Early Imprints in the Thomas A. Edison Collection of American Sheet Music: Addenda to Sonneck-Upton and to Wolfe

By Elliker, Calvin | Notes, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Early Imprints in the Thomas A. Edison Collection of American Sheet Music: Addenda to Sonneck-Upton and to Wolfe


Elliker, Calvin, Notes


As a country without a national library system, the United States has long been dependent upon the personal interests and labors of individual bibliographers to document much of the nation's early published output. Books such as that by Charles Evans, recording Americana from colonial times into the first quarter of the nineteenth century, [1] and those by Marjorie Crandall [2] and Richard Barksdale Harwell, [3] describing Confederate imprints, are particularly fine examples of these endeavors.

Though all three of these books include some music materials, the field of specialized documentation of early American music imprints is dominated by two major bibliographies; namely, those by Oscar George Theodore Sonneck (revised by William Treat Upton) [4] and by Richard J. Wolfe. [5] Sonneck's bibliography (hereafter, Sonneck-Upton) is devoted to imprints of the eighteenth century, while Wolfe's three-volume work (hereafter, Wolfe) was envisioned as a continuation of Sonneck-Upton with its scope encompassing the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

Compilation of these bibliographies was naturally dependent upon major collections of pertinent materials. Sonneck-Upton lists forty institutional and personal collections from which citations were derived and Wolfe lists forty-four with, inevitably, a degree of overlap. Of course not every collection of American music imprints--especially those in private hands--was open to examination by these bibliographers at the time of their researches and this is the case for the remarkable body of publications assembled from roughly 1896 to 1920 by Thomas Alva Edison to support the activities of his phonograph company. Relating the history of this collection and documenting its holdings in early American imprints germane to Sonneck-Upton and to Wolfe are the dual purposes of this essay.

Edison's interest in music is reported by no less an informant than his son Charles, a former Secretary of the Navy and governor of New Jersey, in an article commissioned by Etude in 1947. [6] Though he invented and patented the first practical phonograph in 1877, Edison was slow to realize the vast potential his sound recording and reproducing processes held for transmitting music. Of the eleven initial applications Edison envisioned for his invention, "Music" ranks fifth, following "Letter-writing," "Dictation," "Books," and "Educational Purposes," but preceding "Family Record," "Musical Boxes [and] Toys," "Advertising," "Speech and Other Utterances," and advances in perfecting the telephone and telegraphy. [7] Moreover, as his son relates, by the following year Edison was engaged in his most famous work--development of the incandescent light--and further progress on his phonograph was set aside until 1887 when he entered patents for his wax cylinder and sapphire recording needle. [8]

In 1888, the Edison Phonograph Works and the Edison Phonograph Company were founded. At this time the phonograph business was concerned exclusively with office dictation--the second item in Edison's list of potential applications--and the Edison Company soon sold its rights to the North American Phonograph Company.

This firm's practice of renting its equipment--rather than selling it--led to its financial failure in 1892, prompting Edison to buy back the rights in 1896. According to Charles Edison, "this date may really be considered the beginning of the musical phonograph business." [9]

Edison believed that "Music, next to religion, is the mind's greatest solace and also its greatest inspiration" [10] and he entered into the musical phonograph business with the same zeal and doggedness that characterized his scientific experiments: "There are few people, however, who have listened to a larger variety of musical selections, as he was in the habit of buying sheet music, literally by the ton, and wearing out his pianist as he listened to various compositions for hours at a time. …

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