Brunswick Phonographs and Records


In the 1920s the two biggest American phonograph companies were the Victor Talking Machine Company and Brunswick. Edison had a relatively small piece of the market by this time. In 1921 Columbia was forced into bankruptcy and receivership due to stock speculations and overproduction. The company bounced back but by 1925 was no longer American, becoming a subsidiary of the British-owned Columbia Ltd.

The Brunswick Company was long known for making billiard equipment. It was founded in 1845 by John Moses Brunswick, who joined Julius Balke in 1873, thereby forming the J.M. Brunswick and Balke Company. In 1879, Hugh W. Collender merged with Brunswick and Balke, forming the world's largest billiard equipment company and calling itself by 1884 the "Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company." That is the name we find on many machines, 78s and paper sleeves. Most Brunswick models have a decal under the lid on the lower back panel. It states "Brunswick" in large gold script with "The Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company" beneath in smaller black print.

Brunswick cautiously tested the phonograph market in the 'teens--and then jumped in. Casting about for a growth project, Brunswick executives had scrutinized newspaper ads for items selling well. Phonographs and 78s were selling because of a dance craze. Cabinets were the most difficult part of a phonograph to manufacture, and here the huge company saw an opportunity. Phonograph makers were asked if they would be interested in bids on cabinets, and orders for phonograph cases soon had Brunswick factories humming. The Edison Phonograph Company was Brunswick's main client.

But making cabinets for others did not satisfy Brunswick executives. Why make excellent cases and see them sold under different trade names? It was an affront to company tradition. Workers at the Muskegon plant were given $50 for purchasing hardware and were asked to make two demonstration models that could be mass-produced. The models were ready by April 3, 1916. Brunswick executives decided to plunge into this market.

Victrola and 78 Journal, Issue 10

The company began by making two styles of cabinet phonographs, later producing a range of upright and console models as well as a line of period models and custom-built cabinets for the higher priced markets. It never made external horn models, which were no longer fashionable. Brunswick's expensive models featured large ornate cabinets with hand crafted designs and carvings, a testament to the factories' wood workers.

In the late 'teens, the company issued some vertical-cut shellac records but only in Canada. Early Brunswick discs were not sold in the U.S. due to an agreement with the Pathe Phonograph Company, which opened recording facilities in New York City in 1914 and a large pressing plant in Belleville, New Jersey. By special arrangement, Brunswick phonograph dealers would sell only Pathe records and advertise Pathe records in local newspapers. Brunswick benefited since its phonographs played Pathe discs, and Pathe purchased Brunswick cabinets. This lasted until late 1919.

Brunswick could put many machines on the market in a short time and, in 1920, many 78s. Unlike most new companies making these products, Brunswick had its own large cabinet manufacturing facilities and a national retail network.

A distinctive Brunswick innovation was its Ultona reproducer, patented by Louis Taxon on September 18, 1917. It is designed to play the three main types of discs sold in that period: normal lateral shellac (Victor and Columbia 78s), vertical cut shellac (Pathe), and vertical cut Diamond Discs (Edison). The reproducer has four movable parts which can be adjusted to play any record. Steel needles can be inserted, played, and then removed. Twist the reproducer and its permanent diamond point (with independent stylus-diaphragm) plays Edison discs. A ball-shaped sapphire stylus mounted in a metal shank plays Pathes and other vertical cut discs. A sliding weight allows for proper pressure on a record.

The elaborate design of the tone arm causes air leaks but these can be sealed with grease. Regrettably, some Ultona tone arms are made of pot metal, which can swell and weaken over time, easily breaking and shattering.

Opinions vary regarding Brunswick machines with the Ultona. Most listeners consider the sound to be merely adequate. Models with fully restored reproducers and lubricated connections can sound great, but few collectors want to risk replacing diaphragm gaskets on the large and complicated reproducers.

When Edison discs are played, record grooves must move the stylus and heavy reproducer across the disc since no gearing mechanism from the motor advances the tone arm (as is the case in Edison models). Some collectors hesitate to play Edison records with the Ultona reproducer for fear of damaging records. Check the condition of the Edison jewel stylus often and carefully.

Edison executives probably had Brunswick's Ultona in mind when adding this warning to Edison record envelopes: "This Re-Creation should not be played on any instrument except the Edison Diamond Disc Phonograph and with the Edison Diamond Disc Reproducer, and we decline responsibility for any damage that may occur to it if this warning is ignored." Edison executives felt threatened by Brunswick's sales, and they had good reason to worry!

All Brunswick spring motors are of amazingly good quality--well-designed and quiet running. All have two or three-spring motors. Grease originally used to lubricate springs must have been high quality because the springs today rarely require new grease.

Brunswicks have internal horns made of holly or spruce wood. The smaller back sections of the horns often have amazingly complex splicing--perhaps to a cheaper wood--in order to connect to the horn throat. All models have a simple short wood tube connecting the tone arm's base to the horn throat, providing a completely wood sound reproducing system below the tone arm. Regarding its internal wood horn, Brunswick claimed, "It is a vibrant tone chamber like the sounding board of a piano or violin."

New Brunswick phonographs came with a set of 10 and 12-inch record albums. Brunswick also made accessory items such as steel needles, needle tins and envelopes, record dusters, even a small ladies' pocket mirror with the reverse side containing the early Brunswick logo!

Brunswick records first appeared in stores in January, 1920. The 10-inch popular records (the 2000 series) sold for 75 cents each and 12-inch records (20000 series) sold for $1.25. Early celebrity records (5000 series) had similar labels with a violet background.

Early jazz artists on the label were the Original Memphis Five (as the Cotton Pickers) and Fletcher Henderson. Great opera singers include Elisabeth Rethberg, Edith Mason, and Nina Koshetz. Brunswick records are well-recorded, bright in the higher register. Many rank them among the best acoustic records made.

In 1926 Brunswick produced an acoustic phonograph for playing new electrically recorded 78s. Its reproducer was similar in ways to Victor's Orthophonic soundbox. To create publicity for the new machine, Brunswick held a contest for the best name and slogan. When one Mildred Bux of Melrose Park, Pennsylvania, submitted the name and slogan "Prismatone" and "The instrument of colorful music," Brunswick executives gave her the $5,000 prize and then ignored her suggestions, instead naming it the Panatrope. It may be Brunswick's finest phonograph.

In April 1930, Warner Brothers Pictures paid around $10 million for Brunswick's musical division, which included radios, phonographs, and records. The Warners, successful with Vitaphone talkies, envisioned a subsidiary record business using Warner Brothers stars. They had no interest in phonographs but valued the Brunswick name. The Brunswick Radio Corporation was a subsidiary of Warner Brothers Pictures, Incorporated. In late 1931, the Warners sold it to the newly formed American Record Corporation. Sales of Bing Crosby 78s helped the company through the worst Depression years.

Although its phonographs and 78s sold well, at no time during the fourteen years that the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company manufactured phonographs and the ten years it made records were these the company's main products. Brunswick was best known in the business community for making recreation products. In recent times, it has been known for marine, defense, and even aerospace products. In 1995 Brunswick celebrated its 150th year as a company. Had it not jumped into the recording business decades ago, music-loving Americans would have deprived of some wonderful listening experiences.

R. J. Wakeman lives in Davis.