Trouble in St Louis. How the Victor Company got its name.

This is the third in a series of articles about the great Eldridge Johnson and his Victor companies.

By Carey Fleiner

Ever tried to think up a name for a fledgeling company? It’s more difficult than you think. You can go literal BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) or abstract such as Google or Yahoo. Why did Johnson choose the name Victor for his company? He never explained it himself, but there are a number of theories ranging from logical to silly.

Johnson had great confidence in his company and its product; this can be seen in Victor’s earliest advertising campaigns. For the first few years the company existed, profits were poured back into advertising – much of which was written by Johnson himself. As we’ve seen these advertisements touted the results of the new technology – the cultural, intellectual advantages and rewards of the use and ownership of a Victrola. The advertising art for Victor products – machines, records, and music – is elegant, beautiful, and sophisticated. It also falls into what is described as ‘feminine advertising’ – that is, an emphasis on the aesthetic, domestic, and educational aspects of the product.

Johnson wasn’t all about pleasing the ladies, however; he was in competition with other companies, and this era (late 19th, early 20th centuries) is sometimes called the time of the ‘War of the Patents’ as people rushed to patent new inventions and lay exclusive claim to them and their rights. One needed to pull out the stops to set oneself apart from competitors (and imitators). Victor did this in numerous ways, from lauding the superiority of its wares to the cultural benefits of its records. Another important venue for demonstrating one’s wares was at trade shows and expositions.  In 1904, Victor machines were among those demonstrated in the Palace of Manufacture at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, better known by its unofficial name, St Louis World’s Fair;

shortly thereafter, Johnson took out a number of adverts lauding his company’s superiority over his competitors at the show —

Medals and advertising showing Johnson’s win at St Louis (author’s photos)

even though the actual winner was apparently Berliner’s Columbia Records. Berliner surely wasn’t too pleased with this outcome, and Columbia launched an advertising campaign to set the record straight.

Berliner’s counter advertisement

So much for vying for the ladies and competing with the gentlemen in the cutthroat world of the early recording industry – why is Johnson’scompany called Victor? There are several different explanations; Johnson was as enigmatic on the matter as Don McClean is over the meaning of ‘American Pie’ or Carly Simon about ‘You’re So Vain.’ In fact, no one really thought to investigate the origins of the name until American comedian Steve Allen got tired of lying awake at night wondering, and in 1966 wrote a short article for Cavalier Magazine in which he tried to solve the mystery called ‘Schnock Schnock: The Great RCA-Victor Mystery.’

So Victor is Victor because (in order of likeliness)

1. Johnson’s legal victory over nasty copyright lawsuit and success over his competitors in the patent wars: this is the most likely given that he changed the name of his original company (Consolidated Talking Machine Company, 1900) to the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1901 after this perilous lawsuit. (Johnson’s family, who still live in the Dover area, however, dislike this explanation as the entire incident was stressful and unpleasant, and they argue that Johnson was not that sort of a vindictive man.)

2. ‘Victor’ was simply ‘one of those words’ that one used in business and advertising at the turn of the century, like ‘Acme’ (from Mr Allen’s discussion with ERJ’s son William Johnson…plausible, too, although ERJ didn’t have a son called William…)

3. Johnson’s ‘victory’ over Columbia et al at St Louis: this doesn’t really make much sense, as the St Louis Exposition was in 1904 by which time the company was already three years old.

4. Victor was called after one Alexander Victor, a mysterious man Steve Allen went to some great lengths to track down – among the many claims of Alexander, he was the one who gave Johnson the idea for creating a lighter-weight tone arm for the improved Berliner gramophone, because he just happened to be working in Johnson’s Camden shop as Johnson and Berliner himself sweat over the project…except, as Mr Allen points out, this development occurred some three years before the company was formed. Was ERJ really that grateful? Of course, Alexander Johnson (no relation) also told Mr Allen that he was Nipper’s owner, and also the Victrola was named after him…

5. The company was called after Mrs Leon Douglas, as this good lady, called Victoria, was married to the Victor Company’s first manager. This is also from Mr Allen’s article, but he states the person who told him this also claimed not only to be Nipper’s original owner, but gave the famous painting its name…

6. Because Johnson’s favorite horse was called Victor…er, perhaps quite likely as any, as a lot of these explanations seem to be a case of closing the barn door after the horse escaped…what do you think?

Johnson astride his horse Victor

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7 thoughts on “Trouble in St Louis. How the Victor Company got its name.

  1. If I may add one last bit of erroneous ‘Victor trivia’ — I’ve had a couple of people kindly tell me that the His Master’s Voice Dog is called Victor after the company. I don’t know where that one came from! No, Nipper is Nipper, because he was biting people on the ankles long before his picture was painted, and Victor is Victor because…

  2. Dr. Fleiner, if I may offer a very slight correction: Emile Berliner was never associated with Columbia and had nothing to do with their St. Louis World’s Fair counter-advertising. Columbia was established before Berliner put the Gramophone on the market; they competed with Edison in the cylinder field, and when they saw how lucrative the infant Gramophone business was they began putting out their own disc machines and records to compete with Berliner.

    Emile Berliner wound up relocating to Montreal after the Frank Seaman debacle, and started his Berliner Gram-O-Phone Co., Ltd which ran independently until it was purchased by Victor in 1924.

    I am very much enjoying this series on Eldridge Johnson, and am looking forward to seeing more about this remarkable person, about whom so little is actually known.

    • Thank you very much for your correction! It’s much appreciated, and I will most certainly make the correction about the St Louis Fair counter-ads as I have a similar comment in a paper I’m to give on Johnson in Philadelphia this November. Sadly, I don’t know as much about Berliner as I should; he’s another overlooked pioneer, I think. Suggested reading about both EB and Columbia would be lovely, too.

      Many thanks, too, for your kind words about the series so far! I’m always eager to find out more about ERJ, so I do welcome readers’ comments and any corrections they may have!

      • The two classics of talking machine history were both published in the late 1950s, and can probably be found in any large-sized university library. They are “The Fabulous Phonograph” by Roland Gelatt, and “From Tin Foil To Stereo” by Walter Welch and Oliver Read. The latter was revised and updated in the mid 1970s, to include videodisc technology…because it used metal foil at its core. 🙂

        Fred Gaisberg, another pioneer in the industry, wrote a memoir in the late 1940s called “The Music Goes Round”. He was Berliner’s personal emissary to England, and helped set up The Gramophone Company, Ltd.

        Finally a book that is as much eye candy as text is “The Talking Machine, An Illustrated Compendium” by Timothy Fabrizio and George F. Paul. This was published in 1997, and includes the very colorful history of the Burt/Globe Record Company and how ERJ bought it to keep it out of the hands of the Columbia people.

        These together will give about 90% of what is generally known about Eldridge Johnson. The rest comes from private papers, recollections of his family, and other materials to which public access is limited. Not an easy puzzle to piece together, I would imagine, but an interesting one nonetheless. 🙂

  3. Lovely, many thanks! — I’m familiar with all four, but have not laid my mitts properly on Gaisberg’s book or Fabrizio & Paul (very remiss of me!) Welch and Read were amazing; Read, I believe, had a long series of ‘history of the phonograph’ articles in the magazine Radio & Television News spread out over 1955 and 1956 which I think are more or less the ‘working chapters’ for the Tin Foil book. That series includes a short ‘Johnson Chapter,’ although it focuses mainly on the development of the clock-work motor EJ devised.

    Too right about all of the ERJ papers! The irony, if that’s the right word, is that there is quite a lot of surviving paperwork by and about ERJ, but it’s in archives. I’m extremely fortunate to be only about 60 miles from Dover, Delaware and maybe about 40 from Camden, NJ; fingers crossed as I’ve applied for a travel grant to access Johnson’s papers (the originals) in Wyoming. The two ‘main’ books I’ve read on Johnson and Victor are his son’s biography and F Barnum’s His Master’s Voice in America. I’ve met a number of people who dislike the former as they say it’s too rambly and chatty, but for my purposes, that’s rather what I want! The son is also the one who had built the Johnson Victrola Museum, and made sure that his father’s papers were preserved in Wyoming and in Delaware. Barnum’s book, while a fantastically illustrated history of Victor, RCA, and General Electric, is a limited print run, and copies go for $100s on eBay and Amazon. Huzzah for libraries!

    There’s a copy on Amazon now that I think is around $1900 — I joked with a colleague that I hoped it came with a real dog, then discovered back in the old days, the Gramophone Company DID supply real, albeit stuffed, dogs for vendors! I didn’t mean it, Nipper! 🙂

    It does help to be an historian attached to a university (and to have a museum studies certification tossed in there as well) to gain access to the archives; one thing I have been working on is to find opportunities to give public talks about ERJ’s contributions — the couple I’ve given at music conferences have attracted a lot of interest within the conference’s community; it would be fantastic to be able to speak to a more general, interested public, too! That’s why it’s been great having the opportunity here with Sound of the Hound! Most of my ‘Johnson Facts’ really do expand out to show the great influence the man’s company had on popular culture and society in general.

    Maybe I ought to think about compiling an annotated bibliography for the dog blog…one of my big interests is Victor’s Educational Department, and they published many, many now-forgotten books which reveal so much about Johnson’s plans and intentions for what one author describes as ‘the democritisation of music.’

  4. The David Sarnoff Library’s online articles also offer some background insights, taken straight from Nipper’s kennel, as it were. One particularly fascinating account, if rambly and chatty, is that of Victor recording expert Harry Sooy, at http://www.davidsarnoff.org/sooyh.html . This contrasts strikingly with the account of his brother Raymond, also on the Sarnoff Library site, which is fairly dry and terse.

    • That site’s a top tip, many thanks! For anyone interested, the originals of those two memoirs are held by the Hagley Museum, Delaware, which has a fairly extensive archive of historical documents local to the Delaware Valley. There is a third brother, Charles, who also kept a diary; the EMI archive has a copy of this short work. He’s not chatty, but notes a number of ‘red-letter’ days at which he was present in Victor’s recording history. I’m not sure where the original is, but as the copy is kept with EMI’s copies of ERJ’s diaries, I’m guessing the original might be with those originals in Laramie, WY, at the American Heritage Center.

      Speaking of Nipper, I’m in London next week, and am thinking about going to visit Nipper’s ‘final resting place.’ I’ve been told I’m going through ‘an awful lot of trouble’ to go to a carpark. Story of my life, really.

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