Numbers and Letters on & ‘in’ 78 rpm Records.

 

As on all pages of this site, we cannot guarantee the accuracy of the contents… they are only our thoughts, & so may be wrong. Also, terms like ‘master’, ‘mother’ and ‘stamper’ are used below. These refer to the different stages in the manufacture of discs. If you are not sure of how records in general – 78s in particular – were made, click this link for an outline of the process.

 

 

The most important things about most recent records are their performer, and the title. But in order to keep records in logical order on their stock shelves, manufacturers & dealers need a catalogue number. And often so do we, to help us keep our collections in order. Mind you, early on, it was quite common to find records with a different ‘catalogue number’ on each side! As late as 1926, Odeon had a series for Austria that had no consistent number on each side – there may be much later examples too. Here is such an Odeon:

 

odeona45232    odeona60275

 

One can only have ordered it by quoting one side. Perhaps even people in Austria found difficulty in ordering these too, because they are quite scarce. Still, catalogue numbers, however fascinating they are, are not particularly what this page is about. The sort of letters and numbers we’re really interested in, are the other markings & printings to be found on the label, under the label and in the wax. They can tell us all sorts of things about the side. Above all, where and when the side was recorded!

 

We might as well begin with this very record. We have scanned a larger area to include ‘the wax’. Of course, finished records have never been made out of ‘wax’. But they were nearly all originally cut onto a wax blank – between ~1902 and say the late 1940s. People used the term ‘wax’ loosely, and it has gone into general use, so who are we to argue? Here we go….

 

odeona45232large

 

The contrast and brightness have been stepped up to show the various numbers &c. The most important number we see in the wax is the same one we see on the label, to the right of the centre hole. This is the master number, sometimes called the matrix number. This ‘Master Number’ is indeed the number of the original ‘Master Record’ from which all copies are derived.

 

Record companies have had many different systems for numbering their masters. Sometimes they have a prefix, as here: Be 5642 is on the label and also in the wax as shown at 1 in the scan. It is very common for the master number to appear both in the wax and on the label – probably just to make sure the right label is used. Do prefixes mean anything specific? They may or may not; but in this case it does: and (no prizes for guessing) ‘Be’ signifies an Odeon master made in Berlin. So, if we had a listing of their masters with dates, we could find out when this side was recorded. Alas, I don’t have such a list, but the tune – which is sung in English – was current around the middle of 1926.

 

What else can we see? 2 indicates the Odeon catalogue number, which of course also appears on the label, but with an A- prefix. I’m not sure why this prefix is added. 3 is interesting: both in the wax and under the label appears a small ‘W’ in a circle. This is a symbol meaning that the side was recorded using the then-newish Western Electric recording system. Before early 1925, virtually all records had been recorded by a purely mechanical, or ‘acoustic’ system. The ‘W’ is not there just as an ornament – far from it! The Western Electric Company leased their equipment to record companies, and took a royalty on every disc resulting from the use of their gear. They had to be distinguished from those made by any other system.

 

At 4 we see something quite odd: AUSTRIA pressed into the wax. The odd thing here is the use of English. This record was almost certainly pressed in Germany; so why does it not say ‘Österreich’ in the wax? I have no idea. I once had a German Electrola of 1941 – i.e. during World War II – which, in the wax, was stamped ‘Made in Germany’ – in English. I find this use of English in Germany in wartime extremely odd… If a 1941 British ‘His Master’s Voice’ record had ‘Fabrikiert in Grossbrittanien’ stamped in the wax, there would have been a great fuss about using the German language while we were at war with them, I’m sure of that! Let us now look at the other side.

 

odeona60275large

 

Here we have the master number on the label at right – S74168b – and also in the wax on the right. Note that all the things we’ve looked at so far have been stamped with dies. But here the master number in the wax is hand-written. What does this mean?

 

Records are pressed from robust metal stampers, so if you want to identify that stamper, you can’t write on it. You have to carefully stamp it with little dies. But you can write, with a stylo, in the wax of the original master record. So we can fairly conclude that this is what has been done. All the other markings are stamped – so we can equally conclude that those markings have been stamped into ‘metal parts’ further down the manufacturing process. Moreover, anything written into the original wax will be recessed; and as a finished disc is a replica of the original wax, the handwriting will also be recessed on the final disc. It would be very odd indeed to find handwriting in relief on an old 78 rpm record – though there probably are instances of it; ‘anything goes’ is a rule of thumb for looking at old 78s!

 

At the top appears 60275: the Odeon ‘catalogue number’ for this side, as it also does at the bottom of the label, again with an A- prefix. ‘AUSTRIA’ appears again, which we already know about. Note that there is no ‘W’ in a circle on this side: it was not recorded by the Western Electric process. So who did record it, and where and when? The label helpfully tells us that the Goofus Five were ‘New York’. So what record company was there in New York that had masters such as S-74168-B?

 

The number in the wax we have not dealt with yet, 40624-A gives us the answer. 40624 is the catalogue number of an OKeh record, a famous U.S. label that recorded an immense amount of really super stuff way back, especially if you like dance bands, Jazz and blues. And their master series, at this time, was in the S-74000s. And because there are great Discographies available, this time we can look up The Goofus Five in Brian Rust’s ‘Jazz Records’, and learn that master S-74168-B was made in New York on 12th May 1926. (At this time, OKeh were using their own electrical recording process, which actually wasn’t very good! It was used by them later, but that’s not important right now.)

 

 To sum up, this fairly obscure Odeon record with its two different catalogue numbers, couples a side made in Berlin (by Odeon itself) probably in late 1926, with one made several months earlier in New York, by the OKeh label. There is more, though. Each of the above Odeon labels has a little script ‘L’ under the master number on the label. This stands for Lindstrom, and was a trade mark of the Lindstrom Company, who not only made Odeon records, but also had a branch in the U.S.A., called The General Phonograph Company – and their label was… OKeh. So this is an example of the interchange of masters between different wings of the same company. Lastly, there is a little box at the left of the label above. It contains a capital ‘L’, and below the box is O-3390. I suppose the ‘L’ might also mean Lindstrom; but what O-3390 means, your guess is as good as mine. We have, nevertheless, extracted quite a lot of information from these markings!

 

There is also a dealer’s label, so we know the record was purchased from Schmid’s record shop, which was at Rösselmülg. 6A in Graz. Of course, whether it was originally purchased there new in late 1926 -1927 we don’t know. It might have gone through Schmid’s shop as a second-hand item years later? The green copyright royalty stamps have an address in Vienna. So everything is great, really.

 

arielz4698

 

Not all discs tell us as much as that Odeon did. But at the very least, besides the catalogue number & master number on the label, most should also carry the master number in the wax, or under the label. An example of this straightforward type of disc is shown above. The catalogue number, Z4698 is there to the right of the hole, and the only other number label is E 3938, in brackets at the left of the hole. This should be the master number – and indeed it is. In the wax there is just one number as you see here:

 

arielmaster

 

 

Appearing with it is our old friend, the W in the circle, signifying that this record was made by the Western Electric system. However, our expected number has ‘dash two’ appended to it. Does this mean anything important? It certainly does. This is the ‘take number’. After this artiste made the first ‘take’, for some reason they decided to record it again, and it was this ‘take 2’ that was issued. There are many reasons why more than one take may be made. Perhaps the singer got a word or a note wrong, or the accompanying band made a slip. Maybe the singer simply didn’t like the first take, or the recording director didn’t. Problems were often technical. A lot of early valves (tubes) could produce spontaneous ‘odd noises’ – usually thumps – and the alert recording engineer might have noticed fluctuations in the anode current of the power valve(s) and asked for a second take after he had adjusted the settings. &c., &c.

 

This page, which is going to be quite long, is getting rather boring even by my standards, isn’t it? So let us enliven it with a little music. Click here to listen to the above record. It is a rare tune (not to be confused with the slightly later one of the same name), and I find Sara Lenwood an engaging performer. Moreover, the disc is in superb condition, and is well recorded too, though with the lack of bass that afflicts some Parlophones around this time. By the way, there is no such person as Sara Lenwood. This Ariel record was a ‘store label’ for Graves’ department store in Sheffield, who also sold them by Mail Order. The label existed from about 1912 to 1937, and during the last 10 years of that period they were made for Graves by Parlophone, who used material from their own record holdings. Sara Lenwood is a pseudonym for Lily Lapidus, who made quite a few records for Parlophone in the late 1920s. She was advertised as ‘The Jazz Girl’ on Parlophone record packets. Google reveals that she was born in London in 1904 and died in 1988. Her career encompassed pantomime in Glasgow in 1927/8, minor parts in several films between 1945 and 1959, and she was also in the stage production of ‘The Music Man’ in 1961/2. Therefore she was an actress rather than a singer: accordingly her appearance and persona doubtless totally eclipsed her vocal talents. Sadly, among the cubic miles of stuff to be found on the Internet, I cannot find a picture of her. Still, I remain a Lily Lapidus fan! This Parlophone master E-3938 was recorded in early 1931.

 

Moving on, what other information may be found lurking around on 78s?

 

Some makes of record give us details of which stamper was used to press it. In this country, The Gramophone Company (loosely known as HMV) did so from very early times. Here is such a 10inch disc:

 

hmvgc2131

 

In this case, just the catalogue number is on the label. G.C.-2-131. The catalogue numbering system of the Gramophone Company was exceedingly complicated, so I am glad this page is not really about catalogue numbers, just the other numbers on 78s. However, it is worth remarking that the original size of the earliest ‘78s’ to appear, as such, in this country was nominally 7″ (18cm). This was in 1898, and they were made by this same company. These were the ‘Berliner’ records – named after their inventor – and had no labels. The information was written, stamped and etched into the middle of the disc. Labels appeared around 1901, and the discs were then simply called ‘Gramophone Record’, the reference to Berliner being dropped. But when the new, larger 10″ (25cm) size of disc was brought out in ~1902, they called those ‘Gramophone Concert Records’, because they lasted longer – perhaps up to three minutes. In turn, when the ‘supersize’ 12″ discs soon appeared, they were called ‘Gramophone Monarch Record’. So that accounts for the G.C.- prefix to the catalogue number on the above disc. It also has two numbers in the wax. One of them appears at 6 o’clock below the label:

 

gcmaster

 

This is the master number. Gramophone master numbers are also quite complex, and as I have little skill in them, we won’t go into it. Happily though, this disc has a straightforward sort of master number. Thanks to the titanic labours of many discographers – above all Alan Kelly – the earlier master listings have been transcribed from the EMI archives and are now available on CD-ROMs, for the enlightenment of us all. Alan Kelly’s listing informs us that this master was recorded on 27th July 1905. It was in fact the second take of this tune, but this company, as did some others for many years, used a new number for each take. The first take of this side (which was not issued) was master 2319. So at this period, there are no -1, -2, -3, or -A, -B, -C suffixes to indicate different takes on Gramophone Co. discs. In other words, without Alan Kelly’s listings, we would have no idea whatever how many takes of any side had been made.

 

Now I hear you say, this number does have a suffix – a small letter ‘e’. And you are quite correct; but this ‘e’ does not indicate the fifth take of master 2320. It is rather more interesting than that: it tells us which recording engineer was responsible for making the side! They were called ‘recording experts’ in those days, and various letters and combinations thereof were used by this company to identify them, and also, to indicate what size the disc was. OK, the size of the disc is manifest just by looking at it! But this information would be used by clerks and company officials who would be looking to issue certain records at certain prices &c., and they were working from ledgers & paperwork, so they needed to know what size the recording was. Fred Gaisberg had been (and still was) the chief recording expert, so when they introduced this ‘ident’ system, he was given the letters a, b, and c. A (lower case) was for 7″ discs, b was for 10″ discs and c was for 12″ discs. His younger brother Will Gaisberg came next, and had the letters d, e & f. And so it went on as more people were involved. So 2320e in the company ledgers means this master was ‘Coon Band Contest’ by the Coldstream Guards band; it was recorded on 27th July 1905; it was recorded by Will Gaisberg, and it was a 10″ disc. Voilà! What could be simpler?

 

We now look at 12 o’clock in the wax above the label, and see the following:

 

gccat

 

Obviously, 2-131 is the catalogue number of this disc, so that’s fine. By the way, this disc is single sided – I should have told you that before, sorry. Gramophone/HMV did not make double-sided discs under their own name until 1912, long after double sided ones had become commonplace. But we also see III after the catalogue number. This is the stamper number. ‘Coon Band Contest’ was a very popular tune (my grandfather, who was born in 1882, used to play it on the parlour piano), and even though records were very expensive in those days, it sold well. Evidently the first stamper wore out, so they made another one from the mother. This new stamper would have had ‘II’ after the catalogue number. But even II wore out, so they made a third, III, from which this copy was pressed. Quite possibly, they went on and made even more. By the way, the first stamper did not carry a number; so in this time period, the absence of a Roman numeral number would indicate the first stamper.

 

This is a very jolly record, and unlike a lot of very early Gramophone discs, this copy is not too badly worn at the beginning, when the needle was very sharp. So we might as well hear it, which you can do by clicking here.  Needless to say, we can’t be sure whether the pitch is correct. Above, I put ‘78’ in quotes, because when you’re playing records made 104 years ago, there are many problems with what pitch to employ. (There are to be other pages on this website which address this basic, but very important, question.) At this stage, I have simply transferred the side at what sound to me a plausible pitch.

 

For some reason, by 1912 the Gramophone had introduced a new system of indicating stamper numbers. This used letters instead of numbers, and they derived a simple code from the company name: GRAMOPHone Company LTD. The green capitals represent the numbers 1 to 10, thus:

 

G     R     A     M     O     P     H     L     T     D

1      2      3      4      5     6      7     8      9     10

 

Here is a fairly early disc from that time.

 

hmv24037

 

ragtimemaster    ragtimecat    ragtimestamper

 

At 6 o’clock in the wax we have the master number, y15844e. Alan Kelly’s list tells us this side was made on 23rd October 1912. The ‘e’ suffix indicates that this master is in the same 10″ ‘Will Gaisberg’ series we saw above in 1905. Actually, by this time it had become the standard series, and that is why the ‘y’ prefix is seen here – it actually means Arthur Clarke recorded it, but that’s not important right now. What we can certainly see, is how busy the Gramophone Co. have been since our lowly 2320 above, as  around 13,000 wax masters have been used in 7 years! Next comes the catalogue number at 12 o’clock: 2-4037, just as it appears on the label. But at 3 o’clock in the wax, we now have the letter ‘G’. This corresponds to ‘1’ in the simple GRAMOPHLTD code. So we know that this disc was pressed from the first stamper to be made from the mother. By the way, you can listen to this record by clicking here. The American Ragtime Octette (the feminine form quartette, quintette was the normal usage at that time) was a visiting American male vocal group which enjoyed great popularity on their arrival here. They also recorded for Edison Bell, and more that one of them never returned to the U.S., taking up varying careers in this country.

 

If this first stamper wore out, then another would have been made, and the discs pressed from it would bear the letter ‘R’ at 3 o’clock. The number of records that could be pressed from any one stamper varied very widely indeed. It depended mostly on the complexity of the groove. If it contained many subtle sinuosities & modulations and/or was very loud, the stamper might wear out quite quickly, and another one would have to be made. You can find records where one side has the third stamper, but the other side has e.g. the 12th. This can only imply that the second side was more ‘difficult’ to press and so the stampers wore quite quickly. As to actual pressing figures, I have no idea. It might have been as little as 20 pressings, or possibly several hundred, even a thousand or more? Also, company policy and economic conditions would operate in this area. High-class operatic vocals and classical records would probably have greater attention paid to their quality, as opposed to more popular fare. And during wartime – it’s particularly noticeable in 1939-1945 – the making of new stampers seems to have been done only when it was absolutely necessary. This is a complex question, so we can leave it for the time being.

 

The first of these Gramophone stamper letters were relatively large. The one shown above is nearly 5mm tall. Later they were made smaller and fainter, though they remained in use until the démise of HMV 78s in 1958, a period of 36 years!

 

Moving on to 1925, we have selected an HMV record by The Kit Cat Band. It’s a very interesting record actually; click here to listen to it. The Kit Cat was a night club in the Haymarket, London – quite a ‘hot spot’ of night life in fact. There are three numbers in the wax of this record, shown below. What are they?

 

hmvb2167

 

kitcatmaster       

 

The first is the master number, at 6 o’clock below the label: Bb6880 ­III ∆. Note that the master number does not appear on the label. Nor is it in the same series as our old 1912 HMV. Alan Kelly’s listings tell us a fresh system was introduced in March 1921. It used a two-letter prefix. The first letter was A, B and C to indicate the size of the HMV record. Alan thinks that A must have been intended for the old 7″ records, but in 1921 none had been made for ~15 years. B was for 10″ discs, and C for 12″. The second letter was the master series itself. HMV used 19 different letters here, but the only one that concerns us here is B, as this was selected for studio recordings in this country – (but see next paragraph). For some unknown reason, this appeared in lower case, so for a 10″ UK recording for HMV – like the one we have here – Bb is the master prefix. (Likewise, Cc for 12″.) The actual master numbers began, reassuringly, at 1. They had reached Bb-6880 by 7th October 1925, when this side was recorded. The little Roman III is the take number. The triangle indicates the now-familiar Western Electric Recording system when used by HMV. Phew! But this type of master series ran from 1921 to 1930, so that covers a lot of ground.

 

Actually, there is another master series we might just mention here, the BR & CR (not Br & Cr) series, as you will quite often come across these. The ‘R’ stands for a ‘Remote’ or ‘Location’ recording. Now that good electrical recording was possible, you could have a microphone placed some distance from where the master was cut. The disc cutter might be in a mobile van outside the venue, perhaps many yards away from the performer – the amplified signal could even be sent down a telephone line back to a more-or-less permanent recording studio. HMV did this increasingly from the mid-1920s onward. These also started at BR/CR 1 in October 1925. Their obvious use was for recording Church organs, performances in theatres and so on.

 

Regarding 7″ discs: HMV did actually make some of this size, as childrens’ records, from 1923 on. But they seem to have forgotten about the Aa prefix, probably provided for such a size, and that as recently as 1921. They just gave them the next prefix in line: Dd.

 

kitcatface

 

We can now move on to the second number in the wax, 4-239. Note that this does appear on the label, so it is obviously very important to HMV. ‘4-239’ is the HMV ‘single face’ number. We don’t have to go into this much, which is great, because they are hard to understand; or at least hard for me to understand.

 

Essentially, every company had to have a system to ensure that the correct two sides were brought together on a record, both on the initial pressing run, and on any subsequent ones. In short, a reliable ‘coupling’ system. The masters, mothers and stampers must have been stored in numerical sequence. But discs were pressed from two different sides, which may not even have the same master series – e.g. our Odeon at the top of this page. The Gramophone Company evolved a system in which they pretended that a double sided disc was made up of two single sided discs. Which is extremely logical when you think about it! Indeed, many of the early HMV double sided discs of 1912 were arrived at by coupling together two earlier single sided ones. So they chose the catalogue numbers of those single sided discs as the code, or ‘control numbers’ to ensure the right stampers were always paired up correctly.

 

This system, however it worked in detail (I don’t know) was obviously efficient. Because, even after single sided records were no longer made, ‘single face’ numbers were still allotted to each side of a record, as if each had been intended for issue in single sided format. If you want to study this system, I wish you well! I’m sure there is lots about it on line. It persisted until about 1930.

 

Finally, you ask: why did they not just use the catalogue number B-2167, which is common to both sides, as a method for reliably bringing together the two separate stampers? I’m sorry, I don’t know: but it might be something to do with the fact that masters would often appear on other HMV companies abroad, or were pressed in the UK for export, in which case they had different catalogue numbers, and usually different couplings as well. For instance, this ‘Riverboat Shuffle’ was also issued on French HMV, as K-3234 (with a different backing) and on Gramola AM-594 (Czechoslovakia) with the same backing!

 

kitcatstamper

 

Thankfully, there only remains the small letter to be found at 3 o’clock in the wax – the letter M.

 

G – R – A –M… that’s the fourth stamper produced from the mother. By 1925 these letters were only about 2mm tall.

 

What happened if they made more than 10 stampers? Well, they began again, with two letters. Stamper 11 would be ‘GG’, stamper 12 ‘GR’ and so on. Here is a table covering up to the 110th HMV stamper.

 

TABLE OF HMV – EMI STAMPER LETTERS.

 

 

1-10

11-20

21-30

31-40

41-50

51-60

61-70

71-80

81-90

91-100

101-110

1

G

GG

RG

AG

MG

OG

PG

HG

LG

TG

DG

2

R

GR

RR

AR

MR

OR

PR

HR

LR

TR

DR

3

A

GA

RA

AA

MA

OA

PA

HA

LA

TA

DA

4

M

GM

RM

AM

MM

OM

PM

HM

LM

TM

DM

5

O

GO

RO

AO

MO

OO

PO

HO

LO

TO

DO

6

P

GP

RP

AP

MP

OP

PP

HP

LP

TP

DP

7

H

GH

RH

AH

MH

OH

PH

HH

LH

TH

DH

8

L

GL

RL

AL

ML

OL

PL

HL

LL

TL

DL

9

T

GT

RR

AT

MT

OT

PT

HT

LT

TT

DT

10

D

GD

RD

AD

MD

OD

PD

HD

LD

TD

DD

 

If they needed more, GGG would be 111, GGR would be 112 & so on.

 

There was another British company that used a letter code for its stampers. We might as well cover that one as well, while we’re at it!

 

Decca issued its first records in 1929. From the beginning they carried a stamper letter code derived from the place name Buckingham.

 

B     U     C     K     I     N     G     H     A     M

1      2      3     4     5      6     7      8      9     10

 

Why this word or name was chosen, is not known. The code is also to be found on some late Brunswick and Duophone records, and they were doubtless pressed in the same plant, though I don’t know where it was. It is even possible that this code was devised by Brunswick (or Duophone) or even by the factory itself, so that the code was simply inherited by Decca.

 

deccaf3307

 

deccamaster

 

The master number appears on the label as GB.5200, and in the wax at 6 o’clock as GB5200-1 D. We know that Decca used numbers for their takes, so this is take 1. What the ‘D’ means I don’t know. Nor do I know what Decca prefixes meant; we find MB and TB at various times, besides this GB. This page is very much a ‘learning curve’ for me! I have heard it suggested that the B in the prefix, which tends remain in place, might stand for Brunswick, and be a ‘fossil’ prefix, again inherited by Decca via the factory. Who knows? If you do, please let us know and we will update, giving you full credit!

 

deccastamper

 

At 3 o’clock in the wax appears the letter B – indicating the first stamper. This side was recorded 17th November 1932.

 

Before moving on, you will have noticed that all the records we’re using are of ragtime or ‘Hot Dance’ music, which is simply because we like it. Click here to listen to this record. The Spider’s Web was a roadhouse north of London. Edgar Jackson was such an important figure on the British Hot Dance, Jazz and general musical scene for decades – e.g. he was the first editor of the ‘Melody Maker’ in 1926 – that we cannot possibly do him justice here.

 

deccamother

 

Still, there is one more number, at 9 o’clock in the wax. It’s faint, and the yellow arrow points to it, the number 1. What is it? I’m not certain, but I believe it is the number of the mother from which the stamper was derived. It stands to reason that the first few stampers would be derived, all being well, from the first mother. Therefore, if the stamper here is ‘B’ (the first stamper) then it must of necessity have been made from the first mother.

 

Here is a table of Decca stamper letter combinations up to 110…

 

TABLE OF DECCA STAMPER LETTERS.

 

 

1-10

11-20

21-30

31-40

41-50

51-60

61-70

71-80

81-90

91-100

101-110

1

B

BB

UB

CB

KB

IB

NB

GB

HB

AB

MB

2

U

BU

UU

CU

KU

IU

NU

GU

HU

AU

MU

3

C

BC

UC

CC

KC

IC

NC

GC

HC

AC

MC

4

K

BK

UK

CK

KK

IK

NK

GK

HK

AK

MK

5

I

BI

UI

CI

KI

II

NI

GI

HI

AI

MI

6

N

BN

UN

CN

KN

IN

NN

GN

HN

AN

MN

7

G

BG

UG

CG

KG

IG

NG

GG

HG

AG

MG

8

H

BH

UH

CH

KH

IH

NH

GH

HH

AH

MH

9

A

BA

UA

CA

KA

IA

NA

GA

HA

AA

MA

10

M

BM

UM

CM

KM

IM

NM

GM

HM

AM

MM

 

 

It is curious that the new ‘upstart’ Decca label had a stamper numbering system so similar to mighty HMV. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, we suppose? As regards HMV/EMI and the Decca group of labels, these systems remained steadfastly in place, hardly changed, right until the end of the production of 78 rpm discs in 1957-58. If you take ‘smash hit’ records that sold in their hundreds of thousands, you can find some astonishingly high stamper numbers. If you happen to have a copy of Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around The Clock’ on a UK Brunswick 78, take a look at the stamper letters. There may well be three letters. Of course, there is nothing to prevent your copy having been pressed very early on, so it might have only two – or even one – letter!

 

Collectors of Jazz and Popular music don’t usually attach much importance to the stamper numbers of their records. But many classical collectors have always done so. A premium will have to be paid for a first-class copy of a rare Operatic vocal 78 if it is from the first stamper. After all, that pressing is a ‘little bit nearer’ to the original wax master than one made from the fifteenth stamper which was derived from, perhaps, the third mother. Who knows what tiny deteriorations may creep in, as plating after plating takes place? The quality of the ‘image’ can hardly improve, that’s for certain! By the way, it would seem that most companies employed what we might call ‘cumulative’ stamper numbers. E.g, if Decca got 5 stampers from the first mother, those would be designated: B, U, C, K and I. If they then made a second mother, they didn’t go back to B; the 6th stamper would be N. HMV did the same.

 

Do ‘mother numbers’ appear on HMV discs? We think so: because in the later 1920s a lowish number eventually starts to appear at 9 o’clock in the wax, and it is assumed this is indeed the mother number. Unfortunately, at the same period, there is a most confusing state of affairs with sides on British HMV that have come from Victor in the U.S.A. The fact is, that for much of the 1920s, Victor masters on HMV are, as it were, upside down! This gives rise to strangely confusing numbers; some are upside down, while others are the right way up. The best way to try to explain all this to you is to give an example of a Victor and what happened to it when it came out on HMV. It’s a very nice record, by the way, and you can hear it by clicking here.

 

victor21119

 

victormother

 

The yellow arrow points to the number ‘1’ at 3 o’clock in the wax. It’s very faint, but I assure you it’s there. This is probably the Victor mother number.

 

victorcatstamper

 

At 6 o’clock appears the Victor catalogue number 21119-A. The -A signifies that this is the ‘A’ side of the disc, something that HMV almost never did. The little capital ‘E’ is the stamper number, which began at ‘A’, so this is the 5th stamper from the first mother.

 

victortake

 

At 9 o’clock appears the number 2, which is the take number. Note that Victor discs of the 1920s did not show the master number, either on the label or in the wax, except for a brief period around 1927. All perfectly straightforward, yes? This is a very nice record indeed, and so it was of course issued in Britain (as well as Germany, and later, in Scandinavia). So let us look at the HMV issue of it…

 

hmvb5577

 

hmv3oc

 

Swiftly passing over the strange mutation of Thomas ‘Fats’ Waller’s name into ‘Walter’, and the doubtless unjust refutation of Jo’ Trent as a co-composer, we begin at 3 o’clock in the wax. Here, in the expected place, is a little ‘G’, which means that the first HMV stamper was used. But also, faintly above it, is to be seen the number ‘2’ upside down. This is the Victor take number, which was at 9 o’clock on the Victor – but now is displaced 180°, because, as we said, Victor masters were turned ‘upside down’ on HMV issues in this time period. They probably did this because although Victor catalogue numbers were suffered to remain in the wax of HMVs in the early 1920s, some decision must have soon been taken to suppress them. And as they were rather prominent, there must have been quite a bit of grinding, filling & polishing on the metalwork to get rid of them. This left a rather uneven area, so the discs were pressed with this area at 12 o’clock instead of 6 o’clock.

 

hmv120c

 

Over this ‘disturbed area’ the single face code was printed: 7-834 in this case.

 

hmv6oc

 

Though as we have said, Victor discs did not usually carry master numbers at this time, HMVs did carry them, and at 6 o’clock, A 39559 ∆ appears. The ‘A’ prefix is means ‘master of American origin’; 39559 was the actual Victor master number (which theoretically should have had a ‘B’ prefix to signify the 10″ (25cm) size); while the delta symbol signifies use of the now-familiar Western Electric Recording system. The Victor mother number has disappeared, since it signified nothing in Britain.

 

hmv9oc

 

Lastly, a faint 1 can be seen at 9 o’clock. This is the first HMV mother.

 

We have merely touched the surface of only 3 or 4 labels in this page, in a very amateur way. Most other labels can be similarly treated, and indeed many already have been, by properly qualified Discographers, such as Alan Kelly, Dr. Rainer Lotz, Brian Rust, the late Arthur Badrock, the late Frank Andrews and many, many others. You may care to seek out their works; details of many of them can be found on the web.

 

To some people, all these stamping & numberings may seem arcane and even rather pointless matters to investigate… But we enthusiasts of early recordings not only listen to and enjoy our discs: many of us also like to delve into how they were made; and what the various marks & symbols on them mean. I don’t say everything in this long & tedious page is correct (have I really written nearly 6,400 words about it? Good Grief!); but it might get somebody interested in the subject? Even if it be but one person younger than I, they may be assured that their interest is more than adequate recompense for the modest labour expended on this page by their humble servant,

 

Norman Field.

 

 

Page virtually finished, 13th March 2000.

Page actually finished & re-formatted, 18th December 2015.