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Victor, Columbia and Brunswick Pressings in the '20s

If you are a collector with sharp eyes, you may have wondered why the labels on some copies of a record from the late 1920s don't look quite the same as other copies, yet they have exactly the same catalog number and both were pressed and issued by the same U.S. company. Perhaps its because they come from pressing plants on opposite sides of the continent. By the mid-1920s, Victor, Columbia, and Brunswick had all established pressing facilities on the West Coast. This allowed them to manufacture and distribute their products to the western states much more cheaply. The population west of the Rockies was growing rapidly, particularly in California, and it made good economic sense to save on transcontinental shipping costs.

Victor's Oakland pressing plant was opened around 1923, and facilities were further expanded in 1927. For a short time, the Oakland pressings used a different typeface from their Camden equivalents. Some Victor executive concerned about the corporate image obviously thought better of this, however, and by 1924 or 1925, the Oakland labels were virtually identical to the Camden labels. Song and title credits are exactly the same, even down to typographical errors! Only one small, but important, feature allows the observant collector to tell them apart: Oakland Victor's have a small "O" printed at the top of the label, just above the Nipper trademark. As the label design changed, the position of the "O" moved slightly, but apart from these minor modifications, Victor continued this practice into the early 1930s. Does anyone know if there are Oakland Bluebirds with the same identifying mark?

Columbia's Hollywood facility seems to have opened around 1926 or 1927, and pressed not only the Columbia label but also Okeh, Harmony, Velvet Tone, and the rare Odeon ONY- and Parlophone PNY- series. Most Columbia West Coast pressings can be distinguished by the typeface on the label. While by 1927 most Bridgeport pressings used a simple sans-serif type for the song credit, the West Coast pressings continued to use a larger, Roman-style type for both song and title credits.

It appears that not all West Coast Columbias used locally printed labels, however. Occasionally one turns up bearing an identical label to its East Coast equivalent. Nevertheless, these can still be identified by the letter "G" stamped in the wax after the take number in the 12 o'clock position, By 1928 or 1929, the "G" was no longer in use, and most West Coast Columbia pressings appear instead with a "C". Harmony, Velvet Tone and Okeh follow the same pattern. The elusive Odeon ONY- and Parlophone PNY- series appears to have been pressed exclusively at the West Coast plant, however, since there are no equivalent Bridgeport pressings, perhaps contributing to their scarcity today. The distinctive typeface on all of these labels continued until 1931, when Columbia was acquired by Grigsby-Grunow.

Brunswick is perhaps the most interesting case, since it appears they operated three pressing plants by the late '20s, two in the eastern part of the country (Michigan and New York) and one on the West Coast. Brunswick's Los Angeles facility was in operation by 1926 or earlier, since distinctive characteristics start to appear on Brunswick and Vocalion pressings sold in that part of the country. There are no special marks on the label or in the wax but the differences are easy to detect. For example, only West Coast Brunswick and Vocalion appear to have used the designation "Light Ray Electrical Recording" on their label during 1926-27 (a characteristic shared with Canadian Brunswick). In addition, the typeface on the labels is consistently different not markedly so at first, but enough to catch the eye of a collector used to seeing East Coast pressings. By 1928-29, the differences are more noticeable.

About the same time, two distinct varieties of East Coast labels begin to emerge - enough to confuse even the most die-hard label researcher.

There are other characteristics of West Coast Brunswick and Vocalion pressings, however. For example, the type style of the catalog number in the wax is quite distinctive - a neat "typewriter" style which is raised, rather than indented, and appears close to the label. In addition, the Vocalions lack the small triangle before the catalog number in the wax, which appears on their East Coast equivalents.

It is also very rare for West Coast pressings to show any part of the matrix number in the wax, while East Coast pressings often do, at least in the 1925-28 period, when the last two or three digits frequently appeared. However, West Coast pressings of items recorded in Brunswick's Los Angeles studios during 1929-30 sometimes show the matrix number as well as the take, in mirror image to the left of the label. Whether Brunswick pressed Melotone at its Los Angeles plant after the label was introduced in 1930 is not known, but the scarcity of the label in the western states suggests that they did not.

Very often, changes that were made in label design or set-up in the East Coast plants took a little longer to be instituted by the West Coast plants, which usually printed their own labels.

Victor, Columbia, and Brunswick led the way in decentralizing their pressing facilities in the 1920s to serve the domestic American market. By the early 1930s, many changes began to occur in the recording industry, including bankruptcies and changes in ownership. The competition began to regroup. In 1930, the American Record Corporation (which would later absorb both Brunswick and Columbia) began West Coast pressings of its Perfect and Romeo labels. As the decade passed and the industry recovered from the depression, other companies emerged and started to establish facilities in various regions of the country, but that's another story.