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The Collector’s Guide to Gramophone Company Record Labels 1898 - 1925
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Pre-Paper or Berliner Labels

The pre-label period began in the United States and Canada, where Emile Berliner had invented the flat gramophone disc in 1887, and had established several recording facilities and pressing plants, in Washington, D.C. in 1892, in Philadelphia in 1895, and in Montreal, Canada in 1900. Early American recordings, so-called Berliners, have been seen with the words "Washington, D.C." inscribed on their face. Several series of "Berliner" discs must be distinguished. The earliest of these was recorded in Washington and Philadelphia by the Berliner Gramophone Company. Over 2300 recordings were made in the United States and issued between 1894 and 1900.

Berliner 178, October 29, 1895
American Berliner, April 17, 1896
showing the five patent dates

The figure on the right above shows an American Berliner disc with the dates of Emile Berliner’s five American patents. Not all American Berliners carried all five dates; some showed only four, while some indicated only that patents had been issued or applied for. Another distinguishing feature is the absence of the Recording Angel trademark (see below) on all American discs. Close inspection of the disc on the left, also an American Berliner, reveals some evidence of handwritten information above the central hole. (from Charosh, see Bibliography)

In 1896 Berliner established the Gram-O-Phone Company in Montreal, Canada, and began a second series of Berliner discs. The Canadian Berliner Company pursued a course quite independent of its American and European counterparts, and eventually joined with the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1901, with Emile Berliner’s son Herbert Samuel as one of the major stockholders and Emile’s younger son Edgar as secretary-treasurer.

Canadian Berliner 458
Montreal 1901
Improved Berliner 983
usual form around 1904

The final Berliner series were made in Great Britain and other countries of Europe, Asia, and Africa by the Gramophone Company, which was established in London in April 1898. Records issued by the Gramophone Company before April 8, 1901 were recorded on wax-coated zinc plates, also known as matrices or recording tablets. They were seven inches in diameter, had no paper labels, and were embossed as E. Berliner’s Gramophone (see below) in both England and America, the details being either embossed or engraved into the central area of the matrix as described previously. Alan Kelly pointed out some years ago, in a Letter to the Editor of The Hillandale News, No. 176, October 1990, that when Berliner discs were re-pressed with paper labels, they were no longer Berliner discs but Gramophone and Typewriter discs!

The four figures below (courtesy of Peter Adamson) show the changes in the format used to provide the information in the central area of Berliner discs during the "original series" period, from August 8 to October 31, 1898. Unless otherwise stated, all Berliner discs are assumed to be seven inches in diameter.





(American style?)

According to Adamson, on all of the discs above except the earliest, the company designation and catalog number are sunken, i.e., embossed into the zinc disc rather than into the stamper. All other information was inscribed by hand onto the zinc plate, by either the recording engineer, i.e., Fred Gaisberg, or his "secretary." All of the discs above appear to show Fred’s handwriting.

The name(s) of the artist(s) and the selection(s) were either handwritten or etched in the lower half of the central area. The dates often seen on these discs may be that of the recording itself, or of processing, i.e., from the time the tablet arrived at the processing plant in Hanover. It can be surmised that the phrasing on the upper half of both American and European Berliners was entered at the processing plant, probably by embossing onto the original zinc plate. European discs were embossed at the processing plant in Hanover, together with the location of the recording. The following is quoted from Alan Kelly’s Introduction to the German Catalogue.

"In those days the Expert made the recording and then immediately scratched the serial number (that which we now call the matrix number) into the Center portion of the disc. The disc was then passed to an assistant whose task was to keep the books and who noted the Matrix Number, Artist, Title, etc., in appropriate columns. Subsequently either he or another hand used a stylus to copy the details from the page to the center of the disc, and the details copied included the date written at the top of the page. This date could be anything from the date of recording until weeks later, if the processing had been delayed or when the zincs were sent to Hanover for processing."

Original Series

E2042, September 20, 1898

The Berliner disc above is from the first or "original" series, which began with Fred Gaisberg’s first London recordings on August 8, 1898. The matrix number 14 may be seen with some difficulty just to the right of the spindle hole, together with some additional suffixes probably added at Hanover; the date of September 20, 1898, written American style as 9-20-98, can be seen quite clearly to the left of the spindle hole, while the catalog number 2042 with E above it can be seen at the right. The date 9-28-98, barely discernible to the right of the serial number may indicate the date of processing at Hanover, although the American style date leaves some doubt. The Recording Angel trademark is absent from both sides of the disc, as well as the phrase REPRODUCED IN HANOVER. Another enigma of the printing world is why the printers in Hannover anglicized their city to Hanover on the labels made for the local pressing plant!

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