903 someone in the Victor brain trust must have been toying with the idea of retiring Nipper. Two new trademarks were registered: a young lady in elegant evening attire listening to a talking machine and a chimpanzee cradling a horn in his arms. According to the law, these trademarks had to be in actual use on the product before registration was permisssible. Were the ape and the lady ever used? No one has seen them.

Nipper survived to become the world's best known trademark, appearing on everything imaginable and some things unimaginable, as Victor overpopulated the animal world with tiny Nippers. There were Nipper watch fobs, record holders, needle tins, ladies compacts, letter openers, thermometers, clocks, paper fans, and more. You could solve a jigsaw puzzle of the trademark painting with the pieces die cut in the shape of little Nippers. You could steer your car while peering over your Nipper hood ornament. In 1905 you could puff contentedly on a Nipper cigar.

The papier mache Nippers of around 14" to 42" high were intended as dealer display (only chalk figurines and salt and pepper shakers were distributed to the public as premiums). These big Nippers were manufactured by the Old King Cole Paper Mache Company on Market Street in Canton, Ohio. The company, founded in 1908 and incorporated in 1911, also formed other statuary and premiums such as Bonzo the Dog, sold in conjunction with the Crosley Pup radio.

The earliest papier mache Nipper seems to date from 1912, although most seen are from the 20s. The first Nippers viewed the world through glass eyes; detachable heads and grill cloths evolved after the merger with RCA in 1929; hard rubber Nippers came on the scene in the late 30s. The earliest Nippers had a lean and muscular look, but as the years wore on Nipper became more and more pudgy, like most of us.

1903. Pachyderms and parrots


Seeing the success of Nipper, competing entrepreneurs were quick to press other beasts of the animal kingdom into advertising burden.

The Lambert Company needed some way to denote that its black celluloid cylinders were more durable than wax records. What could be stronger than an elephant?

In September, 1903, Lambert adopted as its symbol an elephant balancing atop a giant Lambert record, with the slogan, "Can't break em." The elephant, never trademarked, departed for the great phonographic burial ground when Lambert went bankrupt in 1906.

Meanwhile, in December 1903 the Ohio Talking Machine Company trademarked a parrot in front of a horn and the slogan "Learning Some New Ones." Ohio Talking Machine (Talk-O-Phone) was begun by a Brooklyn entrepreneur named Wynant Bradley and some Ohio investors. Bradley had something of a checkered history as a record pirate and wasn't afraid to take on the Victor interests. The earliest Talk-O-Phone catalogue had depicted a black poodle facing the horn backwards and the motto "Familiar Voices," but even a rogue like Bradley must have felt this was too close to comfort to the Victor dog.

The parrot, surely the most perfect metaphor for the ability to reproduce articulate speech, appeared on Talk-O-Phone records and on a few machines.

1916-1922. The ornithological era

Joseph Jones' patent for lateral cut records had expired around 1916, but Victor and Columbia had cross-licensed another patent involving an elliptical section of the groove which they held like a sword over the head of the other record companies. The smaller companies had to pay royalties or in most cases had to manufacture vertical cut records. Suddenly, the smaller companies sensed that Victor's position was weak. They began to brazenly flood the market with lateral records.

Perhaps to denote the mellifluous qualities of these records, the era produced a cacophonous explosion of labels named in honor of songbirds. Here are a few: Par-o-ket (8" records, 1916); Nightingale (Nov. 1916); Lark (April 1918);The Reedbird (Sept. 1918); Bluebird (Victor, July 1919); Grey Gull (Oct. 1919); Oriole (sold by McCrory, March 1920).

Black Swan, nominally a race label, was trademarked by the Pace Record Company on Jan. 1, 1921. (The truly rare blues recordings can be found on Black Patti, named after diva Adelina Patti.)

The ornithological fad extended to machines as well, hatching the Thrush Talking Machine (1921); the Lark-o-Phone (1917); and--because it appeared obligatory to end every word in the era with the suffix "ola"--the Oriola (1918) and the Robinola (1920).

It wasn't until 1922 when the case of Victor V. Starr was finally adjudicated that the smaller companies won the legal right to manufacture lateral records. Even then, Eldridge Johnson's melancholia had prevented him from testifying. Had he spoken, Victor might have won.

The walrus and the Pied Piper
Some species fared better than others in the phonographic menagerie. Felines are represented soley by the fluffy Lyric record Kitten ("Never Scratches"), introduced by the Lyrephone Co. of America in 1917. Equestrian lovers must be content to win, place or show with the racehorse in Winner records (1919). The insect kingdom is commemorated only as it lives in the hive of Busy Bee records (1904), suggested by the name of founder Sherman Bisbee.

The introduction of colorful needle tins, which originated in Europe around 1904, brought forth a plethora of animal friends engaged in phonographic postures: chickens, kangaroos, bears, peacocks and more. (Collectors should be aware that some of these tins on the market are of recent Third World origin.) Tusko needles were made out of walrus ivory, a practice now probably prohibited by endangered species regulations.

And then there is the rat record. Probably a private pressing, one example known. This record from Pied Piper Sales emits a horrible high pitched squealing scientifically designed to spook rats from house and home. Its efficacy was attested to in a blanket affidavit from the entire town of Cadys Falls, Vermont, twenty three families. Unfortunately, there's no evidence that the rat record truly eradicates rodents, but a single playing of it certainly did drive one collector's pet dog berserk and out of house and home!

Sources: Fabrizio, Tim. Rochester, NY. Interview.
Koenigsberg, Allen. Patent History of the Phonograph.
Marty, Daniel. Illustrated History of Phonographs.
Merancy, Fran. Cambridge, NY. Interview.

Copyright 2017 Lynn Bilton

Lynn Bilton
Box 435
Randolph,OH 44265
330 325-7866


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