What was in a name?

The proper name was as important to success as the right product.

September 1987
This article is part of the Noteworthy News archives.

Fashions in names, like fashions in clothing, change with the times. A generation of Irvings and Emilies begat a generation of Jasons and Kims. So too in business names, a simpler world replete with products that puffed themselves as "Peerless" or "the Acme" or "Indestructible" gave way to the meaningless , computer generated identities of corporate America such as Unisis or Exxon, nomenclature undoubtedly meticulously market researched.

No doubt the turn of the century entrepreneurs trying to obtain a foothold in the budding music industry believed that the choice of the one right name was the magic key to fortune, and upon close analysis, a pattern to their thinking begins to emerge. To whit:

Names resounding in the melodious qualities of the instrument.

Euphonia, Melodia, Symphonia, Symphonion, Pan-Harmonican, Polyphone. (The tactic seems to have had special appeal to the manufacturers of organettes and music boxes.) This would seem to have been the first inspiration of any new businessman, and in retrospect, the idea succeeded well enough to maintain Polyphon and Symphonion as two of the big three music box manufacturers during the industry's lifespan.

Names posturing that they are the landmarks against which competing products must be judged.

The blaring example of this category is "The Standard,"a word which at one time suggested a degree of excellence that others might emulate, but has come to be degraded in popular speech to mean "ordinary" or "mediocre." However, not content with an Edison Standard, Columbia offered the confused public its own Standard in two different styles, A and X, presumably allowing the buyers to decide which True Standard they must follow. Another machine that fits neatly into this category is F.G. Otto's music box, The Criterion.

Names evoking patriotism.

In an era of jingoism, the yellow press and worldwide imperialism, surely a brand invoking national pride could be counted upon to sell heartily, and in most cases sell it did. Into his rubric falls the entire Columbia line, its name so proudly enscrolled on a banner across each machine. Also, the Olympia, Dewey's flagship at Manilla. Similarly, our English brethren could enjoy the sound of their Britannia.

Names suggestive of home and hearth.

Particularly favored by the phonograph manufacturers, these names bring to mind the classic image of Edison's Old couple so comfortably ensconced at home. Thus are we treated in the 1890s to Edison's Home, then the Parlor Zonophone, the process finally culminating with Edison's 1910 Fireside.

Names indicating the highest degree of technological attainment.

Here we encounter a litany of self-serving appellations such as Acme, Perfection, Perfected Phonograph, and Triumph. (Triumph was used both in phonographs and music boxes.) Perhaps the public was wary of such outright boasting; in most cases, the machines from this categroy did not enjoy commericial success. Few Triumph music boxes have survived, and as all collectors know, the Perfection music box was a trouble prone machine whose dampers had a lifespan not quite as long as its name.

Names honoring mischievous creatures.

Although no examples of American manufacture are readily evident, this strategem seems to have been employed by continental copywriters drawing partly upon European folklore: Edison Bell Elf, Imp, and the German Puck machines. The inexpensive Pucks were shipped to the United States, and because of their absent feed screw indeed caused much mischief to the record.

Names acquiring prestige because of an association with royalty.

Victor is the prime culprit in this group. There is a story that Eldridge Johnson selected the name after being the victor in some hard fought litigation, but in any event, the company is saturated with the trappings of royalty. The Roman numeral series was originally advertised so as to be pronounced in the sytle of European kings: Victor the First, Victor the Second, etc. Not to mention the Victor Royal, the Monarch, or the Monarch Special. For the down scale buyer who could not afford the luxury of being a full monarch, Victor offered the secondary princely status of the Monarch Junior. Other companies who dressed themselves up in royally derivative names included Rex, Yankee Prince, and of course, Regina.

Names that seem to be the winners of a contest of physical prowess.

Here we can pigeonhole machines such as the Edison Conqueror and Columbia Champion. Perhaps an argument would be made that Victor is also of this ilk.

Names that play classical music.

Classical music and performing artists were appropriated much later to advertise records, but the name "opera" seemed to be a word that the phonograph manufacturers could not resist. Edison used "opera" to designate both an early and a late machine, a deceitful ploy perhaps considering the small number of operatic renditions ever recorded on cylinder. Then there is the Zonophone Grand Opera, presumably something even better than "opera," although just what is not clear.

Names that evidence lack of imagination.

This final catch-all category yields two subspecies. First, self-aggrandizing egocentric names that honor the owner of the business. Berliner and Eldridge Johnson initially made machines that sported their own moniker before switching to the kingly Victor nameplate. And yes, the category includes Edison, as in The New Edison. The inventor's prestige in his lifetime was such that he could overcome disastrous business decisions that would have crushed other men.

Second in the unimaginative heading come machines carrying an alphabetical or numerical code, such as Columbia AT, BI, or AH. In fairness to the Columbia name makers, it should be pointed out that while the letter designations make identification easy for modern collectors, old advertising does reveal dual identities to the machines such as the Sterling, Champion or New Leader.

What was in a name? Would a Regina by any other name sound as sweet?

Copyright 2017 Lynn Bilton

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


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