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The Talking Machine Industry and the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918

This blog post was written by David Sager, reference assistant in the Recorded Sound Research Center.

 

Demonstration at the Red Cross Emergency Ambulance Station in Washington, D.C., during the influenza pandemic of 1918. Prints and Photographs Division

102 years ago, the United States and the rest of the world were in the midst of a terrorizing Spanish influenza pandemic, referred to at the time as an epidemic. Industries were disrupted and injured, just as were private lives. The recorded sound industry of 1918 was no exception: Every limb and branch of the talking machine and phonograph record trade was affected, and the news was duly reported in the trade journal the Talking Machine World. [i]

Talking Machine World, published in New York from 1905 until 1928, was the largest and best known talking machine trade journal of the day. Its founder and editor, Edward Lyman Bill, had also been the editor of The Music Trades, the all-encompassing music industry trade journal.

The reports covered all aspects of the trade, from the upper management executives, to the recording laboratory supervisors, recordists (recording engineers), advertising copy writers, music staff, carpenters, jobbers, and salesmen. Each of these interrelated branches was affected by the outbreak, resulting in both temporary and permanent loss in personnel and greatly reduced production of goods.

One of its earliest mentions of the flu sounded an overly optimistic note —

Even in the midst of war and pestilence the talking machine trade refuses to be throttled. Proof of this statement is found in the fact that although during the past month the Spanish influenza epidemic has swept the country, practically paralyzing the industry in certain cities, to say nothing of crippling the sales staff of various stores, while the Liberty loan took the patriotic away from their businesses and put them at the service of Uncle Sam, talking machine sales kept right on increasing.[ii]

In the same issue, another report, this time regarding the trade in Montreal, sounded a more ominous tone,

Manufacturing in almost every line of industry has been curtailed, owing to the large number of employees who are laid up; this applies as well to the retail as well as wholesale and manufacturing industries.

Additionally, “theatres and places of amusement were closed by order of the Board of Health.” Talking machine and piano dealers handled the situation by taking advantage of the fact that these merchants placed advertisements that suggested, “Don’t be without music because the theatres are closed,” and “Sickness does not prevent you from having music at home.”[iii] A remarkably unhealthy suggestion, to encourage folks to come into the stores, risking exposure!

By January 1919, the pages of Taking Machine World were far more heavily populated with news regarding effects of the flu on the industry. Usually, these were brief squibs informing the trade of illnesses or the deaths of store agents, distributors, executives, and merchants. The passing of one well-regarded staff member of the British Gramophone Co, Ltd, “chief recorder William Gaisberg”[iv] was noted in the January issue.[v]

Recordings made during the worst months of the outbreak carried no hint of the world-wide suffering. Happy and syncopated selections, such as the All Star Trio’s medley of “Tackin’ ‘Em Down” and “I’ll Say She Does,” recorded on January 4. 1919, seems incongruous from today’s perspective.

TMW’s monthly list of latest issued recordings bore no trace of songs that dealt with the Spanish flu. Even the sadly-prophetic title, “The Worst is Yet to Come,” different versions of which were eventually released by Victor, Columbia, and Edison, was actually about the horrible things that were soon to befall the recently defeated Kaiser. The Victor and Edison releases were by Billy Murray, whose once thriving recording career was just beginning to wane.

Also listed in the January list were two titles by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, who had recorded the first commercially-released jazz recordings in 1917. The two titles listed in January 1919, “Clarinet Marmalade Blues” and “Mournin’ Blues,” were anything but blue or mournful. Poignantly, by the time these two titles, which had been recorded the previous July, were released, the band’s pianist, Henry Ragas, was suffering the effects of the flu. He died in February, just a few days before the band was due to set sail for England.[vi]

Talking Machine World, April, 1919. Recorded Sound Section

Amidst the gloomy news, there were reports about recovering tradesmen, such as Laurence H. Lucker, president of the Minnesota Phonograph Company, who was still “wabbly (sic) for some months after a long grapple with influenza.” Noting that sales during the first two months of 1919 equaled that of the first seven of 1918, he crowed that the coming year would prove to be the “greatest in phonographdom in the Northwest.” [vii]

As 1919 rolled along, the flu reports in Talking Machine World became more and more upbeat; people of the trade were recovering. However, the reports also became more infrequent. Reports of the dreaded malady seem to have disappeared after the July 1919 edition.

The recording industry during its first 30 years, or so, routinely did not record or release recordings of songs with pessimistic themes. The exceptions did occur, but such performances are comedic in nature. Surely, the song “Some Little Bug is Going to Find You,” recorded and released in 1915 and kept in print until January 1923, would have seemed darkly ironic when listened to a few years later.

Want to read Talking Machine World or other publications about the early recording industry?  TMW and other publications are available in the Recorded Sound Research Center.  Listen to more recordings in the National Jukebox!  More  information about any of of our collections and how to conduct research is available here, and if you have more questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

 

[i] At that time, the industry was better-known as the Talking Machine Trade, or Industry, and included both sound recordings and phonographs, or more generically – talking machines.

[ii] The Talking Machine World. November 15, 1918, p 8.

[iii]“Influenza Epidemic Disturbs Business in Montreal.” Ibid, p 33.

[iv] Brother of pioneer recording engineer, producer and talent scout, Fred Gaisberg.

[v] TMW. January 15, 1919, p. 118.

[vi] H. O. Brunn., The Story of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band. (Louisiana State University Press, 1960, 119-123.

[vii] TMW. April 15, 1919,  p. 66.