Sounds From The Past: Rare Edison Recordings Donated To Thomas Edison National Historical Park

Not so many years ago, recorded sound was a novelty. These women are gathered around a phonograph, listening to a recording. Photo from Thomas Edison National Historical Park.

Thomas Edison, the holder of more than 1,000 U. S. patents, is known as one of the world's most prolific inventors, and his home and laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, are now preserved in Thomas Edison National Historical Park.

Edison's inventions, including the telegraph, telephone, incandescent light bulb and alkaline storage batteries, changed the world, but his self-described "favorite invention" was the phonograph. That makes a recent donation to the park—a major collection of antique phonograph records—especially appropriate.

Rare Recordings of Voices from the Past

The donation includes over 600 recordings, which date from 1905 to 1929, and they 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.

The donor, Raymond Wile, is considered to be the foremost expert on Edison disc records. His gift to the park 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.

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.

Donation Adds Valuable Information to the Park Collection

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, and it is now significantly more complete due to this donation.

Wile is both an expert on the subject of Edison recordings and an invaluable source of information in his own right. He 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.”

Comments by Wile provided by the park staff offer some fascinating insights into how his collection and his knowledge of the subject grew over more than a half-century.

Wile Provides Rare Insights into History of the Edison Site

“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."

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The Music Room, on the third floor of Building Five at the Edison Laboratory, was one of the first music recording studios. NPS photo.

“A few years later, I ran into researchers Lenny Kunstadt and Bob Colton who were launching the Record Research Journal," Wile continued. "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," Wile explained. "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."

Recollections from Recording Industry Pioneers

At the time Wile became interested in the subject, it was still possible to purchase items from the Edison company itself—and talk with some of the "pioneers" in the recording industry.

“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," Wile said. "[Long time Edison employee Bill] 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," Wile noted, "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, and he extends his thanks 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.

A Lifetime of Contributions to Recording History

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.

Mr. Wile's willingness to allow the park curator to determine which items would be most useful to the park's museum collection was both gracious and practical for the park, since the NPS already has a considerable number of items on hand.

The museum collections at the park are "by far the largest single body of Edison-related material extant, and are divided into three broad categories: History artifacts, archives, and natural history." The collection includes holdings at both the Laboratory complex and the Edison's former home, Glenmont Estate.

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A view of part of the park's disk phonograph record storage area. NPS photo.

A Vast Collection

According to the park website, "The sheer size of the holdings is daunting: the history collection is currently estimated to number over 300,000 items, while the archives contain approximately five million documents. The Natural History Collection consists of plant specimens collected from the Glenmont Estate as part of a 1995 plant inventory. In total, it is the third largest museum collection in the National Park Service.

The park staff is working to make the collection more available to the public, and you can listen to mp3 versions of some historic Edison recordings via the park website. You can also search the catalog for the park's Recorded Sound Archive and request a copy of a recording.

If you'd like to take a tour through the Edison Laboratory Complex, those buildings are open Wednesday through Sunday, 9:00am - 5:00pm. Tours of the nearby Glenmont Estate are available between 12 noon and 4:00 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Check this link for more details.

The park is located at 211 Main Street, West Orange, NJ 07052. Additional details to help plan a visit are available on the park website.