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Dating Welte-Mignon piano rolls

Recording date on a Welte-Mignon roll label

How do you know a publication date? For most books, simply look for the copyright or edition information at the beginning. For mass produced modern CDs, check the edge of the disc surface for the “p date”, or maybe it will be in the booklet inserted into the container. But what about piano rolls for reproducing and player pianos? Stanford Archive of Recorded Sound’s Player Piano Project faces this question. The publication date certainly isn’t stamped on the label, yet we need it.

There are two possible types of dates available to us when cataloging Welte-Mignon piano rolls in the Denis Condon Collection of Reproducing Pianos and Rolls

  1. Date of catalog availability in the Welte-Mignon catalog

  2. Date of the physical roll we have in the collection

Catalog availability: Dating Welte-Mignon rolls requires a small armful of reference books. The Welte-Mignon catalog date is what is recorded on the bibliographic record for each piano roll in SearchWorks, since it represents the first moment when consumers could purchase the roll. Reference books for dating the Welte-Mignon rolls include:

Physical roll

  • Poughkeepsie rolls (T-100 and T-98): easily identified by their oilcloth leader. The date is often written in pencil on the underside of the leader.

  • Green rolls (T-98): Smith & Howe explains green rolls were released between 1922 and 1932.

  • Recuts: Some include dates on the leader. Otherwise we make an educated guess based on how long the recutter was active.

  • German red rolls (T-100): Date written in pencil at the reroll point at the end.

  • US Licensee rolls (T-98): Does not seem to have a punching date on the resource.

Date on the label

Recording date on a Welte-Mignon roll label

Some early Welte-Mignon red rolls do have a date on the label...but this appears to be the recording date. Often this date is located on the bottom right hand corner of the label, using roman numerals for the month. Sometimes there is a gap of years between the recording date and the publication date. One of the largest gaps I’ve seen in the Condon Collection was about 10 years between recording date and its first catalog issue date.

But what about color?

Don't judge a roll on its container, or its color. Throughout Smith & Howe's rollography, they give some interesting guidance to shades of paper and their relationship to actual perforation dates. However, since determining the shade of paper can be subjective and the catalog data is also available, we are using the catalog issue dates as the primary dates for cataloging.