Oct 6, 2014

Bicycles and Gramophones

Sometimes over the weekend Laura meets one of those shellac records, those stiff fellows which need a proper gramophone to do their thing. And some of these come properly dressed in an old printed sleeve. And sometimes this sleeve becomes a source of puzzlement and wonder.

See what she found last month: Two distributors of records in the Leeds area who also advertise their bicycle business.

The Cycle Shop. Proprietor G Whiteley, Agent for Gilbert Gramophones. All the latest Records in Stock. Pedestal Gramophones. Table Grands. Motor Cycles, Cycles, Oils Accessories, Camping Outfits, Sports Good, Etc. 8 Well Street, Farsley, Leeds.

Arthur Marshall, Broadcast, Radio, Winner, Regal, Columbia, Zonophone, Parlophone, and Piccadilly Records. Electrical Engineers and Contractor. Gramophone and Cycle Dealer. 240, Town Street, Bramley, Leeds.

It seemed very strange to us that records and bicycles should get so close. Are these not very different kettles of fish? How come that the borderlines in the commercial universe are drawn so strangely?

The Gramophone Department of Exeter Cycle Works (www.peterice.com/exeter_nostalgia.htm)

Well, both are rotary objects, somehow. Could that be the reason?
After a little research it appears that the association of bicycles and gramophones is quite characteristic for the structure of the retail trade in advanced technologies around 1920. For instance, in 1910 Carlton Service issued a series of publications to assist the shopkeeper in advertising his business. One of these was entitled: Twelve Months Advertising for a Cycle-Dealer, including Gramophones, Baby Carriages, etc.

A little earlier, H G Wells in "The War in the Air" presents the fictional firm of Grubb & Smallways with a small fleet of bikes for hire, acting as agents for an obscure bicycle manufacturer, also offering repairs, a line of cheap gramophones, and a few musical boxes. In 1916, the US Commerce Report includes an inquiry from "a man in Siberia" interested to receive offers of bicycles, typewriters, gramophones, etc. And on 16 March 1921, Maurice Goldberg (27), a Gramophone & Cycle Dealer and the son of Abraham Goldberg, Cycle Dealer, marries the daughter of Rabbi Jacob Server at Brentnall Street Synagogue in Middlesbrough. Thank you Mr Google!

Norman Field's research into record labels in the period provides excellent examples for this close association of two rotary technologies. He documents how the Raleigh Cycle Co. of Nottingham acts as record publisher, issuing a record under their own imprint: Harry Fay renders, yes, A Cyclists Song. I should look forward to hearing this on Youtube...

Harry Fay, A Cyclist's Song

The best explanation for the surprising association of bicycles and gramophones comes via Norman Field from Frank Andrews, for whom Curry's Records "illustrate a largely forgotten aspect of the early British Gramophone Trade: viz., the 'Gramophone and Bicycle Shop'. They made excellent partners, for both trades were very seasonable. Those who could afford to do so, purchased bicycles in the summer, and phonographs, gramophones and records in the winter months." Curry's was probably the first 'chain' of these combined retail shops; they already had "Depots in Many Towns" as early as 1910. A century later, the nationwide chain of Curry's Discount Warehouses stand in the forefront, as the "UK's Foremost Electrical Retailer" is their byline.

Curry's Cycle Co and Curry's Gramophone Records as one. (http://www.normanfield.com/labelsr.htm)

But why would the bookseller worry? Perhaps the ease which which two new-fangled technologies shared the same showroom strikes us as we worry about the structure of the retail trade for a declining technology: books. As we worry about declining sales of real books, we at least take pleasure in understanding how tradespeople a hundred years ago dealt with their fickle public.