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Memoir of my Career at Victor Talking Machine Company

by Harry O. Sooy

Main Text


During the early part of 1898, machine work, which I was at that time following for a living, suffered an acute slump. On February 23d of this year, after having been employed by the Atlantic Tool Works of Philadelphia, I was laid off owing to shortage of work at that establishment, and was obliged to seek employment elsewhere. With my desire to remain in the same line of work, I roamed Philadelphia from shop to shop in search of a job with no satisfaction and little hope in sight of securing one; I came to the conclusion that machinists were in little demand.

I then heard of Eldridge R. Johnson’s Machine Shop in Camden, N.J., manufacturing Berliner Gramophones and doing general machine work. On March 7, 1898, I journeyed to Camden, N.J., in search of Eldridge R. Johnson’s Machine shop, seeking employment.  Not being acquainted with the city of Camden, I was obliged to make inquiries as to just where the “Johnson Shop” was located, but as I did not have the street or number of the shop’s location, neither citizens nor policemen were able to direct me correctly, or give me any information as to its whereabouts. After tramping the streets of Camden the greater part of the day I was obliged to return to my domicile, or boarding house, in Philadelphia very much discouraged, but determined to find Eldridge R. Johnson’s machine shop where they made gramophones.

A few days later I met an old associate and co-worker in the machine business who, I felt pretty sure, knew some of the employees at the Johnson shop, so I asked him if he could tell me where the Eldridge Johnson Machine Shop was located in Camden, N.J. (p. 1) He said “Not exactly, but I think somewhere on Front Street, probably two or three blocks north.” That was enough for me; I knew I had to get something to do or give up my domicile, and, perhaps, live on snowballs the remainder of that spring. So, on March 11th, which, incidentally, was my birthday, I told my boarding mistress I was going to get a job before I returned, and. back to Camden I started.  I had the price for ferry in my jeans and reached Front and Federal streets, Camden, N.J—it was then I found there was no south Front street in the city—so I started north, reading every sign in sight on both sides of the street. The first block was covered and no sign of “Johnson’s Shop.” I started on the second block still going north on Front street, I had not gone far beyond Market street when I saw a sign which read “Eldridge R. Johnson’s Machine Shop, 108 North Front Street.”  The sign was surely large enough to be seen all right, but on arriving at this number I found it was a carriage factory, and upon making inquiry as to where the shop was located, I learned it was a little building in the rear of this carriage factory; then, I wasn’t very much surprised I didn’t find it on my first trip.

I had learned from an old associate that the foreman’s name was Albert W. Atkinson, and that he used to work in the Machine Shop at Smithville, N. J., where I served my time, so as I passed thru the driveway of the carriage factory leading to “Eldridge R. Johnson’s “Machine Shop, I wondered how I should approach this man, Atkinson, for a job, and, before I reached the little three-by-four office, I decided to try to make him believe I was acquainted with and worked with him while employed at Smithville. Atkinson did not absorb the story very readily, but told me he was in need of a man, especially a lathe hand, and that he thought he could put me to work in a day or so if I would leave my name and address. It was then my hopes (p. 2) of a job began to fade, and I felt this was an easy way Atkinson had of letting me out, and told him that I had had the same thing handed to me many times day after day, but Atkinson insisted he was sincere, and thought he could place me. Of course, I left my name and address, but went away very much disheartened.
When I returned to my boarding house that evening, the landlady handed me a telegram which read “Report for work to-morrow morning E. R. Johnson Machine Works,” signed “Atkinson.” It was then, I assure you, I began to feel more cheerful, and to think that my trip to Camden had not been in vain, and that, if I made good, my meal ticket would, of course, be extended.

Then came the anxiety for the morning, and I started to get my tools together, figuring how much time I should allow myself to get to Camden, or Eldridge R. Johnson’s Machine Shop, by seven o’clock the next morning. Why, I was so anxious I could hardly get my night’s rest! When morning came I was there bright and early to report; Mr. Atkinson was also one of the early ones at the shop, as I found later on he did not let any of the employees put it over on him as to the time they reported for work. I think I numbered about the eighteenth employee of the Eldridge R. Johnson Machine Shop. And, after sizing up the place for a couple of days, I could not see how it could possibly exist very long. The shop was in a little one story building about 25’ x 70’ in which were the Machine Shop and Boiler and Engine Room.

Well, I started my work under Atkinson and was being shifted about on various kinds of work—sort of an all-’round man—I guess Atkinson was trying me out, as I understood, before sending me the telegram to report for work, he made some inquiries as to my character, ability, etc., of some of his employees who knew me. After my first week (p. 3), the custom being to pay off weekly, I found I was to receive the sum of twelve dollars ($12.00) a week, which looked pretty darn big to me after being out of work for sometime. After a period of about two and one half months I found my wages had been increased to fourteen dollars ($14.00) a week, then, I began to feel that my services were surely appreciated.

In the fall of 1898 Mr. Atkinson sent for me and said he would like me to take a piece work job on the lathe turning tubes—tubes were a center bearing holding the driving gear and turntable in the Gramophone machine—I inquired what was the matter with the man who was doing that job, and he informed me that the man was going to quit on account of a reduction, or cut, in the piece work price, which he, Atkinson, was going to make for the job. I told him I could not take the job at a reduction, and he said I could make good money even at a reduction, to which I replied “Nothing doing,” so he said “Well, go on the work at the standard rate for a while and see how you make out.” This I did. The standard rate was three cents a piece for finishing these tubes, and I made from six to ten dollars a week above my wages. Later on, however, there was a cut made on this piece work job to 2 cents a tube finished, or a reduction of cent a tube, but when this cut came I was pretty well acquainted with this line of work and still managed to make my six to ten dollars a week above my wages.

The Christmas orders this year necessitated establishing a night force; Mr. Atkinson found it quite difficult to get just the type of men he wanted to work nights, and it seemed quite impossible to persuade the men doing day work to shift over on night work just for this Christmas rush, so Mr. Atkinson suggested some of the day men split up one week at day work and one week at night work. This night work meant starting at six p.m. and continuing to six a.m. for five consecutive nights, making a sixty-hour week. Theodore Clausen, an employee at the machine shop, changed off (p. 4) with me on the lathe turning tubes (piece work). There were, I believe, about fifteen men employed in the night gang, of which Mr. C. K. Haddon was the foreman to see that the work was carried on to help meet the requirements of the Christmas rush.

In December of this year (1898) I was to be married, and, of course, the usual Christmas rush coming on, and big orders in from the Berliner Gramophone Co. for their machines, I notified Mr. Atkinson of my desire to get off all of Christmas week, starting the Saturday previous. He informed me I could not go until I had the order done I was working on, which called for 8,000 tubes, but if that was completed I could go. Atkinson was not aware I always kept a fair supply of finished tubes on hand in case I might run into a streak of hard luck, as we called it, which usually meant bad material, bad stock, etc., then, if I did not make my allowance over wages, I would use the finished surplus to make up the deficiency. In fact, I used to have quite an extra supply of these finished tubes hidden about the shop in various places for just such purposes. So I, having a pretty good finished supply of surplus tubes on hand, was able to finish the 8,000 tubes on order on Wednesday prior to the Saturday I had asked to go off. On notifying Mr. Atkinson that the order was finished, and that I was going, he replied “All finished?” to which I answered “Yes, sir, and I am going off to-day.” He was not very well pleased as he thought I was putting one over on him, but that didn’t slacken my speed getting cleaned up a bit and bidding my fellow workmen good-bye until after the holidays.

On my return to Camden after the holidays I brought with me the dearest woman I was able to find in the world, and, of course, upon my arrival at the shop congratulations were in order, likewise, cigars and some stimulants on the side after working hours. Mrs.     Sooy and I boarded at 308 Market Street, Camden, N.J., until March, 1899, when we started housekeeping at 320 Friends Ave., Camden. This dwelling being but a short distance from the factory permitted me to go home for midday lunch, as the employees were allowed one-half hour to swallow a square meal before returning for duty in the afternoon. (p. 5)

Everything seemed to be flourishing in Johnson at this time, and, I am quite sure, it was late this year that Mr. Royal, an old and confidential employee of the shop having every detail of the business at his finger ends, was appointed by Mr. Johnson to go to Europe and establish the Johnson processes and methods of work for the European trade. (p. 6)

It was in 1899 Mr. Johnson started the building of his new factory, a very substantial four-story building of brick. It was decided by Mr. Johnson to use the fourth floor for a Recording Laboratory and Experimental Machine Shop where he could have his mechanical ideas worked out under his own supervision.

I, personally, had been doing considerable work of an experimental nature for the old Recording Laboratory which was originally located in the Collings Carriage Factory Building. It seems I had been selected to do Mr. Johnson’s experimental machine work in the new laboratory when the new building was completed. Mr. Atkinson objected to my transfer, but to no avail, so I was told to report to Mr. Johnson after the shop was moved into his new building, which made very happy.

When the time came for moving from the old to the new factory building, which was during the winter, I, having in mind my new position when the moving was over and the machinery erected, thought it would be a good time for me to get a vacation while the operation of moving was going on. I asked Mr. Atkinson if it wouldn’t be a good time for me to take a vacation while moving, as I didn’t want to be in the way. He informed me it would not, as he had me selected as one to help erect the machinery in the new building. However, I was not disappointed as I felt Atkinson would hold me to the last minute before my transfer to the new job. This work of moving and erecting machinery was completed on, or about, February 1st, 1900. (p. 7)


On February 17th, 1900, I reported to Mr. Johnson to take up my new job; he told me my pay at the start would be the same as I was then receiving, ($14.00), after three months it would be increased to $16.00, and at the end of six months it would be $18.00. Mr. Johnson further told me to purchase and prepare the necessary tools to carry on the experimental work he had in mind to start with. His request was complied with, but while we were waiting for the tools which were on order, it was necessary for me to get permission to use tools in the factory essential to carry on Mr. Johnson’s work, which was the building of the first little “C” machine, that would continue running, or playing a record, while being wound. The work on this machine went along without much difficulty as Mr. Johnson’s plans, or sketches, were made up as to the model he wanted built.

The model “C” machine was built and demonstrated during March 1900, which pleased Mr. Johnson very much, and, on a visit of Mr. Barry Owens to Camden one warm spring day, Mr. Owens, clothed in a beautiful white flannel suit, was brought to the Laboratory by Mr. Johnson for a demonstration of the aforementioned “C” reproducing machine, which, of course, was cheerfully given in the Experimental Machine Shop. Mr. Owens became so highly interested in the performance he unconsciously sat down in a pan of black grease, which did not add any to the beauty of his dress.

On March 8, 1900, while I was very busily engaged with Mr. Johnson on some mechanical work, a messenger called at the plant requesting me to report home at once. After notifying Mr. Johnson, I started for home, and upon my arrival was presented with a son.

During these days of my experimental machine shop work, there was on the same floor the Recording Laboratory, where records were being made from various artists, which listened [sounded] very good to me. I had been longing for a chance to do some of the recording, or to get in that department, with little hope of realization, but, strange to say, Mr. Johnson asked me one (p. 8) day how I would like to learn recording work. That surely made some hit with me and I wasn’t long telling him that it was my greatest ambition. Surely enough, the last part of March 1900, Mr. Johnson had me start in the recording end of the business under the direction of Mr. Bentley Reinhart and Mr. W. H. Nafey, who were doing the recording at that time.

After I had gotten started in the recording work, Mr. Johnson deemed it necessary to have a man to carry on his personal experimental machine work, he, therefore, transferred Edward Pancoast from the Machine Shop, I think in either April or May, 1900, to take up the personal experimental duties that I had left off owing to my transfer to the Recording Staff.

Pancoast remained in this position only a short time when he left the employ of Mr. Johnson and went to Europe, I believe with a Mr. Prescott.  Gletzner also quit Mr. Johnson at the same time as Pancoast, and went to Europe with Prescott and Pancoast.

Mr. Royal, although located in England, would make frequent trips back to the U.S., and, naturally, would spend a lot of time around the Recording Laboratory and Experimental Machine Shop, which were the departments he was interested in, being in the line of his duties in Europe. (p. 9)

They were always a little skeptical of Mr. Royal around the plant on his return visits to the U.S., because we had heard he usually brought a large trunk with him to be filled before starting back to England. And, by gosh, we realized this to be true later on, as Mr. Royal, on one of his early trips, had a big trunk delivered to the Laboratory—just why this trunk was delivered to this department we did not know, although Mr. Royal would make daily visits to the Laboratory. Sometime later we began to miss some of the working parts of the department, and upon investigation, we had the courage to open his trunk, we found the parts all nicely packed ready to start for England, comprising especially of mechanical parts for making records. Mr. Royal was, of course, most particular to get the parts which he knew to be working good, and, he didn’t hesitate to slip in a good recording box that he knew to be working well.

After we located this paraphernalia in Mr. Royal’s trunk, it was then we (Reinhart, Nafey and I) abused his thought by unloading his entire trunk, which he had so nicely packed, and filled it with all the old scrap iron we could find in the department. Well, just before Mr. Royal’s departure, he opened his trunk to see if all of his collection was there, and to his surprise he found the trunk had been emptied of his choice mechanical parts, and that it contained only scrap iron. But, as we always found Mr. Royal good natured, he thought it a huge joke, and, after he had explained the many difficulties he was working under in Europe, we, of course, fell for the line of talk, and returned all the parts we had taken from him, wishing him the best of luck.

During my apprenticeship at recording Mr. Johnson told me that when I had learned the business in all probability I would be transferred, (p. 10) with the process, to the Berliner Gramophone Co., as he was contemplating selling it to them at some future time. We made Band, Banjo, Recitation and Vocal records, etc., supposedly for the Berliner Gramophone Co., each record having the following announcement recorded in it—“Berliner Gramophone Record.” Mr. Child, who was at that time employed by the Berliner Gramophone Co., furnished the talent and was chief announcer.

The recording of the Berliner records did not keep us busy at that time so we devoted what spare time we had to experimental work. We would frequently use Mr. E. R. Johnson, himself, as the artist, either playing his violin, or vocally. The old vocal favorite he used to sing for us was entitled “I Guess I’ll Have to Telegraph My Baby,” and we had him sing it so often he really became pretty good on this particular number. Mr. Johnson would at times criticize records; his comment usually was “That came near being a good record.”

On, or about, March 28, 1900, Mr. E. K. MacEwan joined the Laboratory Staff as a utility man, and he filled the position well. He vocalized at that time very well, and, of course, fitted right into our line of experimental work, as we thought it was about time to ease off on Mr. Johnson as a vocal artist. So, we worked Mr. MacEwan regularly on vocal experiments. One day, after we had been working MacEwan quite hard vocally, to our great surprise, he played us a “Bobnet” solo; Mr. Charles Haddon, not being familiar with the instrument, came running up the front stairway from his office to get a slant at the new talent, or new instrument, and, much to his astonishment, he found MacEwan nearly exhausted performing on his new instrument, the “Bobnet.”

The new instrument, the “Bobnet,” as named by Mr. MacEwan, was a part of an old tin recording horn he was trying to sing thru—I guess it was used to ease off on his vocal cords. (p. 11)

The recording machine used for our records was an Ellison machine, converted to make disc records. The arm to which the horns were connected traveled across the record, and away from the artist, and we found the records got weak at the center. This machine, which was electrically driven, regulated very badly.

We then got to work and built a recording machine of Mr. Johnson’s type, called the “Barn Door Roller Machine,” with stationary horn connections. It was built large enough to use for making ten inch records. This machine was also electrically driven, and regulated very unsatisfactorily; however, this “Barn Door Roller Recording Machine” was put in operation the last of this year. (p. 12)

Well, then came the hustle of getting as quickly as possible a variety of records, or master matrices, together with a commercial value, to establish a record catalog of E. R. Johnson’s records, which proved to be quite a problem, as most all of our previous records that we had been recording (except those marked “Experimental”) whether vocal or instrumental, contained the announcement recorded in the record “Berliner Gramophone Company,” which, of course, we could not use. So, the only way we were to produce a record catalog for Mr. Johnson was to use many matrices which were made as experimental records, and had the word “Experimental” engraved in their face. We also knew we could not let pressings go out to the public with the word “Experimental” engraved in their face, so I, being the apprentice in the department, was elected to erase the word “Experimental” from the copper matrices. After some long days, running well up into the evening, I had a goodly supply of Experimental Matrices ready to make pressings from for the Eldridge R. Johnson catalog. These Experimental Matrices, together with the list of selections being recorded daily up to the time of the first announcement of Johnson Records, made up the small variety of selections for the first E. R. Johnson Record Catalog.

And, it was, I think, during this year (1900) that Mr. C. O. Child, who was previously employed by the Berliner Gramophone Co., was secured by Mr. Johnson as manager of the Recording Laboratory, whose duties were to secure talent, choose selections to be recorded by same, test records and do catalog work, etc.

All records made for the catalog up to and including this year (1900) were of seven inch size only.

After the records were recorded, and sample records pressed from the matrice, they were played, or tested, as we call it, to determine whether they were or were not suitable musically and mechanically for the catalog. If accepted they were filed away until listed, then the matrix was forwarded to the Duranoid Mfg. Co., Newark, N.J., who made our pressings for the market. (p. 13)

There was also another man who had been employed by the Berliner Gramophone Co., prior to the time they were enjoined, that Mr. Johnson employed for Matrix work, and, I think, reported for duty the last of August, 1900, he being Raymond Gletzner.

During our experimental work, I recall one day we made a special record, not of an educational nature, the vocal talent used for this selection being Bill Nafey and H. O. Sooy; strange to say but it usually happens when a record is of an indecent character, all words and syllables came out well, and the record was played for Mr. Johnson. We all expected to be censored, but Mr. Johnson’s only remark was “Boys, you better not make records of that character, you are liable to get me into a lot of trouble.”

In October 1900, I became what we thought in those days a full-fledged recorder, and the work seemed to be progressing satisfactorily, but during this year the Berliner Gramophone Co. went into the receivers’ hands. One day shortly after, Mr. Johnson sent for Mr. Reinhart, Mr. Nafey and me to come to his office, which was not elaborate by any means, but comfortable and private. On arriving at Mr. Johnson’s office he informed us that the Berliner Gramophone Co. had gone into receivers’ hands, and further said now that he had control of a new method of recording sound, or record making, (he also had a new model machine, the “C” type) he was going to manufacture and market both machines and records, and he would like to have us boys stick with him, although, he said “You may have some flattering offers from competing firms, but I, frankly, cannot do any better for you at the present time, as the movement I am contemplating will necessitate some very heavy expenditures.” Neither could he say just what the outcome would be, but he did add “If you stick with me and we make a success of the venture, you will not regret it.” There was but one answer, of
course, to our good boss, Mr. Johnson—“We’ll stick.” (p. 14)  

MacEwan sang one selection for a long time, for our experimental work, entitled “Sorrows of Death” from “Hymns of Praise”.  We accepted this selection for quite a while, but we all grew tired of hearing this one particular number so often.  And, another thing, we knew that “Mac” could do justice with other selections, and thought we were entitled to a change, so we asked him to sing another test, but warned him not to render the old selection “Sorrows of Death”, although, we felt sure he would attempt to do so.  So confident were we that he would try to put over the same old selection, we connected a hose to the spigot, having same ready at a little lattice window, then, we signaled “Mac” to start.  Sure enough, he was going to sing the selection which we had advised him not to, and we turned the hose on him, giving Mr. MacEwan a very satisfactory soaking with water.

On May 4, 1900, George Graham came to the Laboratory to fill an engagement to make some speeches, and upon his arrival he was very much under the influence of liquor, in fact so much so he was unable to stand in front of the recording horn without assistance.  Therefore, I made an iron yoke to fit his forehead, this yoke I drove into the partition, so it extended to just where I wanted Graham in front of the horn, then I led him up to the horn and let him rest his head in the yoke so he could not wobble all about.  After all this preparation we proceeded with the engagement.

George could talk just as well when he was drunk, and perhaps a little better than when sober.

Mr. James W. Owen, who had been employed by the Berliner Gramophone Co. prior to the time they were enjoined, was employed by Mr. Johnson to fill the Matrix Plant position, and reported for duty in either July or August 1900. (p. 15) 

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