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American Record Labels and Companies

The Sears, Roebuck & Company
Record Labels
(1905-1950)

By Allan Sutton


As the nation’s largest retailer in the opening years of the twentieth century, Sears, Roebuck & Company made its reputation by marketing the products of major manufacturers under its own brands, usually at prices substantially lower than those charged for comparable brand-name goods. By the late 1890s, Sears was selling Columbia brown-wax cylinders under its own Sears Gramophone Record label. Little effort was made to disguise the source; the pink Sears labels were simply pasted, none too securely, over Columbia’s. 1

Sears was slower to enter the disc-record field. It first used the Harvard brand in the spring of 1905 on several inexpensive external-horn disc phonographs, which were also made by Columbia. The same basic phonographs, with minor modifications, were also marketed by the Standard Talking Machine Company, United Talking Machine Company, and other mail-order and premium-scheme houses, under various brand names.

Sears introduced Harvard discs in late 1905 or early 1906. The earliest issues were 7" pressings bearing plain light-blue labels without ornamentation. A slightly more decorative label design, in orange on gray with a college-pennant trademark, was used on later 10" pressings. All pressings were single-sided.

Harvard used masters Columbia recorded as early as 1902, and both the 7" and 10" series used catalog numbers identical to those of corresponding Columbia releases. All known issues were anonymous. As with most Columbia client brands, the spoken announcements were neatly tooled off the stampers to prevent identification of performers and manufacturer.

Harvard 78 records

A Harvard 7" issue, recorded by Arthur Collins and Byron G. Harlan in 1903 (left), and a
later 10" issue by banjoist Vess L. Ossman, recorded in 1905 (right).
Author's collection (left); courtesy of Kurt Nauck (right)
  

Sears discontinued Harvard records in late 1906, in favor of the Oxford label, but continued to market phonographs under the Harvard nameplate for several more years. The new Oxford discs initially were offered only in 7" form. Leeds & Catlin produced the two earliest Oxford series. Of these, one bore catalog numbers identical to corresponding Leeds issues, but with a “1” prefix (for example, 7" Oxford 11512 = 7" Leeds 1512). The other bore catalog numbers in a 16000 series of uncertain derivation. Leeds & Catlin also produced 10" Oxford pressings in several different numerical series, all of which derived the last three or four digits from the corresponding Leeds or Imperial issues (for example, Imperial 44451 = Oxford 451). These early Leeds series appeared only briefly and are much rarer than the later Columbia-produced issues. Most are easily distinguished by the mirror-image stamping of the corresponding Imperial catalog number and the presence of a stamped "D" in the inner margin. The meaning of the latter is not known, but it is not a take designation.

A new 7" Oxford series, introduced in Sears’ 1908 catalog for 21¢ each or $2.50 per dozen, was drawn entirely from Columbia masters of 1902–1906.2 The arrangement provided a way for Columbia to dispose of its obsolete 7" pressings, having discontinued production of the smaller discs under its own label in 1907. Catalog numbers were identical to those of the original Columbia 7" issues, but with a 7 prefix (for example, 7" Oxford 7210 = 7" Columbia 210). All issues were anonymous and, as was the case with other Columbia client brands, spoken announcements were effaced from the stampers. With much of the material already outdated by the time of issue, Columbia’s 7" series does not seem to have sold well.

A new series of 10" single-sided Oxford discs, retailing for 30¢, replaced Columbia’s 7" series in 1909. Pressed by the Victor Talking Machine Company from Zon-O-Phone masters recorded by its Universal Talking Machine Company subsidiary, this series was one of the very few manufactured by Victor for the custom label market before the early 1930s. A handful of deleted 7" Victor masters also found their way into the series, reflecting Universal’s status as a Victor subsidiary.

Pressings from early Zon-o-phone masters bear the same catalog numbers as corresponding Zon-O-Phone single-sided releases. By 1909, however, Zon-O-Phone was producing double-sided pressings, and for a time the single-sided Oxford label adopted the curious policy of drawing its catalog numbers from the corresponding Zon-O-Phone double-sided catalog numbers. There was no problem when only one side was used, but if both sides of a Zon-o-phone disc were used, the -A or -B side designation was appended to the Oxford catalog number. Thus, two different performances might be issued under the same catalog number, distinguished from one another only by the -A or -B suffix.

The vast scale of Sears' early record business is apparent in this photo,
taken in Sears' Chicago warehouse and published in the 1910s as part
of a set of promotional stereoscope cards.
Author's collection, gift of George Sweeny

In 1911, Sears returned to Columbia as its Oxford supplier. 3 This final (and most common) Oxford series, 10" and still single-sided, was introduced in Sears’ autumn 1911 catalog. It derived its catalog numbers from Columbia’s master numbers, or from the catalog/matrix numbers for material originally issued in single-sided form; thus, there are many gaps in the Oxford catalog-number sequence. The series included reissues of Columbia masters recorded as early as 1902–1903 as well as material recorded by Columbia’s European affiliates. Twelve-inch discs, retailing for 50¢ each, were introduced later but do not seem to have sold well. Unlike the earlier Columbia series, these later Oxfords often cited artist credits and included performances by such stars as Maurice Burkhardt, Fred Duprez, Josie Sadler, and Bert Williams.

Oxford 78 records by Zonophone and Columbia

Oxford drew on Leeds & Catlin and Zon-o-phone before settling on Columbia. Zon-o-phone
issues (left) ceased after the Universal Talking Machine Company was disbanded by court
order in 1912. Columbia (right) produced the later issues, including this rare 12" pressing.
Author's collection
  

In October 1915, Sears changed the name of its phonograph line from Oxford to Silvertone, a brand already in use on its other musical merchandise. Sears claimed use of the Silvertone trademark on phonographs and records since October 1915, and the first Silvertone machines did indeed appear in Sears’ Fall 1915 catalog. However, Silvertone discs did not appear until the Fall 1916 catalog, as a replacement for the Oxford label.

Columbia was again the supplier, and although the new records were priced at 35¢ — a nickel higher than their predecessors — the list largely duplicated Oxford’s at first. During the transition, Sears announced that the old Oxford discs would be subsitituted for Silvetone in some instances, albeit at the more expensive Silvertone price.

Like Oxford, the new Silvertones were pressed only in single-sided form and drew on standard Columbia masters, including material recorded as early as 1903. Masters from Columbia’s European branches were also used and included anonymous issues of some excellent operatic performances recorded in Italy. Columbia’s master numbers served as Silvertone’s catalog numbers, again causing large gaps in Silvertone’s catalog number sequence.

Early Silvertone labels bore an elaborate piper design, etched in negative form on an orange background. A more modern-looking design in gold on purple appeared at an unknown date, probably shortly before the series was dropped. These generally show the same cryptic two-letter codes that appear on standard Columbia labels. A slow-selling 12" series was produced in addition to the standard 10". (An unrelated Silvertone label, having no connection to Sears, was produced in England before World War I.)


Silvertone 78 records by Columbia

Silvertone records replaced Oxford in the Fall 1917 catalog. The original orange label was replaced
by a simpler, and much shorter-lived, design at an unknown date. Many issues were anonymous; Silvertone 11386 was by Giuseppe Armanini and Taurino Parvis (from an Italian matrix),
38530 by the Peerless Quartet.
Author's collection


In early 1918, Columbia decided to stop supplying client labels, and by the end of that year, Sears had discontinued Silvertone records in favor of standard Columbia discs. Having dropped Silvertone, however, Sears was no longer able to offer an inexpensive 10" record. Consequently, the company reintroduced the Silvertone label in late 1919 or early 1920, this time in double-sided form. The new records, numbered in a 5000 series, bore blue labels and a redesigned trademark, in flowing silver script, which Sears registered as a trademark on November 24, 1919. The new Silvertones were produced by the Federal Record Corporation, the corporate successor to the Indestructible Phonographic Record Company, the makers of Indestructible cylinders. Duplicating Federal’s lackluster catalog, the 5000 series drew little interest and appears to have been a poor seller for Sears. A disastrous fire at the Federal plant in October 1922 put an end to the series.
   

Silvertone 78 records by Federal and Gennett

The first Silvertone series (left), produced by Federal, contains little of interest to advanced
collectors. The more familiar tan-label issues include many rare and important recordings,
such as this pseudonymous release by Alberta Hunter and the Red Onion Jazz Babies
with Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet.
Author's collection

Silvertone’s familiar tan label, introduced in late 1923 or early 1924, signaled a new production policy. Instead of relying on a single supplier and risking a repeat of the Federal debacle, Sears decided to contract production to numerous manufacturers. The company assigned blocks of catalog numbers to each of its contractors; thus, master sources for most tan-label issues can be determined from the catalog series:

  •  200 = Columbia budget series (Harmony)
  •  1200 = Pathé, with isolated issues from Olympic
  •  1600 = Regal Record Company (Banner/Regal)
  •  2000 = Federal Record Corporation
  •  2400 = Emerson Recording Laboratories (Emerson/Dandy/Grey Gull)
  •  3000 = Brunswick-Balke-Collender (Brunswick/Vocalion)
  •  3100–3189 = A mixture from Emerson Recording Laboratories, New York Recording     Laboratories (Paramount), and Starr Piano Company (Gennett)
  •  3190–3400 = Columbia budget series, including reissues of earlier Columbia masters
  •  3500 = New York Recording Laboratories (Paramount)
  •  3800 = Starr Piano Company (Gennett) and Rainbow
  •  4000 = Starr Piano Company (Gennett)
  •  5000 (not to be confused with Federal’s earlier blue-label series, which was discontinued     before the introduction of the tan-label series) = Gennett
  •  6000 = Regal Record Company; isolated issues from Marsh Laboratories (Autograph)
  •  8000 = Starr Piano Company (Gennett)
  •  21500 = Regal Record Company
  •  25000 = Starr Piano Company (Gennett)

There were occasional exceptions to the system. Pathé’s block was especially short-lived, possibly because Silvertone’s large preprinted sometimes labels had to be trimmed severely to fit within Pathé’s smaller label area; some specimens are known with labels overlapping the last few grooves. Most Silvertone issues duplicated material on their suppliers’ regular releases. However, a few items appear to have been issued on Silvertone exclusively, and use of alternate takes was fairly common. Many issues were pseudonymous.

By 1925, Columbia (using masters from its Harmony budget series as well as its own older acoustic masters) and Gennett were Silvertone’s main suppliers. Gennett was the sole supplier by 1927, when it introduced electrically recorded Silvertone Truphonic records.
Sears discontinued the Silvertone label in the Spring 1929 catalog, replacing it with the revived Supertone brand. The Silvertone name was revived briefly by Sears in 1940–1941 for a Columbia Recording Corporation product drawing on masters from the Columbia–Okeh pool as well as older American Record Corporation material owned by Columbia.

The Silvertone name was revived for 78s one last time, in 1950. The red vinylite pressings, using a completely redesigned Silvertone Record Club label in 1950, were produced by Mercury Records.

Supertone records by Fletcher Record Co. and Gennett

Supertone originally was a Chicago-produced label (left) that featured some excellent local bands intermixed with John Fletcher's old Olympic material. The later Supertone series (right) includes many interesting items from the Gennett studios, like this pseudonymous issue by
Caplinger & Patterson with the Dixie Sernaders.
Author's collection

Introduced a short time after Silvertone, Sears’ first Supertone label was short-lived. Sears had trademarked the Supertone brand on September 11, 1916, claiming use since July 1914, but only for use on musical instruments and piano rolls. 4 The first Supertone discs, manufactured by the Fletcher Record Company, seem to have had very limited distribution. Most pressings used Fletcher's later Olympic masters of 1923–1924, including material recorded in Chicago. Several interesting Midwestern dance bands, including those of Gus Droberg, Cope Harvey, and Charley Straight — recorded at Fletcher’s Capitol Roll & Record studio in Chicago — appeared on these now-scarce issues. The rest of the catalog consisted largely of reissues of Fletcher’s old Olympic Disc Record Corporation material, recorded in New York during the early 1920s. Although Fletcher was a part-owner of Black Swan in 1922–23, rights to those masters were acquired by Paramount, and thus they were not available to Supertone.

Following the collapse of Fletcher’s Chicago venture in late 1924, production of Supertone shifted briefly to the Bridgeport Die & Machine Company, which for a short time made Supertone pressings from Paramount, Emerson, and Grey Gull masters. Sears soon discontinued the label, after which the Supertone brand was adopted for several years by the Straus & Schram department store. Sears had neglected to register the Supertone brand as a trademark for use on records, apparently providing an opportunity for Straus & Schram to appropriate the name for a time.

Sears later reclaimed its Supertone brand for use on records, reintroducing it in early 1929 as a replacement for its Silvertone brand. The revived label’s earliest documented appearance was in Sears’ Spring 1929 catalog. The supplier was once again the Starr Piano Company, drawing on its Champion and Gennett material, which quite often was disguised under pseudonyms. The notation “Licensed RCA Photophone Recording,” seen on many Supertone labels, refers to an electrical recording process licensed by the Starr Piano Company from the Radio Corporation of America, which had not yet purchased the Victor Talking Machine Company, and does not indicate any connection to Victor. The last Gennett-produced Supertone releases were listed in Sears’ Summer 1931 catalog.

In early 1931, Sears contracted production of Supertone to the Brunswick Radio Corporation in place of the faltering Gennett operation. Documentation in the Brunswick files suggests that production of the series was begun in May 1931 and ended in December of that year. 5 Supertone’s new S-prefixed series drew on Brunswick and Melotone masters exclusively. Although the highest number reached was S-263, approximately 81 issues are missing or listed as cancelled in the Brunswick files. Launched in the depths of the Great Depression, Brunswick’s Supertone series seems to have sold poorly and is scarce today.

Conqueror and Challenge records ads, 1927 Sears catalog

Challenge, Sears' cheapest line, was introduced in the Spring 1927 catalog. In 1928 it was joined by the new Conqueror label, and in 1929 the venerable Silvertone label was replaced by Supertone.
Author's collection
   

In the Spring 1927 catalog, Sears added a new, lower-priced label selling for just 24¢ per disc, or 10 for $2.29, Challenge was introduced with the frank disclaimer, “If you want the best, we recommend the Silvertone.” The records initially were produced by the Starr Piano Company, producers of Gennett records. The Sears pressing contract—reportedly for 500,000 discs in the first year—was the largest that Starr had signed to that point. The poor quality of the pressings, even by Starr's lax standards, suggests that the company struggled mightily to fulfill its obligation. Early Challenge issues duplicated material on Gennett and Champion, including reissues of masters recorded several years earlier. Nearly all releases used artist pseudonyms. The record’s low price and Sears’ demanding production schedule necessitated pressings that often were inferior even by Starr’s lax standards.

Production of Challenge shifted to the Scranton Button Company — manufacturer of such cheap brands as Banner, Oriole, and Regal — in the Spring of 1929, although Gennett continued to supply a few issues through 1930, some from masters recorded by Gennett specifically for the Bell label. Scranton’s new series appeared under a label that was slightly smaller but otherwise identical to its predecessor. It drew largely on Plaza Music Company masters from, although material from Cameo, the Compo Company (Apex), the New York Recording Laboratories (Paramount), Pathé, and other suppliers — usually renumbered within Regal’s master sequence — was also used on occasion. As with many Scranton products of the period, actual master numbers often were suppressed in favor of control numbers. Scranton’s Challenge pressings were often of poor quality, and many issues were pseudonymous, although Jones & Hare, Ernest Stoneman, and other well-known performers were sometimes properly credited. Regal’s successor, the American Record Corporation, continued to produce Challenge records for Sears until the label was discontinued.
The last issues appeared in Sears’ Spring 1931 catalog. 6


Conqueror and Challenge 78 records by Gennett and American Record Corp.

Challenge began as a Gennett-produced label, but soon switched to the Plaza Music Company
and its successor, the American Record Corporation, which supplied much of the same
material to Conqueror. The pseudonymous Gennett-produced Challenge (right) is a rare
issue by Taylor's Kentucky Boys.
Author's collection
   

Challenge catalog numbers fall into several blocks that can be used to determine master sources, although there are anomalies within some series, and many numbers were skipped:

  •  101–271, 301–431, 501–506 = Gennett
  •  532–698, 763–793, 811–999 = Plaza and successor American Record Corporation;
  •  700–760 and 801–810 = Miscellaneous sources

A slightly more expensive line, the 39¢ Conqueror label was introduced in 1928. There is much confusion surrounding Conqueror's date of introduction, spurred in part by Brian Rust’s undocumented claim that the label was introduced in 1926. 7 However, Sears’ trademark application claimed use beginning July 6, 1928, which appears to be accurate based on known Sears catalogs. 8

Conqueror drew on Plaza Music Company (Regal Record Company) masters, including material recorded as early as 1926, perhaps explaining the misreported start-up date. Most issues duplicated material on Banner and related labels, and many were pseudonymous. Early pressings bore large orange labels carrying the Sears imprint. With Plaza-Regal now supplying three Sears labels, there was considerable duplication of material, which was neatly disguised by assigning different artist pseudonyms on each label.

After July 1929, Conqueror was produced by the American Record Corporation (the Regal Record Company’s successor) with a smaller label of identical design, in dark red rather than orange. Although still a Sears brand, the Sears, Roebuck & Company imprint was removed from the labels at that time.

A simplified shield design replaced the original trumpeter trademark in 1934. Conqueror was a popular label during the Depression, and it survived the purchase of ARC by the Columbia Broadcasting System in 1938. The label was produced as a side-line through the early spring of 1942 by CBS, which even packaged some records in album sets. In its final days, the Conqueror shield label appeared in black rather than its traditional red. The last pressings were shipped to Sears in March 1942. 9

Although Conqueror usually duplicated material on other Regal-ARC-CBS releases, it occasionally used alternate takes, and some releases from 1934–1938 were pressed from masters apparently not issued on other labels. Unlike other ARC brands, Conqueror in the later 1930s did not use ARC’s standard couplings or three-part catalog numbering system.

Conqueror was unique among the ARC client labels in surviving that company's acquisition by CBS. Releases produced after the CBS acquisition drew on a mixture of new CBS and older ARC masters, including Columbia, Okeh, and Vocalion material that had been acquired by CBS. Papers submitted in a 1943 court case claimed total sales of 6.3 million Conqueror records. 10


Notes

1  Sears later sold undisguised Columbia cylinders, then switched to Indestructible as its cylinder supplier in 1909, marketing the records under the Oxford brand for several years.

2  Sears, Roebuck & Co. “The New Purple Label Oxford Records,” Catalog No. 117 (1908), p. 198.

3  See Martin F. Bryan and William R. Bryant: Oxford and Silvertone Records, 1911–1918 (St. Johnsbury, VT: New Amberola Phonograph Co., 1975) for and a complete listing of Columbia-produced Oxford and Silvertone discs.

4  Sears, Roebuck & Co. “Supertone.” U.S. Patent & Trademark Office: Trademark application #97,933 (filed September 11, 1916). There is no connection to the Supertone Talking Machine Company (New York), a short-lived phonograph manufacturer.

5  Supertone card files and comments of Helene Chmura (CBS), reported by Robert Olson (unpublished manuscript).

6  Olson, Robert. Challenge 100—999 Numerical. Granite Bay, CA: Tim Gracyk, n.d.

7  Rust, Brian. The American Record Label Book, p. 87. New Rochelle NY: Arlington House, 1978.

8  Sears, Roebuck & Co. “Conqueror.” U.S. Patent & Trademark Office: Trademark application #271,316 (filed August 20, 1928).

9  Columbia Broadcasting System. Conqueror production files, 1942 (Sony-BMG Archives, New York)

10  Radio Corporation of America v. Decca Records; Same v. Columbia Recording Corporation, 51 F.Supp. 493)



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