Musical Records of the Michigan Phonograph Company

During the third annual convention of local phonograph companies held at Chicago in the summer of 1892, a roll call was taken to determine which companies with representatives in attendance were then “making musical records.”  Many of the positive responses come as no surprise today: serious historians of the early recording industry have long been familiar with the music-bottling activities of the New Jersey, Columbia, New England, Ohio, Louisiana, New York, and North American Phonograph Companies.  But the Michigan Phonograph Company also claimed to be making musical records at this time.[1]  Was there really a serious commercial recording enterprise underway in the Wolverine State during the early 1890s?

There was indeed, judging from a newspaper article I found pasted on page 74 of a New Jersey Phonograph Company scrapbook preserved at Thomas Edison National Historical Park.  The clipping displays the date June 1, 1890, and internal evidence shows its source to be the Detroit Free Press.

Headline of clipping from the Detroit Free Press of June 1, 1890.  New Jersey Phonograph Company scrapbook (E5478-4), Thomas Edison National Historical Park.

MAKING RECORDS.
Not Political, Philanthropic, Athletic, Military or Financial, but Musical.
THE MICHIGAN PHONOGRAPH COMPANY, AIDED BY SCHREMSER’S BAND, THE PERPETRATORS.

HE top floor front of the Detroit Op’ra House, but a few feet below the level of the City Hall tower, and away from the noise and dust of the great Campus below, is just the place to meet the needs and fancy of some dreamer who, loving quiet and pure air, might go there to indulge in poetic frenzies and other unprofitable conditions of mind.  The aforesaid top floor is one large room with oblique high bits of ceiling and dormer windows set here and there, well lighted and in hot weather a very acceptable substitute for the typical refrigerator.  If one is an athlete, the apartment may be reached by climbing 125 or more steps, but it is fully as agreeable, whether one is athletic or otherwise, to utilize the quick acting elevator that is provided.

A light tap on the only door to be seen on the upper landing will bring a response either in the words “come in,” or by the courteous presence of a genteel, peaceable-looking young man.

Entering the apartment one is apt to be greeted by a scene which will cause him to pause and wonder whether he had come upon one of the chambers in Zamiel’s stronghold.  Great demijohns, glass jars and earthen jugs stand about on the floor, innumerable small-sized and peculiar-looking boxes embellished with tiny wheels, shafts and governor balls—easy to imagine as infernal machines—are seen, a strong odor of acids prevails, while at the far end of the room are seen two young men who, kneeling on the floor with jars in front of them, seem to be amusing themselves producing bright flashes of green and white (alternately) light.  In the center of the room stands a wooden frame, a sort of clothes-horse device, depending from which are five huge funnel-shaped arrangements.

The spacious bells of these funnels point directly toward the door, as though ready to discharge a volley at any intruder, and behind them, where the small ends of all the funnels concentrate at a single point, are four or five of the small mechanical infernal appliances, seemingly prepared to do the deadly work of a new fangled battery of artillery.  Just in front of these funnels, and seated as closely together as possible, with their several brass and reed instruments at their respective lips, and with those instruments aimed as near as may be, at the funnels, are the members of Schremser’s Fourth Regiment Band.

Cover of the Detroit Commandery March by Edward R. Schremser, published by the Detroit Music Company in 1895. University of Michigan.

At a given signal from the natty young conductor the band begins to play, and at the other end of the room, giving emphasis to the measure of the selection that is being performed, those two young demons on the floor are flashing their green and white illuminations.  The band plays a selection from “Somnambula” and at the end of the number the young man who ushered in the writer briefly manipulates the little machines at the small ends of the funnels and then the band plays again.  This time it is an alchemistic selection from “Faust” and in perfect keeping with the acidulous and sulphuric fumes which come from the flash light pranks of the diabolic duet at the farther end of the room.

It seems strange that so striking a musical incantation should be going on in the very heart of a great city and within a stone’s throw of the high school and the public library building, but just then the band gives a medley from “Erminie,” and the possibility of seeing a flock of gnomes come flying through the open window is driven away by the enlivening and very human strains of the music.  The selection is ended, the musicians pack away their instruments and light their pipes and the manipulator of the little machines (a blonde young man with a picturesque head and whose name is George Greim), announces that the “record rehearsal” is at an end.

“What is a record rehearsal?”

“In this particular instance,” he answers, “it is a musical record rehearsal for the Michigan Phonograph Company.  You see our company has had exceptionally good success in getting musical ‘records.’”

“What is a ‘record?’”

“In the language of technical phonography it is the cylinder used upon the phonograph after it has received the almost imperceptible undulations of the recording needle as it receives and transfer the sounds spoken into the phonograph.  Those sounds may be as varied as are the sounds of nature.  In a general way the theory of the phonograph is quite well known to the people at large, so I will simply say that any cylinder upon which a succession of sounds has its intaglio representation is a ‘record.’”

“Is the demands [sic] for musical records very considerable?”

“Quite so and increasing regularly.  As I have said, there has been much difficulty in getting good records in band music, and our good fortune in that direction has added considerably to our business.  Besides that we have introduced the Gilliland nickel-in-the-slot attachment (made at Adrian), so that in that way our business is improved.”

By invitation of Mr. Greim the representative of The Free Press indulged in an experience with the automatic phonograph, automatic in its work because it is operated by dropping a nickel in the slot—Mr. Greim providing the nickels.

Merry melody fills the ’phone,
Full of harmony, rich in tone,
’Till you wonder how it’s got,
And then you tumble to the slot.

It is difficult to explain the operation of the automatic arrangement, beyond saying that the ’phone cannot be made to give its concert until the nickel goes into the slot.  After the nickel is dropped in it remains in sight until the end of the concert, so that the use of leaden or other valueless imitations may be detected before the perpetrator of the cheat has time to escape.  Another ingenious arrangement dumps upon the floor outside of the machine any coin or other article that is smaller than a five cent nickel piece.  In this way the use of pennies, buttons and silver three cent pieces is not available.  Once the genuine nickel is in the slot, all a person need do is push upon a small but stout piston at the right end of the ’phone’s case, the electric circuit is thus completed, the record cylinder operates and with an ear ’phone in either ear the patron hears whatever musical programme is on the “record.”  As yet but one of these automatic phonographs has been made, and that is now in this city.

“If this is the only automatic machine,” asked the reporter, “where do you get your demand for music ‘records?’”

“From all over the country.  Of course, so far as phonographs are concerned, our company only controls instruments used in Michigan—we have about 160 of them in use in this state at present—but we are authorized to dispose of ‘records’ wherever we may.  So you see the demand for ‘records’ depends, undoubtedly, upon their excellence.  That we have all we can do to keep up with our orders is the best evidence that we—our company and Schremser’s band—produce good goods.”

“How are ‘records’ duplicated?”

“You’ll have to ask Mr. Edison, and I doubt very much, even then, if he would tell you.”

“He’s the greatest man the century has produced,” ventured the reporter in a placating sort of way.

“And yet he, himself, says he has not yet accomplished anything,” said Mr. Greim.  “He thinks that the people of this century ought to be ashamed of themselves, that they have not accomplished more.  That’s why he studies so continuously and works so hard.  He says he wants to do something really great before he dies.”

Before I ran across this clipping, the earliest comparable account I’d seen of a commercial music recording session was a piece from late September 1890 describing the Columbia Phonograph Company’s procedures for taking United States Marine Band records.[2]  But the Detroit Free Press article had appeared nearly four months before that, and it may well be the oldest published description of its kind.

The original Detroit Opera House, as it appeared in 1873. During 1890, recording sessions took place on the top floor, with its picturesque “dormer windows set here and there.” Photograph in the Burton Historical Collection of the Detroit Public Library.

The recording session described here is supposed to have taken place on the top floor of the original Detroit Opera House on the Campus Martius.  Unfortunately, this building was destroyed by fire in 1897, and its replacement has long since been demolished too, so there’s little chance of developing the place as a destination for phonographic tourism.  The performers comprised the Fourth Regiment Band led by Edward R. Schremser, a local musician who had been born in New York in 1861;[3] and they’re reported to have been huddled together with their brass and reed instruments aimed at an array of five funnels hanging from a wooden structure resembling a clothes-drying rack.  The text states that the funnels pointed straight towards the door, but an accompanying illustration shows them fanned out slightly into an arc.  The man in charge of supervising the session was George H. Greim, the company’s resident phonograph “expert,” who boarded at 71 Henry Street,[4] an address Google Maps now shows as a grubby parking lot.  Greim had been sent to Detroit in October 1888 from Edison’s laboratory in West Orange,[5] where he had presumably been trained in the art of record-making under the tutelage of Theo Wangemann and others.

The reporter playfully characterizes the overall scene as “infernal” or “diabolical” in nature; “Zamiel’s stronghold” is a reference to Zamiel the Arch-Fiend, the name given to the Devil in The Black Crook, a popular musical of the time.  Along with the smell of chemicals, the uncanny appearance of the equipment, and the Faust selection, the reporter’s impression of devilishness seems to have been sparked in part by dazzling flashes of green and white light that were continually being unleashed from “jars” on the floor across the room from the musicians.  The purpose of these lights isn’t fully explained in the article, but they’re said to have been used for “giving emphasis to the measure of the selection that is being performed”—that is, I take it, for keeping the musicians in time together.  After all, we know that phonographic musicians of the acoustic era generally had to position themselves and their instruments in ways that differed from the arrangements used in live performance, and that this sometimes made it hard to follow visual directions from a conductor in the ordinary way.  For instance, it was reported of the Edison Concert Band in 1903:  “In locating the instruments to gain the desired effect several of the men are faced in a direction rendering it impossible for them to see the leader, and in order that they may follow his direction intelligently the walls of the room have been provided with a series of large mirrors.”[6]  A similar problem is likely to have arisen in Detroit in 1890 as the members of Schremser’s Band contorted themselves to get their instruments as close to the recording funnels as possible.  They might no longer have been able to keep their eyes conveniently on a conductor as usual, but they would have been able to follow alternating flashes of green and white light that illuminated the whole room; I suppose a green light represented a downbeat and a white light represented an upbeat, or vice versa.  This ingenious arrangement may have been principally responsible for the Michigan Phonograph Company’s rare ability to “produce good goods” in the band record line.

Letter from Gaston & Marsh of Detroit to Edison requesting the services of George Greim, October 22, 1888. TAED D8847ACV; TAEM 124:225.

Also noteworthy is the reference to a nickel-in-the-slot attachment manufactured at Adrian, Michigan—surely a reference to the design Albert T. Keller was later said to have brought to a usable state in November 1889.[7]

Edison’s reply to Gaston & Marsh of Detroit, October 22, 1888. TAED D8847ACW; TAEM 124:226.

Were the Schremser’s Band cylinders really in demand “all over the country,” as Gleim asserted?  The best evidence I’ve found in favor of this claim comes from the Atlanta Constitution, which occasionally printed lists of records that were in the possession of the Georgia Phonograph Company and available for local exhibition.  One such list published on July 23, 1890, includes the “Color Guard March,” “For Fame and Fortune, Galop,” “Helena Waltz,” and “Jolly Coppersmith, March”—all by the “Fourth Michigan Regiment band, Detroit”—alongside sixteen specific selections from New York and one from New Jersey.[8]  Judging from this list, the Michigan Phonograph Company might then have been the only concern outside the greater New York area furnishing musical records to the national trade!  If so, that situation didn’t last for long, however.  A follow-up list published on August 28 continues to list some “Fourth Regiment Band” records, but by now a new player had entered the field—the Columbia Phonograph Company of Washington DC, with its impressive United States Marine Band offerings.[9]  Maybe the Michigan Phonograph Company continued to make and sell band records after this point—as we’ve seen, they claimed they were still engaged in musical recording work in the summer of 1892—but we certainly don’t hear much more about it.  Their clever trick with green and white lights might have won them a top position in the industry for a couple months in mid-1890, but in the long run, who could compete with the President’s Own Band?

If Michigan Phonograph Company cylinders were such a hot commodity during the summer of 1890, then another question naturally arises: namely, could some of them still exist out there in the hands of collectors who don’t recognize what they have?  In the past, I doubt anyone has been listening attentively for the words “Schremser’s Fourth Regiment Band” (or something similar) in hard-to-decipher brown wax cylinder announcements.  So let the hunt begin!


This article first appeared with minor differences in In the Groove 37:2 (April/May 2012): 7-11.  As far as I was aware when I posted it here, nobody had yet come forward with a surviving specimen of a Schremser’s Band cylinder, and I stated as much.

But just a few hours later, Frank Dave kindly alerted me to a YouTube video of a recording announced “Semper Fidelis March, played by Schremser’s Fourth Regiment Band of Detroit” (see comments section below).  The links on the YouTube video led me via the Wayback Machine to a pair of posts from 2017 at Mason Vander Lugt’s late lamented Dinosaur Discs blog, one of which reprinted the same Detroit Free Press article featured above, and the other of which revealed the source of the audio: a set of mp3s created from eleven CD-Rs at the Library of Congress, which also holds the original cylinder.

I was able to download the whole collection here (941 MB).  The “Semper Fidelis March” is track 5:13, and there are also two additional Schremser’s Band cylinders in the lot: “Selections from Mikado” as track 1:18 and “Capitol Waltz” as track 4:18.  The announcement on “Capitol Waltz” is hard to make out but appears to name the Michigan Phonograph Company, unlike the other two.  Unless I’m mistaken, “Semper Fidelis” is a semitone sharp and “Mikado” perhaps two semitones sharp.

The original eleven CD-Rs appear to have been custom-burned in 1999 by Glenn Sage of tinfoil.com, who had received permission from LC to digitize the cylinders using his long arm device, and who also restored several of them (but not the Detroit ones) for commercial sale. Their contents can be viewed in the LC catalog, although as of this writing the performing ensemble is misidentified there as “Kendle’s 12th Regiment Band of Detroit.” 

Unfortunately, the CD-Rs had degraded significantly by the time the mp3s were created from them, such that many of the files contain the telltale periodic noise associated with disc rot (subtract the left channel from the right channel to hear what I mean).  Still, “Semper Fidelis” is less severely affected than the other two Schremser selections, so here it is, derived from the mp3 but with its pitch lowered by a semitone and summed to mono (which slightly mitigates the digital distortion).  If anyone can supply a superior copy, I’d be much obliged.


[Download]


References

[1] Proceedings of the Third Annual Convention of the National Phonograph Association of the United States, Held at Chicago, June 13, 14, 15, 1892 (N. p.: [1892]), 79-80.  See online transcription here.  The only other surprise positive response came from the Kansas Phonograph Company, which a reference in the Phonogram 2 (June 1892), 141, seems to corroborate: “Topeka now gives us through the phonograph the airs of its famous musicians.”

[2] Rene Bache, “Do Monkeys Have Speech?” Brooklyn Times, September 21, 1890 (TAED SC90045A; TAEM 146:608).

[3] See entries for Edward Schremser of Detroit, Michigan, in the federal censuses of 1880 and 1900.

[4] According to the 1890 and 1891 Detroit city directories indexed at Ancestry.com.

[5] Gaston and Marsh to Edison, October 22, 1888 (TAED D8847ACV; TAEM 124:225); Edison to Gaston and Marsh, October 22, 1888 (TAED D8847ACW; TAEM 124:226).

[6] “Moulded Records for Phonographs,” Edison Phonograph Monthly 1:6 (Aug. 1903), 11.

[7] Raymond R. Wile, “The Automatic Phonograph Exhibition Company and the Beginnings of the Nickel-in-the-Slot Phonograph,” ARSC Journal 33:1 (Spring 2002), 1-2, 17-18.  Available online here with ARSC membership; join here.

[8] “The Edison Phonograph,” Atlanta Constitution, July 23, 1890, p. 7.

[9] “The Edison Phonograph,” Atlanta Constitution, August 28, 1890, p. 7.

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