The Victor Talking Machine Company was founded by Eldridge Johnson in 1901, and quickly became a main player in the quickly growing phonograph market. Johnson had been active in the phonograph business as a motor supplier for several years earlier, and had learned an immense deal about the emerging home entertainment market. At the turn of the century, all phonographs used a large external horn to “amplify” the playback sound. Although this system worked quite well, the stark horn tended to dominate the average parlor, and many people felt that this created an unattractive appearance. In addition, the horn was quite prone to being bumped or damaged.
Johnson (and his growing staff) made numerous improvements to the phonograph in those early years, including a tapered tone arm, enhanced sound boxes and quieter, more even running spring motors. The phonograph market grew considerably, and due to a creative and well-funded advertising campaign, Victor’s sales progressively increased. Johnson arranged to have well known opera stars and musicians support his products, which sparked additional sales at an advertising cost of roughly 50% of the company’s total profit. However, increased competition from other companies and continued objections to the huge horn limited Victor’s market. Furthermore, business was continually endangered due to the massive numbers of lawsuits filed by competitors; this became a constant battle for all phonograph companies in the first part of the 20th Century. Victor won most suits and was able to survive (in no small part due to some very expensive legal representation). Around 1905, Victor began to experiment with a new idea to make the phonograph more satisfactory and convenient. The horn was folded downward into a large floor standing cabinet, so that the horn opening was below the turntable. Two doors were used to cover the opening. This concept had an added benefit in that the doors acted as a simple but effective “volume control”; when they were open, the sound was loud, when they were closed, the volume was reduced.
This idea was swiftly patented, and the copyrighted the name “Victrola” was given to this innovative invention. The term Victrola thus applies ONLY to internal horn phonographs made by the Victor Talking Machine Company, and is not a general term for all old or antique phonographs. The first internal horn phonograph, originally selected as The Victor-Victrola, was marketed in 1906. Since Victor did not have adequate manufacturing facilities to manufacture the large cabinet, the Pooley Furniture Company of Philadelphia was contracted as a cabinet supplier. The machine was intended for sale for affluent customers, as the initial sale price was a lofty $200 (the most expensive Victor with an external horn sold for half that price). In spite of the cost, the machine sold rapidly, and Victor knew it had an instant success on its hands.
The original flat-top Victrola design had quite a few deficiencies, the most problematic wasÂ the need for the user to uncomfortably “reach way down” into the deep cabinet opening in order to change a record or lift the needle. In less than one year, this was resolved through the use of a domed lid, This allowed the turntable and tone arm to sit practically flush on top of the cabinet. Only a few thousand flat-top Pooley Victrolas were produced, making them extremely sought-after by collectors today.
The earliest Victrolas were designated by a “VTLA” (an abbreviation for Victrola) identification on the data plate, although they were soon marketed as “Victrola the Sixteenth” or VV-XVI. Victor also experimented with marketing a more luxurious model, designated “Victrola the Twentieth” (VV-XX), which sold for $300, with gold plated trim on the cabinet. Only a few hundred of these models were manufactured before being discontinued due to the high cost. Production of the XVI model ramped-up quickly, and the VTLA identification was superseded by “VV-XVI” on the data plate in early 1908. Around the same time Victor quickly expanded its cabinet manufacturing operations, and the services of Pooley were no longer required. Victor added different finish choices, including oak, walnut, mahogany and even custom painted versions.
By the middle of 1909, approximately 15,000 Victrolas had been sold, and Johnson decided to make the most of on his success by introducing a lower priced model. Thus, in 1909, the tabletop Victrola XII was introduced, selling for $125. This initial attempt to make a low-price compact Victrola was not successful, as the horn opening was too small for sufficient volume in a large room. In 1910, two new tabletop models replaced the XII, the Victrola X ($75.00) and Victrola XI ($100.00). These tabletop models had enhanced performance than the XII, and began to sell fairly well, even though the price was still prohibitive for many Americans. A smaller version of the VV-XVI was also introduced, named Victrola the Fourteenth or VV-XIV ($150.00).
In 1911, with an eye on the average family’s budget, Victor introduced quite a few new low-priced models, the VV-IV, VV-VI, VV-VIII and VV-IX, with prices ranging fromÂ $15.00 up to $50.00. Soon after, the VV-X and VV-XI were converted from tabletop models to low priced floor models.
The new low priced machines were a smashing success, and Victrola production rose from several thousand per year in 1906, to just about 250,000 per year by 1913. While the Victrola model lineup remained relatively unchanged through World War I, several deluxe models were introduced in the mid-to-late ‘teens, including the VV-XVIII ($300.00) and the VV-XVII ($250.00). By 1917, Victor was making well over a half million Victrolas a year. The VV-XI floor model was the most popular of all, selling more than 850,000 copies during its manufacturing run (1910-1921). For the affluent customer, Victrolas were also available in a assortment of custom designs, with hand painted images, exotic wood, and Japanese lacquer finishes. These machines were produced in low quantities, and are extremely desirable today.
In 1913, the first electric motor option became available on the Victrola XVI, eliminating the need for cranking after every few records were played. Victrolas with electric motors were called “Electrolas”.Â This option didn’t really catch-on until late into the 1920’s, as electrical power was not yet widely available, and the added cost of the motor was too expensive for most buyers.
Due to national defense needs, production decreased during World War I. Victor transitioned production to biplane wings and other war materials. When the war ended, the demand remained strong, but Victor found that it had a lot of new competition from small upstart companies, who often made cheaper (and usually substandard) phonographs. Thus, by late 1919, sales started to diminish. Victor redesigned most of its lineup in the early 1920’s with scores of new models, including some horizontal console styles such as the VV-210 ($100.00) and the VV-300 ($250.00). These Victrolas sold well for a short period of time, but the increasing popularity of recently developed home radios began to take their toll on the phonograph market. Radio offered endless variety, superior sound quality, and best of all; the consumer did not need to purchase records. By 1923, Victor offered a few phonographs (with an “S” prefix before the model identification) that would permit an aftermarket radio to be installed in the cabinet together with the turntable (using the Victrola’s horn as a “speaker”), but this did little to perk up sales. By late 1924, the bottom literally fell out of the phonograph business, and Victor had to make some major improvements in order to stay alive. A number of documents indicate that literally hundreds of thousands of unsold Victrolas were sitting in warehouses by early 1925. In order to move this stock, a massive “half-price” sale was held during the summer of 1925, in which every unsold Victrola would be offered at half the normal list price. Both dealers and the company “ate” the losses. The sale was a success, but the assessment of Victrolas (including the market value of the entire company) took a serious down fall. Dealers who had sold an elegant VV-125 to a customer for $275 in 1924 would offer only $25 for the same model in trade a year later. Clearly, this created some bad press for the company and the dealer network.
In November, 1925, Victor introduced the “Orthophonic” Victrola, which utilized the latest sound reproducing technology offering far superior reproduction. The old style Victrolas sounded feeble compared to these products. Remarkable improvements were made in the design of the horns and the sound boxes, in part based on signal transmission theory developed during World War I. This was achieved without the use of electronics, but rather though sophisticated acoustic designs. The tinny Victrola sound was now replaced with a rich warm tone that was superior to all but the best radios. In addition, phonograph records were for the first time being recorded electrically, which improved the sound quality. Selling for as little as $50.00 (and for more than $1000.00), these machines were an instantaneous success, and rapidly brought profitability back to Victor.
The rapid expansion of the radio market caused a quick decline in the price of electron tubes and components, and by the late 1920’s, the combination electronic radio-phonograph was becoming rather popular. These machines could use the radio’s amplifier for reproducing records, and the need for the horn was replaced by the small paper-cone speaker. Fidelity was also enhanced. Some models even had sophisticated record changers, which would allow a complete symphony to be played without having to stop and manually change records. Victor entered into an agreement with RCA for the use of RCA’s electronics in Victor’s products, and produced a number of radio-phono combination sets which were rather successful. By the late 20’s, Victor’s founder, Eldridge Johnson, now a millionaire, was growing weary of the business, and decided to retire. In 1929, RCA purchased The Victor Talking Machine Company, and the new company was called “RCA Victor”. By this time, the popularity of the acoustic phonograph was rapidly diminishing in favor of the louder and more flexible electronic combination systems, and only cheap portables and children’s phonographs continued to utilize acoustic reproduction. In October 1929, the beginning of The Depression literally killed the sales of all non-essential merchandise, and not until the late 1930’s did RCA Victor again experience noteworthy sales of phonographs.