Peter Bacigalupi - Phonograph Marketing Pioneer

(Note: This is an updated version of an article I originally wrote for the June, 2005 issue of "THE SOUND BOX," (now titled THE ANTIQUE PHONOGRAPH) the journal of the The Antique Phonograph Society.)

There were hundreds of phonograph dealers in the 1890s and early 1900s but none have attained the almost cult status of Peter Bacigalupi. It is something of a mystery why Bacigalupi, more than any other dealer, so fascinates collectors today. Certainly his San Francisco store was one of the largest and most important in the country, but there were many other major dealers who are barely remembered today. Henry Babson's Chicago-based business rivaled Bacigalupi's in size and market power, but while Babson's name is at least somewhat familiar to collectors today he doesn't inspire the fervor that Bacigalupi does. And what of Lyon & Healy, Kipp Bros., Vim Co., Eastern Talking Machine Co., Grinnell Bros., Victor Rapke, Blackman Talking Machine Co., C.J. Heppe & Son, and McGreal Bros., among others? All were potent businesses at the time but their legacies are barely felt today. And, as far as I know, no one actively collects their memorabilia. It is understandable why collectors here in the San Francisco Bay area might be intrigued by Bacigalupi, but it is less clear why collectors throughout the United States, and even France and Germany, compete heartily to obtain anything carrying the his name. For whatever reason, Peter Bacigalupi has captured our imaginations.

Although Peter Bacigalupi sold Graphophones and other entertainment devices from a number of companies, his name is particularly intimately connected with Edison. Bacigalupi was the leading Edison jobber (wholesaler) in the western states, as well as the single largest dealer in Edison goods not just phonographs.

Peter Bacigalupi as caricatured in Talking Machine World, and pictured on a contemporary pin-back button.

Born in New York on January 6, 1855, Bacigalupi moved to San Francisco at an early age. He later went to Peru, where he opened a business in Lima in 1881. During a visit to the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 Bacigalupi met the dynamic phonograph pioneer Leon Douglass, a leading figure in the business in Chicago in the 1890s. Douglass sold phonographs and Kinetoscopes, invented and marketed the Polyphone attachment in 1898, and later founded the Victor Talking Machine Co. in partnership with Eldridge Johnson. Bacigalupi was excited by the Edison Class M electric phonograph and arranged to buy some from Douglass for sale in Peru. (Douglass and Bacigalupi later became close friends and even relatives by marriage Douglass married Bacigalupi's step-daughter, Victoria.

Clearly, Bacigalupi had found his niche. Returning to San Francisco a few months later, Peter Bacigalupi wrote to Thomas Edison on March 6, 1894 to inquire about purchasing phonographs directly from the factory for export to Peru. Edison's reply has only recent been uncovered, and it shows that initially he was not particularly impressed by Bacigalupi. As can be seen in the letter, published here for the first time, Edison brushed Bacigalupi aside. Evidently Edison considered him so inconsequential that he didn't even bother to sign the letter himself he left that for his secretary to do in his name! Unfortunately, no followup correspondence is known to survive so we have no way to know how Bacigalupi finally overcame Edison's apparent indifference, but the San Francisco city directory shows that by 1895 Bacigalupi was operating a store called "Edison's Kinetoscope, Phonograph and Graphophone Arcade" at 946 Market Street.

Over the next decade Bacigalupi's business grew rapidly. In addition to selling Edison and Columbia records, Bacigalupi recorded his own. (Reportedly he was the first to record Billy Murray.) Bacigalupi sold Edison phonographs, Columbia Graphophones, movie projectors, "drop card" arcade machines, Polyphones, records, films, horns and other accessories. He also ran a "penny arcade" with Kinetoscopes and coin-operated phonographs. His name graced phonographs as well as record labels and even oil bottles. He was definitely a power to be reckoned with.

Up to 1898, Bacigalupi used a brass tag to label machines he sold. He soon changed to less expensive decals.

Bacigalupi dealer decals used in 1898 and later. The tag on the left lists "Edison Phonograph & Graphophone Agency." In the late 1890s Bacigalupi stopped carrying Graphophones and changed the decal to remove the term.

Bacigalupi pasted his own labels on top of Edison labels on record boxes. At least 14 different variations are known. The bottle of phonograph oil has Bacigalupi's name and address embossed into the glass.

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake was a serious setback, leaving Bacigalupi's entire business in the rubble. His recollection of the catastrophe, published in Edison Phonograph Monthly in July 1906, vividly described the experience and did much to expand his reputation, both at the time and among modern collectors. (The account can be read HERE).

Although Bacigalupi rebuilt his business after the earthquake his dominance in the market declined markedly in subsequent years, in tandem with Edison's. Starting in 1910 the business was renamed Bacigalupi & Sons to reflect the fact that his sons were now active in the company. As his phonograph sales fell he expanded into musical instruments. However Bacigalupi's business was never able to regain the importance it enjoyed prior to the 1906 earthquake, and in 1916 he shut his doors for good. Bacigalupi's twenty-two years in the business were almost evenly divided between glory and decline, fading from a phonograph superstar to a historical footnote. He died in San Francisco on February 22, 1925, at 70 years of age.

Although his fortunes declined, Bacigalupi's name was ultimately to become legendary among collectors all over the world. While he may not have impressed Thomas Edison in early 1894 his legacy has certainly endured in the intervening century.