In a few days more, Edison dealers will have something absolutely unique in the history of the world, namely, phonograph records made by the ruler of a great nation. Mr. Taft will, on March 4, become President of the United States, and the Edison records made by him last Summer will take on a new interest. ... A year ago, the mere suggestion that it would be possible to buy records made by the President of the United States would have been received with incredulity and yet, in a few days, they will exist and may be had at a price within the reach of the poorest.
The Edison Phonograph Monthly, March 1909
Thomas Edisons phonograph celebrated its thirtieth anniversary in 1908, the year that William Jennings Bryan and William Howard Taft ran for the United States presidency. These two candidates made recordings of short campaign speeches, what might today be called sound bites, and became the first politicians to utilize the medium of sound recording to expound their platforms. With the passage of more than nine decades, radio, television, and the Internet now crowd our collective consciousness with a continuous flood of political information, and it is difficult to imagine a time when the printed word was the only method of disseminating current events. Political campaigns were conducted by means of huge rallies where the candidates addressed throngs of citizens without even the aid of the public address system that we find so necessary today.
By the year 1908, the phonograph had achieved tremendous popularity and was fast becoming the prominent entertainment instrument of the day. It was no longer viewed as a novelty and in fact, by this time, almost anyone could afford a phonograph. A great variety of recordings were now available. One could purchase records of marching bands, comic monologues, instrumental solos, religious music, and even operatic arias sung by the most revered international artists. Thus, the idea of bringing the actual voices of political candidates into the home must have been an intriguing one to those who first thought of it. In order to understand how and why these recordings were made, it is necessary to correct a misconception about the phonograph.
Today, the word phonograph is commonly used to describe any primitive machine for recording or reproducing sound, much as the brand names of Xerox and BAND-AID have become generic descriptive nouns. The phonograph, invented by Thomas A. Edison in 1878, recorded sound by cutting a spiral groove into a rotating cylinder. The sound was captured by means of a cone shaped horn, and focused upon a thin diaphragm which was attached to the cutting stylus. This stylus was positioned so that as the groove was being cut, the sound vibrations would cause the stylus to move vertically within that groove. Curiously, Edison stumbled upon this idea while he was under contract to Western Union trying to invent an alternate method for speech transmission to Alexander Graham Bells telephone. There was, as might be expected, an immediate flurry of interest in this new invention that recorded sound, but Edison himself put it aside for nearly ten years focusing his attention completely on the electric light bulb.
Edison resumed interest in his phonograph in c. 1887 and began promoting it as an office dictation device. He began to publicize the phonograph widely and he garnered international attention by having his agent Colonel George Gouraud record the voices of such notable figures as P. T. Barnum, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Sir Arthur Sullivan, Florence Nightingale, Henry Irving, William Ewart Gladstone, and even Queen Victoria. Posterity has been greatly enriched by the legacy of these recordings which, except for that of Queen Victoria, all exist in various archives in the U. S. and England.
During the 1890s, small cylinder manufacturers began offering musical recordings of a popular nature in limited quantities to phonograph owners, and this marks the actual beginning of the record industry which was to experience a meteoric growth over the next two decades. With lamentable lack of vision, however, these record companies took no interest in recording serious music or in preserving the voices that were then making history. Continuing in this trend, Edison himself entered the record making business in 1898 forming the National Phonograph Company. Although he was the primary stockholder, he took no part in its day to day operation. While Edison pursued other ideas for prospective inventions, the German-born American inventor Emil Berliner had developed, in 1887, another system for recording sound. The Gramophone, as he called his invention, utilized a disk as the recording medium. Sound was recorded in much the same way as on the phonograph with the difference that the cutting stylus was oriented to produce a side-ways or lateral vibration within the groove. At first, the gramophone gave little competition to the phonograph, owing to the inferior sound of the records, not to mention the fact that buyers had to purchase a different type of record player. However, by 1900, disk recording and manufacturing had so improved that the new format began to overtake the cylinder with tremendous rapidity. The two major producers of the gramophone were the Victor Talking Machine Company in the United States, and its counterpart, the Gramophone and Typewriter Company LTD. in England. During the early years of the twentieth century, both companies began cultivating a market for classical music recordings, and made great progress by coaxing famous opera singers and instrumentalists into the recording studio. The gramophones popularity increased especially in urban centers, but the phonograph continued to appeal to rural America due to the lower price of cylinders and machines. Edison continued to cling to the cylinder concept with stubborn tenacity. In 1905, he launched his own celebrity opera series which met with only moderate success. That just wasnt the sort of music that phonograph owners wanted to hear--they much preferred camp meeting hymns or sentimental renditions of old time favorites. Although the market for phonographs and cylinders was slowly dwindling, the Edison company continued to manufacture them well into the 1920s just to satisfy faithful customers.
The competition between the Edison and Victor companies in the U. S. was further diluted by a third participant, the Columbia Phonograph Company. It had begun producing cylinder recordings in the 1890s and by 1902 was producing disks as well. Columbia also entered the classical recordings market with their Grand Opera Series which attempted to compete with Victors Red Seal Record. Such was the position of the American recording industry in the Spring of 1908.
It was a presidential election year, and by May, the political issues were being fiercely debated in the press; the anti-trust laws, labor rights, and U. S. Imperialism in the Philippine Islands were among the hot topics. Although neither party had as yet chosen their candidates, there seemed little doubt as to who they would be William Jennings Bryan for the Democrats, and William Howard Taft for the Republicans. It is quite clear that Mr. Bryan was the first to make records, and the Edison company was first to record him. The exact date of the recording session is uncertain, but we know that sometime during the month of May, Harold Vorhese, a member of Edisons recording department, was dispatched to Lincoln, Nebraska for the purpose of recording Bryan at his residence.
When I was detailed to go to the home of William Jennings Bryan and direct the making of a series of Edison records by Mr. Bryan, I felt a little shaky, ... I knew the Records were to be important ones, especially with Mr. Bryan so prominent in the Presidential campaign, and I was more than anxious to secure good results. I reached Lincoln, Nebraska, on a Friday morning, with my recording apparatus and a plentiful supply of wax masters. Everything had been arranged, and when I got to the Bryan home found Mr. Bryan ready for work.... Mr. Bryan had his speeches in typewritten form, and had timed himself several times in getting them the right length. Nevertheless we found on trying the first that it was too long to get on the Record so it had to be cut down and another trial made. Mr. Bryan seemed a little nervous when he first started, much more so, he said, than he ever felt in facing an audience of ten thousand people. Considering that his words were to be reproduced all over the world in perhaps a million homes, and that it might mean a great deal to him how his speech was received, I thought he showed remarkable composure. We kept at it pretty steadily all of Friday and Saturday mornings and a few Records were thrown out, though not nearly so many as I had expected.... Some workmen who were engaged in repairing a porch annoyed us with their hammering and Mr. Bryan went out to tell him to let up for a while. He did not want to arouse their curiosity, so told them he was talking into the phone. ... When our work was at last finished on Saturday, the library floor looked as if it had been visited by a snow storm, so thickly was it strewn with the wax shavings. ... as quickly as I could get my things together, I was on the way back to Orange, N. J. with the Records. If I had been the bearer of the crown jewels I wouldnt have guarded them more carefully.
The Edison Phonograph Monthly, July 1908
The first announcement of these records appeared in the June issue of The Edison Phonograph Monthly, which publication was intended for Edison Phonograph dealers. It read,
We take great pleasure in announcing ten Edison Records by William Jennings Bryan. ... They are among the plainest and most natural Records we have ever turned out. No one who has ever heard Mr. Bryan speak will fail to recognize all of the wonderful charm of voice and manner for which he is famous. Mr. Bryan needs no introduction. His prominence as the two-time, and prospective third-time Democratic candidate for President, together with his remarkable gifts as an orator, have made him known everywhere, while his upright Christian character and fearless exposition of his political beliefs stamp him as one of the foremost Americans of history. ... The Bryan Records should go a long way towards offsetting the present trade dullness. We shall not be surprised if they out-sell any set of Records we have ever issued, owing to Mr. Bryans prominence in the current Presidential campaign.
These ten cylinders, each running to about two and a half minutes in duration, were released to the public in early June. They included eight speeches on political topics and two orations entitled Immortality, and An Ideal Republic. The July issue of the Phonograph Monthly featured a lengthy article entitled Push the Bryan Records. It provided the dealer with a host of advertising tips, and even instructions for creating a Bryan store window display. This issue also contains Harold Vorheses fascinating account of his visit to the Bryan residence, (see above.)
Not to be out-done, the Victor company made ten disk recordings of Bryan during two sessions held on 15 June and 21 July 1908. These recordings duplicate much of the Edison speeches but possess the advantage of being slightly longer in duration. Victors publication for their dealers, entitled The Voice of The Victor promoted their disks in much the same way as did Edison with perhaps a little less finesse. On 14 September, Bryan again repeated much of the same material for the Columbia Company. These records were not well promoted and therefore, are extremely rare.
Mr. Frank W. Dyer, president of the Edison company, attempted to secure the services of President Roosevelt to record some speeches to represent the Republican side of the campaign. This plan never materialized, and William Howard Taft was engaged following his nomination in Cincinnati.
Mr. Taft recorded first for Edison on 3 August 1908, followed immediately by Victor on 5 August, and ultimately by Columbia on 27 August. It is not surprising that Edison was the first to promote their Taft cylinders, and the August issue of the Phonograph Monthly includes, once again, a detailed report on the making of the Taft recordings by Walter Miller, manager of the Edison recording department.
Everything was quickly put in readiness and on Saturday afternoon Mr. Taft was ready to begin. At least, he thought so, but events proved that he wasnt. He had a large scrap book in which news paper copies of his speeches had been pasted. He had gone through these and marked the portions he wished to use in the Records. It was so marked up, however, that he had difficulty following it. These were the first Records he had ever made and he remarked that it was a little different from what he had expected. So, he gave one of his secretaries instructions to make typewritten copies of the marked portions. ... On Monday at 3 p.m., we got busy on the Records, and by 5 oclock, we had four completed. Mrs. Taft was very much interested to know how her husbands voice would sound in the Phonograph, and was present while the first four Records were being dictated. At 5:15 p.m., Mr. Taft went for his regular horseback ride and gave us an appointment for that evening at 9. At that time, he dictated two more speeches, which were all he had expected to make. He had become deeply interested by this time, however, and said, Ill give you another, and he kept giving us another until we had twelve all together. ... We caught the first train out on the following morning and were at the factory with the Records Tuesday night, when the work of moulding the duplicates was begun. I was greatly amused, coming up from Washington on the Congressional Limited, at some scraps of conversation I overheard in the smoker. The morning papers were filled with accounts of Tafts canned speeches. Everyone in the car was discussing them as well as the report that Mr. Bryan said the opposition had stolen his campaign thunder. They all seemed greatly interested in the part that Edison is playing in the Presidential campaign. Of course, no one imagined that the canned speeches of William H. Taft were in my dress suit case at that moment.
The three record companies were thrilled to add these recordings to their catalogues, and we know that Bryan and Taft were each paid $500 by Edison for their services. One can only assume that Victor and Columbia made similar compensation to the candidates, since The Victor and Columbia financial books no longer survive. Both Edison and Victor published brochures advertising the Bryan and Taft records. These were to be given out to any prospective buyers, and it was expected that these important new recordings would boost the sale of record players thereby increasing each of their listenerships.
Following the election in November, the Edison Phonograph Monthly continued to promote the Taft cylinders for their historic value as collectors items and even encouraged dealers to keep selling the two non-topical Bryan cylinders. The dealer who is disposed to believe that the day of the Taft and Bryan Records is past simply because the election is over, is making a mistake, and he will make a worse error if he does not redouble his efforts to put the Records in every Phonograph collection. The Victor company made no such effort.
The preparation of these campaign speech records has been great fun for me. In comparing the various versions by Edison, Victor, and Columbia, I found the Victor disks to be the most satisfactory, both for their sonic clarity, and for their extra length. For Mr. Bryan, I have included one Edison cylinder (CD 1, Track 9) and one Columbia disk (CD 1, Track 10) neither of which was released by Victor. For Mr. Taft, I have included one Columbia disk that was not recorded by the other companies. There are several additional Columbia recordings that do not duplicate Victor or Edison material, but the only available copies were in such poor condition as to make them unlistenable.
Old recordings are, today, often referred to as 78s. However, none of these Victor or Columbia disks were recorded at 78rpm. In order to reproduce the voices correctly, I have found it necessary to play the Victors at about 75rpm, and the Columbias at about 80. The recordings from both companies suffer from speed instability, which necessitated the gradual lowering of the speed between the beginning and the end of each disk.
The 1912 campaign involved three political parties, Republican, Democratic, and Progressive, with their respective candidates William H. Taft, Woodrow Wilson, and Theodore Roosevelt. Once again, campaign speeches were recorded but advertised with considerably less fanfare than those of 1908. Victor recorded all three candidates, and produced an impressive sales brochure. (see page 22) Edison also made cylinders, but only of Mr. Roosevelt, owing to the fact that Thomas Edison was, himself, a staunch Roosevelt supporter. A sales bulletin dated 31 August 1912, proclaimed to Edison dealers:
It is with much pleasure that we are able to announce four Amberol records by Theodore Roosevelt which were recently made at his home in Oyster Bay, New York. The selections chosen by Mr. Roosevelt cover subjects of national interest and importance, and will be used by him during his coming campaign throughout the country. (see page 23)
It is puzzling that the Columbia company was conspicuously absent from the campaign.
Shortly after the election, in November 1912, Edison issued another sales bulletin, this time aimed at the individual phonograph owner with a different sales angle.
It is with no little sense of pride that we announce four Records by Theodore Roosevelt. ... Though, as their titles indicate, the selections are all of a political character, interest in them will not cease with the end of the Presidential Campaign of 1912, for they state, in part at least, the principles upon which the Progressive Party is founded. ... The majority of newspapers of the country invariably see the words and deeds of any political party through the small or the large end of a telescope according to their political convictions, so that the same party appears alternately as a band of saints or sinners regardless of its actions. Perhaps the safest way to judge a party is through the words of its leader himself. And when the man is undisputedly one of the foremost characters of the age, it is indeed a privilege to hear him state in his convincing way the principles of the party which he was instrumental in founding. These Records will also serve as a basis of comparison by which to judge the ultimate success or failure of the new movement in many years to come.
I have included, on CD 2, all of the Victor and Edison recordings. The Edison cylinders of Theodore Roosevelt are of particular interest because they are so unbelievably well-recorded. In fact, these are some of the finest recordings of the time. Roosevelts delivery is so relaxed as to give the feeling that he is actually in the room with you. The Victors are much different and it is quite illuminating to compare the Edison and Victor versions of The Farmer and The Businessman. (CD 2, Tracks 9 and 15.)
The Presidential election year of 1916 produced no recordings of candidate speeches. Only once again in 1920 did the recording industry play a part in the Presidential race. In that year, commercial radio became a reality, but that is another chapter for another time.
© Ward Marston, 2000
In Their Own Voices:
The U.S. Presidential Elections of 1908-1912
Scholars routinely observe that the advent of radio reshaped political speech from the impassioned pleas bellowed to thousands, to conversations among intimates in the quiet of the living room. But for more than a decade before the first commercial radio broadcast station was inagurated in Pittsburgh in 1920, citizens in their living rooms, drawing rooms and parlors had been listening to candidate speeches. This feat was made possible by the phonograph.
-- From the Introduction by Kathleen Hall Jamieson.