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The Victor Record Pages

A Camden Chronology
The Evolution of the Victor Talking Machine
Company Complex (1899–1929)


By Allan Sutton, based on Harry Sooy’s Memoirs

Related Article: Camden, Philadelphia, or New York? The Victor Studio Conundrum


Victor Talking Machine Co. factory in Camden NJ
COURTESY OF JOHN R. BOLIG

The Victor Talking Machine Company had its roots in Eldridge R. Johnson’s machine shop, housed in a small building at the rear of 108 North Front Street in Camden, New Jersey. There, in 1896, Johnson began manufacturing Berliner Gramophones. On March 11, 1898, Johnson’s shop foreman, Albert W. Atkinson, hired Harry O. Sooy to work as a machinist. Quickly gaining Johnson’s respect, Sooy eventually became the Victor Talking Machine’s chief recording engineer. Sooy’s two brothers would later be employed by Victor as well.

The following chronology, based on Harry Sooy’s memoirs (Sarnoff Library, Princeton, NJ), traces the growth of the Victor facilities in Camden, from a modest machine shop to a sprawling industrial complex that eventually came to cover 51 acres.


1899 — Eldridge Johnson begins construction of a four-story factory in Camden, in response to increasing demand for Gramophones.

February 1, 1900 — Machinery is moved into the new Camden building on or around this date. Johnson’s experimental recording laboratory, formerly housed in the Collings Carriage Factory building, occupies the fourth floor of the new building.

October 3, 1900 — With the Berliner Gramophone Co. in receivership, Johnson forms the Victor Talking Machine Co., hires several key Berliner employees, and gears up to produce Gramophones and records under his own name.

September 1901 — The recording studio is moved from Camden to Philadelphia, occupying the former Berliner offices at 420 S. Tenth Street, on the corner of 10th and Lombard. The studio is on the second floor, and the matrix-plating plant in the basement. Having not yet established its own pressing plant, pressing is contracted to the Duranoid Company of Newark, New Jersey.

April 24, 1904 — A fire causes severe damage to the Camden machine shop.

October 8, 1904 — Victor opens a new studio in New York, after its temporary Carnegie Hall Annex studio proves unsatisfactory, at 234 Fifth Avenue. During this period, the New York studio is used primarily for the convenience of Red Seal artists, with the bulk of Victor’s recording being carried out in the Philadelphia studio. Permanent recording equipment will not be installed in the New York studio until 1909.

Early 1905 — Victor opens its own pressing plant at 23 Market Street in Camden. The plant is damaged by fire on June 30.

November 1907 — Victor’s Philadelphia studio is closed, and Victor’s main studio returns to Camden, where it is housed in the building at the southwest corner of Front and Cooper Streets. The studio is equipped with Type “D” [Dennison] recording machines.

December 11, 1907 — Emilio de Gogorza fills the first Camden Red Seal session. “From this time on,” Sooy recalls, “recording dates of a Red Seal nature were alternated between the Camden and New York laboratories to suit the convenience of the artists.”

January 1, 1909 — Harry O. Sooy is named Chief of the Recording Staff. At about the same time, it is decided to close the studio of Victor’s Zon-o-phone subsidiary and transfer Zon-o-phone recording sessions to the Victor studio.

June 1–2, 1909 — The New York studio is moved from 234 Fifth Avenue to 37-39 E. 28th St.

March 13, 1911 — After three stories are added to the building at Front and Cooper Streets in Camden (later known as Building No. 15), the recording studios are moved from the fourth to the seventh floor. Reed Miller and Reinald Werrenrath fill the first date in the new studio. The first Red Seal session in the new studio is filled by Luisa Tetrazzini on March 15.

February 1916 — A new Executive Building opens in Camden at Front and Cooper streets. To make room for the new structure, several dwellings are razed, including one that houses the popular Victor Lunch Club. The company replaces it with a new Victor Lunch Club on Front above Cooper, adjacent to the Executive Building. The two-story club has separate dining rooms for company directors, managers, and guests.

January 19, 1917 — The New York studio is moved from 22 West 37th Street to 46 West 38th Street (12th floor). The first date in the new studio is a duet session by Reed Miller and Frederick J. Wheeler. Increasingly, the New York studio is used for popular as well as classical performers, although Camden remains Victor’s main studio.

July 23, 1917 — After attempts to record a large symphony orchestra in the regular studio prove unsatisfactory, the 8th floor auditorium of the Executive Building in Camden is converted to a temporary studio. On October 2, the 100-member Boston Symphony Orchestra under Karl Muck makes its first recordings in the auditorium studio, followed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski on October 22.

February 1918 — Victor purchases the Trinity Church at 114 North Fifth Street, Camden, which it converts to a studio for large orchestral sessions. Recording commences there on February 27, 1918.

September 1918 — With the Camden plant largely converted to the production of aircraft parts, Victor managers and employees are reassigned to carry out “war work,” resulting in decreased production of records and machines. Normal operations slowly resume in Camden after the armistice is signed on November 11, 1918. The last of the government contract work is completed in the Camden plant on March 7, 1919.

January 6, 1921 — The New York studio is moved from 46 West 38th Street to the 22nd floor of the National Association Building at 28 West 44th Street. The first date in the new studio is filled by the All Star Trio. “After getting started with our work in these new quarters,” Sooy recalls, “we experienced considerable annoyance because other tenants of the building practically declared us a nuisance owing to the noise we make while records are being made.”

September 16, 1920 — Enrico Caruso makes his last recordings, in Camden.

January 1923 — It is decided that in the future, the entire Camden plant will close for a two-week paid vacation each summer. However, holiday pay is eliminated.

April 10, 1923 — Harry Sooy and Eldridge Johnson inspect a potential building site for a new studio adjacent to the Harleigh Cemetery, in response to Sooy’s complaints over “the terrible noisy location of our Camden Laboratory ... many records being thrown away on account of street noises, whistles, etc., being recorded.” Johnson disapproves of the move. In November 1923 the company makes a small concession when it discontinues the practice of blowing whistles to signal the start and stop of work in the Camden factory.

December 3, 1923 — The Engineering Department begins drafting plans for two additional studios on the 5th floor of Building #15.

December 8, 1924 — An additional large studio is opened in Building #15 in Camden. The first session is filled by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski.

January 3, 1925 — The Western Electric Company delivers electrically recorded sample records to Camden. Harry Sooy cancels a West Coast trip in anticipation of converting the Camden studio to electrical recording, initially on an experimental basis.

January 26, 1925 — Joseph Maxfield of Bell Laboratories visits Camden to begin the preliminary work of wiring a studio for electrical recording.

January 28, 1925 — Wiring of Studio #2 (7th floor) and Studio #3 (5th floor begins). The work is completed on February 2.

February 3, 1925 — Western Electric equipment arrives at Building #15. Maxfield pronounces the installation satisfactory on the following day. The next week is spent making adjustments to the studios, including the hanging of monks-cloth drapes for damping purposes.

February 9, 1925 — Experimental sessions with the Western Electric equipment begin in Camden. Conversion of the New York studios will not begin until June.


After recounting the difficulties of electrical conversion, Sooy’s Victor memoirs end at 1926. An article in the November 1929 edition of Talking Machine & Radio Music Merchant, excerpted below, takes up the thread, portraying the Victor complex (which by then was owned by the Radio Corporation of America) as a “city within a city”:

“A complete municipality in itself, the mammoth plant of the Victor Talking Machine Division of the RCA at Camden, N.J., is one of the most interesting examples of a ‘city within a city’ anywhere in the world.

“Its thirty-eight buildings contain 2,534,000 feet of floor space, cover fifty-one acres, and are occupied exclusively with the production of the new micro-synchronous Victor Radio, Victor Radio with Electrola, and the making of the famous Orthophonic Victor records... 
       

Victor Building #17, Camden, New Jersey

Building #17 in the autumn of 1997. After RCA abandoned the Camden site in 1987, many
buildings were demolished or fell into disrepair. The remaining structures were taken over
by the Camden Redevelopment Agency in 1993. (Author's photograph)
   

“Although all of the buildings in ‘Victor City’ are of fireproof brick and steel or concrete construction, it has a fire alarm system more extensive and complete than that in the average city having a population in excess of 100,000. A fully manned fire department with motor equipment is on city day and night. There is also the ‘Victor Watch’ or police force of more than 100 men operating in three platoons. A complete water plant, including distillation equipment, furnishes 17,000,000 gallons of water per day. The ‘city’ also maintains its own power, heating, and lighting plant...

“Through the Victor city pass the electric locomotives of an inter-plant standard-gauge railroad, and all of the Victor buildings are equipped with modern conveyor systems. An intra-plant trucking service includes thirty-one motor vehicles and thirty-eight motor trailers.

“Corresponding to the ‘city hall’ of other municipalities, the Victor administrative offices are housed in an eight-story office building of impressive architecture. The interior decoration scheme is early American... Adjoining the structure is a modern clubhouse with a completely equipped restaurant, while cafeteria service is maintained throughout the factories.

“The Victor Medical Dispensary and Emergency Hospital with ambulance service and a fully equipped staff is a model of medical and surgical facilities. In case of illness or death, benefits are provided by an association...

“In the city’s main lumber yard, which covers an area of sixteen acres, there is stored what is probably the most valuable stock of selected hardwood lumber ever gathered. In fact, it is conceded that Victor is the largest user of high-grade African mahogany... Normally this yard contains lumber valued in excess of $5,000,000.

“Passing through this model city, the visitor comes to a complete printing and book-binding plant which is housed in a seven-story building. Adjoining this is a photograph gallery which has made portraits of practically every one of the world's greatest artists. Engineering, copyrighting, and musical education departments, and a great library and organization for musical research, contribute to the picture...”
   



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