August 17, 1993

The Almost Complete 78 RPM Record Dating Guide (II).  By Steven C. Barr.  Published and distributed by Yesterday Once Again, P.O. Box 6773, Huntington Beach, CA 92615. Ph: (714) 963‑2474.  Cop. 1992.  $14.95.

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

One of the handiest books on the 78 rpm researcher’s shelf, Steven Barr’s Almost Complete 78 RPM Record Dating Guide, has recently been reissued in a much expanded and improved new edition.  The original came out in 1979, with a second edition in 1980; copies are by now likely to be dog‑eared from years of use.  The 1980 edition’s 51 pages have grown to 177, with a much improved spiral‑bound format for easy use (lays open flat).

The Guide opens with ten pages of introductory text, and a six‑page thumbnail history of the recording industry in the U.S., Canada and Britain.  The next 140 pages comprise the heart of the book, containing dating charts and explanatory text for hundreds of labels issued in these three countries between 1900 and 1942.  At the back are a variety of appendices, including an 18‑page guide to label designs (all text, no illustrations), comments on early electrical recordings, labels which leased matrices to other labels, discographical resources and an annotated bibliography.  Although this new edition is better organized than its predecessors, it still suffers from “scattered‑information‑syndrome.”  For example, in the case of Columbia a helpful two‑page history of the label is found on pp. 12‑13, dating charts on pp. 25‑31, descriptions of label types on p.150, an explanation of the “W” (electrical) symbol on p.166, and a listing of matrix series appearing on other labels on pp. 170‑171.  Additionally, labels are not presented in alphabetical order but rather in one of eight sections organized by era, “major” vs. “minor” labels, etc.  Perhaps the author would consider for a future edition rearranging his listings into one big alphabetical list, A‑Z, with all information on each label grouped together in one place.  As it is, he at least gives us a prominent, detailed index which indicates where to look for all the pieces.  The reader will use it constantly.

The scope of coverage of this new Guide is awe‑inspiring.  It includes all principal catalog series (with release dates) and matrix series (with recording dates) for hundreds of labels issued in the three countries mentioned.  These include popular, classical, country, folk and race music series; in fact the only series generally excluded generally are those for export, foreign‑language material and minor or limited‑run series.  In the case of Victor, for example, the Guide contains charts for approximately 19 popular and 17 Red Seal catalog series.

The book’s ostensible cut‑off year is 1942.  The author says he does not want to get involved with the thousands of post‑war labels, although he does chart a small selection of those he considers important.  Additionally, the Guide follows major numerical series of its listed labels beyond 1942.  For example, Victor’s principal pop catalog series of the 1940s, the 20‑1500’s, is followed to 1959, a helpful feature.  For detailed coverage of the post war period the author refers us to William Daniels’ fine book The American 45 and 78 RPM Record Dating Guide (Greenwood, 1985), to which we would add Galen Gart’s valuable ARLD: The American Record Label Directory and Dating Guide, 1940‑1959 (Big Nickel Publications, 1989).

In most cases the charts give the number reached by January and June of each year, so that release and recording dates can be approximated to the nearest half‑year.  Of course most labels did not issue or record in strict numerical sequence, as the author explains, so the dates are only approximate.  However you should rarely be off by more than a few months.  The choice of “June” is a bit peculiar.  If these are supposed to represent the first of each month, wouldn’t the half‑way point in the year be July 1st?

This brings up a technical shortcoming of the book which may be apparent only to serious researchers in the field‑‑some of whom, no doubt, will be reading this review.  The author never explains exactly what he means by his dates, or even by the term “released.”  Do “January” and “June” mean the first of the month?  Or is it January 1st and June 30th?  For labels with heavy release schedules, this can make a considerable numerical difference.  Does release mean “announced” or “placed on sale”?  The difference is not always minor, as labels sometimes gathered together past releases into supplements which were then dated with deceptive precision.  Columbia in the teens included in its supplements an explicit statement that the records listed therein would be placed on sale on the 24th or 25th of the preceding month; the Victor files reveal that records listed in a given supplement were sometimes released for sale one to several months previously, in some cases regionally or as “specials.”  While this sort of detail may not be of consequence to the casual user, greater precision as to terms would be helpful to the advanced researcher (and for those who wish to become one!).

The author is disarmingly candid about the limitations of his work (note the book’s title), and points out on p.ii that the charts provide approximate dates only.  Hopefully users will keep that admonition in mind when using this data in their own published works.

Finally, the big question: how accurate is the Guide?  Readers of my previous reviews will know that I seldom go easy on reference books on the matter of accuracy.  Data from such sources will be incorporated into future works by others, and the danger of propagating misinformation is considerable.  Compilers of technical reference books bear a special responsibility to get it right.  Based on a sampling of the charts presented in the Guide, its accuracy would appear to range‑‑in record grading terminology‑‑from “VG” to “E+”.

To address the question of accuracy I compared the Guide’s release date charts to primary sources such as original supplements, dated listings in company publications and trade journals, and information from company files.  I looked at January of each year for sample ten year spans of the principal popular series of Columbia and Victor.  The results for Columbia were as follows:

            Columbia 10″ Discs–Popular Series

                                                Guide              Primary Sources

            Jan 1905                     3075                1911?

            Jan 1906                     3293                3293

            Jan 1907                     3525                3527

            Jan 1908                     3900                3739

            Jan 1909                     A250               A601

            Jan 1910                     A800               A777

            Jan 1911                     A960               A944?

            Jan 1912                     A1100             A1092

            Jan 1913                     A1275             A1241

            Jan 1914                     A1450             A1445

Pretty good, in most instances.  It should be noted that the 2000’s were skipped, so 1905 is off by 164, not 1164.  From 1905‑1909 the “primary” column reflects supplement dates (which is what the Guide seems to have used); beginning in 1910 Columbia supplements explicitly stated that records would be placed on sale at the end of the preceding month, so “primary” reflects the placed‑on‑sale date.  The major discrepancies are for 1905, 1908 and especially 1909.  Columbia commenced regular issue of double‑sided discs in September, 1908, with the release of a single catalog containing A1 through A589.  New issues starting at A590 were announced monthly beginning in November, 1908, so “A250” for the beginning of 1909 is clearly in error.

Victor supplements of the early 1920s carried a notice that all records listed would be placed on sale on the first of that month, although later on advance‑release specials became more prevalent.  At one point, in 1923‑1924, the label even issued weekly supplements, making precise dating easy.  The Guide was checked against primary sources for Victor’s principal popular series (18000s‑21000s) for January of each year from 1920 to 1929.  From 1920 to 1924 the two sources differed by only about 20‑30 numbers each year, however after that the gap widens to more than 100 numbers.  For example the files say that by January 1928 the series had reached 21013, while the Guide lists 21150 (that was actually a March release).  To be fair Victor’s release pattern was very erratic during these years, with many numbers issued substantially out of sequence.  Any chart for this period by definition must be “approximate.”  Unfortunately the Guide gives us little indication which data is precise, and which is not.

To verify matrix series I checked three labels: Pathe from 1919‑1923, Gennett in the 1920s, and ARC in the late 1920s and early 1930s.  There are no recording ledgers surviving for Pathe, so a comparison was made with Brian Rust’s standard discographies, which have been indexed by matrix number in a running listing in Record Research magazine called “The H‑3 Chrono‑Matrix File” (for citations see the “Current Bibliography” department of this Journal).  Basically, the Guide differed from Rust by anywhere from 15 to 170 matrices at the start of each year during this period.  I don’t know who’s right; take your pick.  The Guide’s Gennett and ARC charts were compared to data from those companies’ files, which has long circulated among researchers.  The Guide almost exactly matched those reliable sources, indicating that the author had welcome access to this information.

Because of the importance of the Guide, its relatively wide circulation, and the use that will be made of it as a primary source for other work, this review has gone into some detail on its pluses and minuses.  I do not apologize for that; I think the serious reader is entitled to a serious evaluation.  The shortcomings mentioned should not obscure the fact that the Guide is an exceptionally useful tool, both for dating individual discs and for gaining a valuable overview of the numerical series used by a very large number of labels.  Moreover, the author has made every effort to make this fairly technical subject understandable to the beginner.

The author has shown his willingness to update and correct, and indeed frequently repeats the plea “please advise author of corrections.”  He also says that he intends to research internal company files to further enhance future editions (incredibly, the present volume was compiled without access to those files).

The Guide is clearly laid out, very reasonably priced, and tremendously valuable as a first place to check for approximate release and recording dates of pre‑World War II recordings.  Even if you have the needed discographies in your field, odd issues can often be identified and the search for more precise data narrowed considerably by reference to it.  It is highly recommended.


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