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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