Gold Medals for Excellence
French may have had another motive for lashing out at Henry Gennett and his sons. By the time of his 1908 deposition, French had become a direct competitor to Starr Piano with his Krell-French Piano Company, formed in 1896, which operated a large factory in nearby New Castle, Indiana. The once-congenial relationship between the French and Gennett families deteriorated over their business differences. “The Gennett family made up their mind to force us [French family] to sacrifice the [Starr Piano] stock so that they could ultimately get it at the price they feel like they can compel us to sell for,” French told attorneys in the deposition, which involved a dispute between Starr Piano and another piano maker. “When I joined hands with Mr. Gennett and family to organize The Starr Piano Company, it was done with the kindliest of motives to benefit the Gennett family, little thinking the results would turn out as they have.”
French’s claims aside, all agreed that Henry Gennett, a distinctive, tan-skinned Italian with a black moustache, was a dynamic and hard-driven leader. Though he was short and slightly built, he more than compensated for his small physical stature with an outgoing, confident personality and a reputation among employees as a bold decision maker. Known for his impeccable attire, Henry would walk through the Starr factory complex in a white suit and a white Panama hat, holding a fancy cane with a gold knob. In his later years, he was chauffeured around town in a black Packard; one relative laughingly said that Henry had to climb up in order to get into the back seat
Henry was not a craftsman, but a creative merchandiser. The family’s long-time chauffeur, Howard Thomas, relayed a typical example of Henry’s style to his grandson, Richard Gennett. While driving Henry’s twelve-cylinder Packard down Main Street in Richmond one morning, Thomas was stuck behind a slow-moving wagon loaded with corn on its way to one of the Whitewater River grain mills. Henry told Thomas to pull into the local Starr piano store at Tenth and Main Street. He charged into the store and ordered a Starr salesman to follow the corn wagon to the mill and sell the driver a Starr piano. Henry figured that the farmer delivering the corn would soon have cash in his pocket, making him ripe for a big purchase.
With such leadership style, Henry Gennett further developed the Starr Piano Company into one of the nation’s largest mass producers of pianos. By 1915, more than 250 U.S. companies were manufacturing pianos, with about twenty-five of them controlling 75 percent of the market. Starr Piano was among this elite group, which also included the Baldwin Company and the Wurlitzer Company, both in nearby Cincinnati.
The highest grade Starr pianos won gold medals for excellence at various exhibitions, including the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, the Tennessee Centennial Exposition of 1907, the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition in 1909, and the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915. Henry heavily promoted the Starr Minum grand piano, one of the best-selling baby grands in the Midwest. The Starr upright pianos of the 1910s possessed a quality of tone and durability that rivaled the Steinway or Baldwin up-rights. Like his competitors, Henry saw huge potential in the new player pianos, which Starr Piano produced with a vengeance beginning in 1906. The company even marketed a small player piano for apartments called the Princess, which stood just four feet, four inches tall. Wisely, however, Henry was never convinced that the player piano would supersede the conventional instruments, as many in the industry had predicted.
In addition to the Starr-name pianos, the company under the Gennett family mass-produced a wide variety of lower-cost pianos. Starr Piano manufactured more than fifty styles of grand, upright, and player pianos under such brand names as Richmond, Trayser, Remington, and French. Also, pianos were stenciled with the names of retailers who bought wholesale from the Starr factory for sale in their department stores or mail-order catalogs.
Some competitors found the practice unscrupulous. In 1901, Starr Piano began shipping low-cost pianos with a Chase brand-name stencil for the Gimbel Brothers retail chain in Philadelphia. This led to a multi-year dispute with the A. B. Chase Piano Company of Norwalk, Ohio, a producer of premium pianos with no ties to the Chase Piano Company, which had operated in Richmond’s Starr Valley in the 1880s. A. B. Chase Piano claimed that the Gimbel Brothers chain and Starr Piano were tricking consumers into buying inexpensive pianos from Starr Piano by deliberately misrepresenting them as the higher-quality A. B. Chase keyboards. In 1903, Calvin Whitney, president of A. B. Chase, wrote to Starr Piano: “How would you like to have us associate ourselves with some of the relatives of James M. Starr and make a very cheap piano, and sell it at half the price at which you sell the ‘Starr’ and put it in the hands of dealers, who would advertise it as the original Starr piano, made by the original company, in the original way? You are stenciling a piano ‘Chase’ and the dealer can buy two of them for less money than that of ours.”
Whitney took his case to the trade media, where Musical Times magazine attacked the Gimbel Brothers chain, adding that Starr Piano “should be included in condemnation. No manufacturing plant should lend its aid to disreputable work of this kind and the Starr Piano Company did not do it unknowingly.” Finally, Starr Piano’s application to register the Chase trademark led to a formal complaint from A. B. Chase Piano Company in 1908 with the U.S. Patent Office. The company prevailed in stopping Starr Piano from registering the trademark, and the stenciled Chase brand piano was discontinued.
Starr Piano’s indiscriminate approach to the wholesale distribution of its lower-cost pianos also did not sit well with all of its retailers. Wilson Taggart, a Starr salesman from 1914 to 1924, recalled the wrath of an Ohio piano retailer who stormed out of his office and announced that he wanted nothing to do “with any company that would make stuff for a mail-order house.” Starr Piano also manufactured pianos under the name of A. J. Crafts of Richmond, Virginia. “He [A. J. Crafts] had the biggest and fanciest stencil you ever saw,” Taggart said. “He put that on the board on top, you know. That old devil, I betcha, was getting $100 apiece for those pianos over the price of the Starr Piano.”
None of these issues slowed the powerful Starr Piano from building its enormous distribution network. By 1915, Starr retail stores were established in the major cities of Ohio and Indiana, as well as in Detroit, Michigan; Chicago, Illinois; and San Diego and Los Angeles, California. Through the Jesse French chain stores, Starr pianos were sold in the cities of the South and Southwest. In addition, retail agencies essentially made Starr pianos available nationwide. Because Starr pianos were constructed for durability, by the 1910s the company even exported instruments to South America, where heat and humidity could ruin a cheaper piano.
Part of Starr Piano’s aggressive merchandising strategy involved wholesaling to independent retailers on a consignment contract, which meant that Henry Gennett’s team had to keep after the stores not paid up on their inventory. From Starr Valley, Taggart heard amusing stories from the Starr account executive in charge of hunting down unpaid accounts from independent stores around the country. “He stopped in Denver where some gal was way behind [in payments],” Taggart said. “So he made a date to see her in his hotel room. He said he had a funny feeling, so he just backed up and jerked the door open real quick. There was a fella out there listening. She was going to compromise him so that she could get out of that piano debt!”
As early as 1907, enamored with the business potential of vast and unsettled California, Henry established Starr’s Pacific Division in Los Angeles to handle his piano distribution in the West. Starr Piano held 70 percent of the new division, with the remaining 30 percent owned by Harry Holder, a former Richmond resident and confidant of Henry. After forming the Pacific Division, Henry increased his interest in California, where he made significant real estate acquisitions in the Los Angeles area.
By 1915, Gennett’s sprawling Starr Piano Company factory in the Whitewater gorge was a mass-production machine. Many piano companies had become assembly operations using finished parts from a growing number of specialty piano suppliers. However, the Starr Piano complex was a self-sufficient, highly departmentalized manufacturing plant. With the exception of large metal castings supplied by Swayne, Robinson & Co., an iron works plant two hundred yards up the hill from Starr Valley, the piano factory basically produced all the essential components in a piano. The factory’s massive lumber inventory was said to ensure production for five years. Starr Piano was producing 15,000 pianos annually by 1915. By then, more than 100,000 Starr pianos had been sold nationwide.
The Starr factory complex now spread over thirty-five acres along the river gorge. Two long rows of factory buildings, divided by a secondary railroad spur for hauling materials and finished products within the complex, covered more than 300,000 square feet. Impressed by the self-contained, modern manufacturing complex, trade magazines in the early 1900s praised the massive industrial park in Starr Valley as a model of scientific efficiency. About 750 people worked in the Richmond factory by 1915, including more than 50 women and numerous adolescents, and the Starr national sales network around the country totaled another 400 people.
Starr Piano became an industrial cornerstone of Richmond. Even though the company never had a glowing reputation for its wages and benefits, Starr Piano operated for many years without laying off workers. The guaranteed paycheck attracted the townspeople, who commonly spent their entire careers amid the sawdust in Starr Valley, an area that gets unmercifully hot and sticky in the summer. And, like the railroad and newspaper businesses, the piano business gets into the blood. The village’s tradesmen and laborers, from woodworkers to piano polishers, were proud of the pianos that put Richmond on the map. “Even in the 1940s, when Starr Piano was nearing its end, there were employees still around the plant who had worked for my grandfather as far back as the turn of the century,” said Henry Gennett Martin, grandson of Henry Gennett. “A typical Starr worker seemed to stay down there at the factory for the duration.”
The stature of Starr Piano placed the Gennett family among the elite of Richmond, now an industrial boomtown that claimed to have one of the highest percentages of millionaires of any U.S. community. In 1898 along a stretch of East Main Street lined with stately Victorian homes, Henry and Alice Gennett completed construction of one of the most stylish mansions in town. They hired a prominent local architect, John A. Hasecoster, who designed a three-story mansion in a Colonial Revival style at 1829 East Main Street on two city lots. A yellow ceramic brick facade and a white-columned portico distinguished the mansion’s exterior. The front hallway, lavishly wood-paneled, led to a large stone fireplace. Starr Piano’s access to America’s best lumberyards was evident in the dramatic treatment of oak, mahogany, and sycamore throughout the house. On the first floor, there was a spacious music conservatory, where Alice Gennett hosted the Richmond Civic Orchestra and organized recitals at a Starr grand piano. A billiard room for Henry and his sons adjoined the conservatory. On the third floor, in an exquisite ballroom with an enormous chandelier, Henry and Alice hosted gala dance parties for Richmond socialites. The Gennett family lived there for the next thirty-eight years. “Papa loved that house,” recalled their daughter, Rose Gennett Martin. “He would stand on the lawn and just look at it.”
The Gennetts actively supported Richmond’s vibrant cultural scene. In 1899, the family opened the 1,200-seat Gennett Theater downtown. For the grand opening on December 23, the family brought in a stage star of the day, Cornelia Otis Skinner, who performed in Henry James’s play The Liars. In 1905, the theater was remodeled, and the family formed the Gennett Theater Company, with Alice Gennett as president. She was also an active member of the Richmond Musical Club, which sponsored recitals. Starr Piano also helped finance Richmond’s annual May Festival, supported the Richmond Symphony, and underwrote the costs of bringing leading classical soloists to the city – all of this in a town of fewer than thirty-thousand people in rural Indiana!
“The Starr Piano Company and the cultural life of the community, in the latter’s musical phases, have been inextricably interwoven from the beginning of the company’s existence and are drawn closer with each succeeding year,” reported the Richmond Palladium in 1913. “Its effect is seen also, in the large number of its employees and attachés who are among the city’s leading amateurs and are included in its choral and orchestral organizations. The inter-relationship of the Starr Piano Company and the civic body in short, is one of the finest manifestations of our social life and should never be minimized in the consideration of the forces, that, welded together, give this city its individual social atmosphere.”
In 1915, with the Starr factory steaming along at peak production and Starr stores established nationwide, the Gennett family formally amended the company’s original articles of incorporation in order to pursue “every kind of instrument, machine, device, process and material necessary and suitable in and about the production, preservation, use and control of sound vibration for musical, commercial and other economic purposes.”
The legal jargon did not imply that the Gennetts had lost faith in pianos. On the contrary. Their piano business continued to expand, despite growing competition from the latest American craze: the phonograph. But by 1915, forces within the tightly controlled phonograph industry were making it possible for new companies to enter the competition. The business had become fair game, and the Gennett family, through Starr Piano’s amended articles of incorporation, simply declared that it wanted a piece of the action.
The Gennetts had successfully established Starr Piano nationally as a leading piano maker, while the family at home maintained a profile as philanthropists with high cultural aspirations for their quaint Indiana community. Now, they were about to enter a very different business arena in the new, brash world of records and phonographs. No one could have suspected in 1915 that, within five years, the Indiana firm, with its fledgling Gennett Records division, would lead a group of other small record companies into a series of lengthy court battles against the record industry’s undisputed giant, Victor Talking Machine Company of Camden, New Jersey. The eventual outcome of these court cases would change forever the competitive nature of the developing record industry.
Courtroom Showdown: Victor vs. Starr Piano
Few people benefited more from the genesis of America’s recording industry than the patent lawyers. From Thomas Edison’s cylinder phonograph of 1877 to the national craze over disc-playing phonographs four decades later, the developing industry was awash in patent litigation. Suits piled up one on top of the other as powerful entrepreneurs wrestled with a flurry of advances in sound recording.
The outcome of bitter patent lawsuits between phonograph kingpins heavily affected the fortunes of the competing firms. Such was the case in Starr Piano’s landmark court victories over the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1921–22. However, in order to appreciate the events surrounding the creation of Starr Piano’s Gennett Records, its court battles with Victor, and its overall impact on the emerging recording industry, one must trace the tangled web of inventions, corporate wars, and legal shenanigans that shaped the phonograph and record industry before Starr Piano began pressing records during the World War I era.
Edison’s phonograph in 1877 was initially treated as a scientific novelty; attendees of industrial exhibitions marveled at hearing their own voices played back to them. In fact, Edison saw little commercial promise for his cylinder machine and nearly abandoned the invention for about a decade as he concentrated on developing the light bulb. Yet until the advent of digitally recorded compact discs in the 1980s, the conventional needle and turntable record player remained faithful to Edison’s original principles of sound reproduction.
Edison’s first recorder consisted of a brass cylinder with a spiral groove around it and two diaphragm-and-needle units. A horn was fixed permanently, with a steel point mounted in the diaphragm. The steel point made contact with a piece of tin foil wrapped around the brass cylinder. When words were spoken into the horn, the diaphragm vibrated from the sound waves produced by the voice. In turn, the steel point, or stylus, moved vertically, producing a “hill-and-dale” pattern of indentations on the tin foil. Upon replaying the tin foil, the reproducing needle converted these indentations into sounds waves, which reproduced the voice spoken into the horn.
While Edison focused full attention on the light bulb in the early 1880s, his phonograph was further advanced by Chichester A. Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter, who replaced the tin foil with a cardboard cylinder coated with wax. Their invention was patented in 1886. Bell and Tainter also experimented with flat discs for sound reproduction, but everyone stayed with the wax cylinder. When Edison returned to the cylinder phonograph in the mid-1880s, he further refined the Bell-Tainter wax-cylinder concept. By the 1890s, Edison’s skillfully crafted cylinder phonographs, marketed through his North American Phonograph Company, were sold in large quantities to America’s elite, while stage celebrities raced to be recorded onto Edison’s wax cylinders.
At the same time, a German immigrant named Emile Berliner developed a new machine he called the gramophone, which recorded and played flat discs. In contrast to Edison’s “hill-and-dale” etching method, Berliner’s recording stylus etched sound vibrations in a lateral zigzag motion onto a zinc plate. From this zinc master disc, Berliner produced a copper disc matrix by means of an electroplating process. This matrix was used to stamp out playable discs made of a heat-softened shellac compound.
Though it was not apparent then, the disc player was inherently more practical than Edison’s cylinder machine. Discs were more easily duplicated and were easier to store and handle than wax cylinders. Still, in the 1890s, cylinder phonographs from Edison’s National Phonograph Company and the American Graphophone Company (later known as Columbia Phonograph, the name used henceforth in this book) hit the market first and controlled the industry. Edison and Columbia’s cylinders generated high-quality sound reproduction, especially of the human voice.
But Berliner persisted. In 1895, he established the United States Gramophone Company, which licensed his patents to the Berliner Gramophone Company, manufacturer of the machines. They were sold through yet another organization, National Gramophone Company. Berliner’s gramophone operated with a special spring motor, supplied by Eldridge Johnson, a machinist in Camden, New Jersey. By 1897, Johnson was mass-producing spring motors by the hundreds from his small shop.
Buyers were soon attracted to the Berliner machine by the aggressive marketing of National Gramophone Company, headed by master promoter Frank Seaman. In 1898, Seaman’s National Gramophone Company claimed sales of Berliner gramophones of more than $1 million. The Columbia and Edison cylinder machines were suddenly threatened by this new contraption.
Columbia responded by waging war in the courts. Despite vast differences between Berliner’s patent for recorded discs and the Columbia-held, Bell-Tainter patent for cylinder recording, Philip Mauro, Columbia’s lawyer, concocted the “floating stylus” theory. In essence, he claimed that Berliner’s recording stylus copied the manner in which Columbia’s recording stylus “floated” along the grooves of the wax cylinder.
Mauro marched into court and charged Berliner with patent infringement. Amazingly, the court initially sided with Mauro in 1899; its injunction against further sales of Berliner gramophones lasted about a year. Yet even stranger things would happen. With the court injunction, the companies involved with the Berliner gramophone were in limbo, especially Johnson, the chief supplier of gramophone spring motors. Unlike Berliner, who had other business interests, Johnson had sunk almost all his money into gramophone technology. Having brushed with bankruptcy, Johnson soon realized he could not depend entirely upon the Berliner gramophone.