Introduction: the 1900-1909 era

78 rpm label design (roughly 1898-1968) evolved during the period when 'commercial art' came into being, with the birth of the advertising industry. Technological change would soon revolutionize the printing industry as it went from letterpress (a process which had remained virtually unchanged since the invention of printing in the mid-15th century) to stone lithography to offset lithography, thus freeing designers from limitations imposed by the technology. However, these freedoms were limited by fashion trends in design, that quickly began to transcend international borders. All these design developments and changes can be noted on 78 rpm record label design, making them a fascinating and rewarding area of study.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the birth of many scientific inventions that marked important advances in western civilization. The telephone, the telegraph, electric lighting, the daily newspaper, the automobile and the phonograph were just a few of these. Another innovation with far-reaching implications was the the department store, which offered customers centralized shopping for all kinds of goods and services under one roof, which brought about lower prices and assured standards of quality. Other mass marketing opportunities were soon to follow: the mail order store, the chain store and the dime store. Retailers, the new captains of industry, quickly realized that shelves filled with colourful and attractive labels drastically improved point-of-purchase sales, and that women, the primary category of buyers, were more attracted to articles packaged with wrappers showing colourful, romantic images than plain, containers with typographic information. Such images marketed more than their contents: they gave the promise of a better standard of living and visions of idyllic happiness. Record labels from 1898 onward clearly show the progress of such marketing strategies.

By the end of the late 19th century, a unified Germany had become a dynamic force in western Europe, and a concomitant threat to the delicate balance of political power. Envious of the empires built by the British and French, and confident of the superiority of German 'kultur,' Germany's leaders had launched an aggressive program of warship-building, to establish a presence on the world stage. At the same time, her captains of industry were encouraged to become the vanguard of political expansion by efficiently distributing German products worldwide. Germany soon came to dominate many areas of industrial technology, such as mechanical engineering, chemicals and optics. Phonograph records were but one facet of industry to come largely under German control.

Emile Berliner, one of many thousands of German immigrants to America, had picked up on the principles of Thomas Edison's invention of the gramophone. While Edison concentrated on perfecting the cylinder, with the sound being picked up from the floor of the groove by a needle travelling across a fixed tone-arm bar, Berliner's contribution to the emerging technology was a flat wax disc, the sound being picked up from the walls of a spiral groove by a needle attached to a floating 'tone-arm.' Stressed by the legal battles which soon began over patent rights, Berliner sold out to what became the Victor company. After a 1902 landmark decision, the Victor and Columbia companies agreed to 'live and let live,' and combined to drive others from the field. Victor and Columbia's co-dominance in the American market would last beyond the end of the First World War.

In 1899, a British artist named Francis Barraud had painted a cute picture of a fox terrier listening intently to the sound coming from the horn of a cylinder record-player, as if recognizing "his master's voice." The painting, which Barraud had titled "Dog looking at and listening to a phonograph," was rejected by the Royal Academy, so Barraud offered it to the Gramophone Company, who bought it on condition that the image of a cylinder phonograph be replaced by that of a disc-playing machine. "His Master's Voice" would become one of the best-known images in advertising history. Though cylinders and records were both marketed in the first decade of the 20th century, the public soon came to prefer the latter, since they were more easily handled and stored (belatedly, Edison would launch his own line of discs in 1913, although their thickness presented major handling and storage problems. The 'labels,' blind-etched into the surface of the disc, were hard to read, and it would be several more years before he would concede switching to paper labels).

In America, also emerging politically as a world power, new ideas and new developments (not least in music) were emerging from the cultural 'melting-pot.' The 'classical' and 'folk' music traditions of the African and European continents began to coalesce into syncopated off-beat rhythms variously called 'ragtime,' 'cakewalk' and 'jass.' First becoming evident in the sound of the street-marching military band, the style would soon become a vehicle for individual creativity, refined and taken to new heights in the jazz-band combo.

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