In 1896, two phonograph engineers were arrested for the first crime not patent related within the recording business. The more famous of the two, Russell Hunting, had made a name for himself inside and out of recording labs. To most, he was a second rate performer in somewhat scandalous burlesque shows, but to some he was the voice of nearly every phonograph.
The lesser known of the two was Charles Carson, one of the most brilliant engineers of the phonograph in the 1890s. While Hunting stole the spotlight upon their arrest, Carson proved to have an interesting life before and after the months they spent in jail. Carson was known to the phonograph world as one of the more unusual figures who manned the machines every day. He came from humble beginnings, but ended up traveling the world more than many people of the time would do in their entire lives.
Charlie, as he was called, Carson was born in 1870, to a rather normal Ohio family. Somehow he ended up getting into the exclusive clique that was the phonograph business at the mere age of 21, proving himself well with maintaining and repairing the machines that were still in a mostly experimental state. In 1892, while helping to invent a sufficient record copying device, he met the newly minted recording start Russell Hunting. Hunting at the time was a B list actor and performer who also had a knack for the phonograph. Hunting and Carson quickly became close friends, attracted to each other by their unusual personalities, and by the phonograph of course.
Hunting recorded comic songs and monologues, but soon he hatched an idea to make some extra money. There was no way at this time to make a living working for the phonograph, but Hunting and Carson made this pipe dream come true. Hunting was a very extroverted and crass character, so it would seem perfectly natural for him to begin making recordings of naughty songs and stories. This idea turned out to be genius.
Soon every phonograph parlor, saloon, club, and any place for amusements began buying up these naughty records. At this time, listening to recorded music was very different than we know it now, phonographs were almost exclusively coin operated. Patrons would come in, put in a nickel, put on the rubber eartubes (the 19th century equivalent to earbuds!) and hear some music or whatever they were interested in hearing that the parlor had.
Phonograph parlors were everywhere in New York in the early and middle 1890s, they quickly became a nuisance to shop owners and commuters to and from work. Complaints of the racket were scattered in most every newspaper of the northeast. Even with all the complaints, people couldn’t get enough of these records.
Nearly every one of them were made by Carson and Hunting (some existed by other artists but theirs were the top-of-the-line copies) in several different locations within New York. Hunting lived near the top of Manhattan, but often changed locations for recording purposes to keep things under wraps. Carson manned the machines he customized for this purpose. He fitted his machines with drawers, advanced electrical wiring, and well-powered motors.
These records that Carson and Hunting made were a little different from most common records of the time. Carson’s machines had the capacity to record brown wax cylinders that recorded at around 100 rpm, playing for up to four and a half minutes. For comparison, a common record of the time plays around 120 rpm and lasts for under three minutes. This innovation wasn’t utilized on a large scale again until the middle to late 1900s, long after the brown wax era. So not only were these records as crass as could be, they were also state of the art!
The material on these records can be a fascinating case study, proving wrong many assumptions many of us may have of Victorian folks. (The author was also quite shocked by these records!) Some of the material that survives would barely get past our modern censors. Anything off color you could think of was spoken by Hunting and a few others he hired. After Hunting made the records, Carson would box them up, and hand deliver them to the buyers.
Carson himself was interested in many aspects of technology, not just the phonograph. He was also an amateur photographer. While he was making and delivering the records for Hunting, he took hundreds of photos. Some of these photos survive to this date, but few from between 1892 and 1898 are left. Carson kept very good ledgers of all their sales and deals with the naughty record buyers, and with that he had likely accumulated many books worth of papers and photographs.
He of course was quite a connoisseur of the smut his partner was recording, he himself being rather obviously homosexual. He had a great wardrobe that included many unusual little pieces; bright colored ties, art nouveau cufflinks, colored starched collars (not just white ones), stylish hats, and clingy work clothes to show off his very slender frame. All of these unusual style choices are evident in many photos of him. In every picture of him there is something special to look for in his ensemble. Both he and Hunting were dandyish if not slightly edgy fashion plates of their day.
In early 1896, Anthony Comstock and his detectives finally pinpointed the origin of these records; he sent two of his men to Hunting’s place in northern Manhattan. As the story goes, the men came in and asked to buy a few of these scandalous records, after which Hunting made two of them for these men. Right afterward, they threw him on the floor and cuffed him, next they went for Carson. When the authorities caught them, they destroyed as many of the records as they could. They used the ledgers and papers that Carson had so diligently kept to track down all the locations of the records. Along with the records and ledgers, many photographs that Carson had taken were also destroyed.
After the trial, the two of them spent the rest of 1896 in jail. By the end of that year, Hunting helped found the trade magazine The Phonoscope. Carson spent the next few years working hard in the Columbia phonograph lab on Broadway in New York. Between 1897 and 1900 his name shows up on hundreds of Columbia brown wax record slips. His name was often stamped or handwritten on the front or back indicating that he was the chief recorder. He was Columbia’s most valuable engineer at this time, as experienced phonograph workers were still uncommon. In 1900 he was sent to Columbia’s London office to make some records there. This trip was the first of many long ones he would make for Columbia. In the coming few years he would go to China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Mexico, Brazil, and other places in Europe.
After accumulating hundreds of stylish art pieces and furniture along his travels, he became weary of recording, and decided to retire to upstate New York in 1908. He spent the rest of his life among various types of fowl he raised, and away from recording, occasionally helping out his old friends from the record labs.
Also read: Charlie Carson Records in the Far East
R. S. Baker has appeared at several Ragtime festivals as a pianist and lecturer. Her particular interest lies in the brown wax cylinder era of the recording industry, and in the study of the earliest studio pianists, such as Fred Hylands, Frank P. Banta, and Frederick W. Hager.