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The Recording Industry in Two Disks

Two recordings of classical music in the Knott’s collection illustrate the history of the recording industry in the first half of the twentieth century.

The first is a Columbia disk from 1918. The label is printed in three colors and both artists are identified. It also proclaims the prizes won by the recordings and lists several patent numbers. The price is shown to be one dollar, quite a sum in 1918.

Neither of these tunes is familiar today, but these transcriptions are very clean. “Souvenir” is a sweet chamber piece for violin and piano:

“Serenade” is from an opera about the star-crossed love between a young woman and a clown:

Two decades later, in 1940, we find another recording of classical music, this time with two opera hits. The labels are plain and the artists are not even mentioned. The Masterpiece label was sold in dime stores and vanished in a few years but the music is still familiar.


“La Donna e’Mobile” from the opera Rigoletto is immediately recognized even by non-opera fans. The tune has been widely used in cartoons and commercials. It was reportedly being whistled and sung in the streets on the morning following the opera’s premier.

“Vesti La Giubba” from Pagliacci is less familiar but also concerns a broken hearted clown, a theme popularized by this opera.  This tune has also appeared in commercials and even has references in rock and roll.  Pagliacci is mentioned in The Chordette’s “Mr. Sandman” from 1954 as well as in “The Tears of a Clown” by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles in 1967.

In less than two dozen years, records went from exotic and expensive to dime store commodities.


Sasha Jacobsen/Samuel Cotzinoff (1918)



unknown (1940)

A: Vesti La Giubba 

B: La Donna e' Mobile