The history of the Columbia Phonograph Company can be traced to 1890,
when Columbia began releasing a series of brown wax recordings consisting
mainly of whistling solos and band marches. Thomas Edison, who would shortly
begin selling commercial brown wax recordings through the North American
Phonograph Company, seems to have been beaten to the punch. From what
can be gleaned from the companys cylinder recording catalogs, between
1890 and 1899 all releases were sold to the public in the context of a
block system. In other words, band pieces blared by Sousa or banjo tunes
strummed by Vess L. Ossman would be segregated, with each artist having
a series of cylinder releases. (Dan W. Quinn was an extremely prolific
performer, recording more than 300 cylinders for the company.) In each
successive catalog, Columbia culled the less popular titles and replaced
them in the given block with a series of new releases--thereby creating
discographical headaches for modern researchers. By 1899 the tangle of
numbers was partially mitigated by Columbias introduction of a consecutive
numbering system, starting at number 31300. Thus Hebrew vaudeville would
be lumped with barbershop quartets, or trumpet solos with "coon"
songs, for instance.
By 1902, the gold-moulding process that had begun to revolutionize the
production of cylinders (see Edison
Gold-Moulded cylinders) was adopted by Columbia. In fact, it is unclear
which company was the first to employ the practice of creating a metal
master and using it to spin off a much greater number of duplicate cylinders
than was possible previously. In any case, Columbias switch to the
gold-moulded process, unlike Edison's, was not unequivocal. For some years
after 1902, both brown wax and black wax (moulded) cylinders
were released simultaneously, the latter far outliving their brown wax
counterparts. The 31300 consecutive numbering series therefore encompasses
both brown and black wax cylinders from 1899 on; these are cumulatively
known as the 30000 XP series.
The repertoire of Columbia cylinders is similar to that of Edison cylinders,
and many artists recorded for both companies; the "exclusive contract"
concept clearly was not yet the standard that it is in today's music business.
Columbia continued to issue cylinders until 1909, when it stopped releasing
new titles and turned to the more successful disc format. The company
did continue to distribute cylinders, including Indestructible records,
for other companies, but no longer recorded any new pieces.
Starting in 1905 the Columbia Phonograph Co. released a series of six-inch long Twentieth Century Talking Machine Record cylinders which played for three, rather than the usual two minutes. The series was short-lived and appromimately 189 titles were issued. These cylinders are uncommon today.