Thursday, Aug 8, 2013
The park has received a major collection of antique phonograph records from a donor who is considered to be the foremost expert on Edison disc records. The donation includes 580 Edison Diamond Discs, 66 Edison Blue Amberol cylinders, 16 Edison Amberol cylinders, 8 Edison Gold Moulded cylinders, and 6 Edison Needle Type discs.
The recordings, which date from 1905 to 1929, were made by Thomas Edison’s National Phonograph Company and Thomas A. Edison, Incorporated. Performances include rare takes by artists such as Italian operatic soprano Claudia Muzio, country music pioneer Ernest Stoneman, Czech violinist Váša Príhoda, the Original Memphis Five jazz quintet, 1920s radio star Vaughn De Leath, and popular banjoist Vess Ossman.
This extraordinary collection was donated to the National Park Service by Edison researcher Raymond Wile, who also donated 18 color photographs of a reunion of Edison recording artists that he hosted at the park on October 18, 1974.
Starting in October 2011, Jerry Fabris, the park’s museum curator, made several day trips to Wile's home in Queens, New York, to sort through his vast holdings of Edison records. A meticulous record sleuth, Wile collects Edison discs with an acute eye for detail, searching out especially rare takes and pressings.
Comparing Wile's holdings to the park's own catalog, Fabris selected only those recordings that would fill missing gaps in the sound archive. Thomas Edison National Historical Park preserves the world's most complete collection of Edison disc records. It is significantly more complete now due to this donation.
Recognized as the foremost expert on Edison disc records, Wile received the “Lifetime Achievement Award” in 1993 from the Association for Recorded Sound Collections. He is the author of several books on the early history of phonograph recording, and has contributed writings to such publications as Record Research, the ARSC Journal, The New Amberola Graphic, and The Talking Machine Review.
Wile began collecting and researching Edison disc records a few years before the National Park Service acquired the Edison Laboratory in 1956. Thomas A. Edison, Incorporated, was still manufacturing products in factory buildings surrounding the laboratory at that time. Prior to the National Park Service assuming stewardship of the property, a company-led foundation provided public tours and historical research services at the Laboratory, known then as the “Edison Foundation Museum.”
“I first encountered an Edison disc in the early 1950s, and decided to visit the Edison site,” says Wile. “Many of the old record operation employees were still around and working at the museum, particularly Bill Hayes, who had done recording in Europe beginning in the year 1900. Some of the others were John Coakley, who had been in charge of publicity for Edison, and Harold Anderson who had worked in the Laboratory Music Room. Norman Speiden headed the Company’s Historical Division.
“A few years later, I ran into researchers Lenny Kunstadt and Bob Colton who were launching the Record Research journal. They asked me to write an Edison column for them. If only I had asked the Edison employees the correct questions at that time! My Edison collection grew as I discovered the ins and outs of the Recording Division. Some of the historical documents that I used then have since been misplaced or discarded. A few years later, Thomas A. Edison, Incorporated merged with the McGraw Electric Company, which gradually wound down operations in West Orange.
“The company up to this time was still selling materials from the pre-1930 recording period. For example, I wanted to obtain a ‘Dance Reproducer’ for my disc phonograph, only to find it was no longer in stock. Hayes mentioned that the company was providing the option of a reproducer with an aluminum diaphragm, which did not wear the grooves as much as the Dance Reproducer. I asked Hayes to sell me one with that configuration. Hayes then said that it would take some time to prepare it, since he would have to take it apart. I asked how he would make sure the damping rings were still supple. He replied, ‘I spit on it.’ So I believe that I am the sole collector with a sample of Hayes’s DNA.
“Later, I gave Edison programs for Charles Edison, and during the 1970s, for a series involving recording artists who were still alive. The framework of the recording artist reunion programs usually involved playing unpublished test pressings or other recordings that the artist had not heard or remembered. At the first program, Gladys Rice, a popular vocalist who made Edison records during the 1910s and 1920s, pointed to a picture of Broadway actors John C. Rice and May Irwin in the 1896 Edison Kinetoscope film ‘The Kiss,’ and proudly said, ‘That was my father.’ (This family relationship was not widely known at the time).”
Wile continued regular research visits to the Edison archive through the 1990s. He extends his thank to NPS archivist Leah Burt and to Reese Jenkins of Rutgers University, who began the Thomas A. Edison Papers project. Their microfilm edition and online digital edition has made life easier for researchers.