There’s a cliché that a picture paints a thousand words. One could easily say that a lot of pictures provide material for one excellent lecture. On December 3rd, Frederick O. Barnum III delivered a speech inspired his 1991 book: His Master’s Voice in America. The Moorestown Library hosted the event.
The book contains numerous photos documenting the history of Victor Records through the RCA years. Mr. Barnum III drew upon “a lot of material” for his project. He spent 35 years working for the organization’s Camden plant. He retired there in 2017.
Shortly after Mr. Barnum III began working for RCA, he inherited ten to twelve filing cabinets containing the company’s archives. He decided to compile the photos he discovered for a book that he titled His Master’s Voice in America. The company only printed five thousand copies that it released on November 18, 1991. Extant editions are rare. Fortunately, for those interested in the history of Victor Records and RCA, Mr. Barnum III shared its images with the audience.
Mr. Barnum III opened his remarks by noting that most of those in attendance “had a connection to RCA.” He delivered his presentation so that both those familiar with the material and those new to it could be equally entertained.
Mr. Barnum III began by discussing Camden, New Jersey’s industrial background. He described the city as a “manufacturing mecca one hundred years ago.” Camden provided a home for companies as diverse as Campbell Soup, the Van Sciver Furniture Company and Camden Beer.
Camden hosted a number of firsts. The Boston Symphony Orchestra became the first such ensemble recorded there in 1918. The first music video took place there in 1928. In 1933, the world’s first drive-in movie theatre opened along the Admiral Wilson Boulevard. During 1934, first fax machine was produced in the city. The first television production line went into operation there in 1946. Both the 45 record and the corresponding record player entered the world through Camden in 1949.
The main portion of interest for Moorestown residents occurred when Mr. Barnum described the early years of Victor Records. Moorestown resident Eldridge Johnson founded the organization. He incorporated it on October 3, 1901.
Johnson moved to Moorestown in 1920. He purchased the former home of Flexible Flyer Sed founder Samuel Leeds Allen. While known as Bridenhart Castle, Johnson named it “The Towers.” In the present day, the building serves as the Lutheran Home.
Johnson donated the funds to construct the Community House located on Main Street. That building opened in 1926.
According to Mr. Barnum III, Johnson’s visionary acumen allowed him to foresee a market for home entertainment. He sought out the talent needed to accomodate this niche. Enrico Caruso became the first entertainer he signed to the Victor label.
Mr. Johnson possessed a genius for business. He developed the record player / cabinet called the Victrola in 1906. From 1912 through 1917 he reinvested his profits back into Victor Records. The company grew so large that it needed its own railroad to travel between buildings.
His efforts allowed Johnson to enjoy a comfortable retirement. In 1927 he cashed in his stock for $28 million dollars. He sold the business for $50 million to investment bankers. Even without Johnson’s leadership, Victor continued to grow. In 1929, the same investors sold the company to RCA for $150 million.
Mr. Barnum III then discussed the history of Radio Corporation of America (RCA). His remarks covered the time the organization purchased Victor through its time in Camden and Moorestown and into a period that included a mind-twisting series of mergers.
The speaker shared some amusing anecdotes about the company. In 1937 RCA sponsored a contest for its dealers and distributors. The first prize winner received a free trip to Camden.
He added that the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) received the first ever trademark for a tone. The company’s musical theme includes three pitches: G, E and C. The letters represent the initials of NBC’s parent company: the General Electric Corporation. GE purchased RCA in 1985.
RCA’s Camden facility continued to produce significant products. RCA built the radar that mapped the surface of the moon during the final Apollo mission. The plant manufactured the television antenna positioned on top of the World Trade Center’s North Tower.
In 1953, RCA opened its Moorestown facility. That plant also manufactured systems for the Apollo missions. That branch built the satellite dish used on the lunar module that accompanied the last three.
RCA/Victor has a rich history in the South Jersey area. While copies of His Master’s Voice in America may be difficult to locate, fortunately its author isn’t. Mr. Barnum III mentioned that the library only scheduled the lecture for an hour. He joked that he knew it would be impossible to hold him to that time limit. With his engaging presence, the interesting nature of his talk and the abundance of material he compiled, it’s easy to understand why.