The Lambert Company of Chicago is one of the most important recording labels in the history of the early music industry but its impact, due to the industry’s litigious nature in its nascent years, has been nearly erased. Best known today for its technological innovations in sound recording and its bright pink cylinders, the Lambert Company also released some 48 Yiddish- and Hebrew-language cylinders first recorded by the Standard Phonographic Company of New York.
Thomas Lambert was born Devillo Levi Bennett on December 4, 1864 in Wellington, Ohio, to a family of agricultural equipment manufacturers. His parents died when he was 16, at which point Bennett began living with his mother's family and, at age 21, entered Cornell University where he studied Mechanical Engineering, graduating in 1886.
We do not know when or why Bennett changed his name nor do we know what prompted him to enter the nascent sound recording industry. But by May 1892, Lambert was living in Chicago where he began experiments making cylinders out of celluloid—a pliable form of plastic that could be used as a mold to mass produce recordings. Prior to Lambert's invention recording labels manufactured cylinders using wax, which often deteriorated after roughly a dozen plays. Lambert's recordings, however, proved to be a far more rigid medium that allowed for both superior fidelity and durability.
According to Angus Joss, Lambert first exhibited his invention in 1897 to little fanfare. It was not until he met Albert Philpot in 1899 that he received the financial backing necessary to produce his cylinders on a larger scale. Lambert quickly filed a patent for his invention on August 14, 1899, and formed the Lambert Record Company on March 5, 1900, with Brian and Albert Philpot, Joseph Powell, and several other business interests. The company started strong, selling some two to three thousand cylinders by the end of May 1900 and over 75,000 by the end of their first year. In addition to the company's financial success, Lambert’s cylinders won a bronze medal at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition held in St. Louis, Missouri.
Lambert's recordings allowed for both superior fidelity and durability
The label’s initial cylinders were white—the natural color of the celluloid used in the manufacturing process—but by 1902 their cylinders were bright pink, the color being either the result of combining soft, red celluloid with a heavier, white material or simply a marketing ploy. By 1903 the Lambert Company was dyeing its cylinders black, which they would remain until the label went bankrupt in 1906.
In either 1902 or 1903, the Lambert Company first began releasing the Yiddish-language recordings originally produced by the Standard Phonographic Company of New York. Featured in their catalogue under the heading "Attractive Hebrew Selections," these recordings represented a stark depature for a label whose typical fare consisted of vaudeville sketches, marches, and minstrel tunes (for more on the Lambert Yiddish cylinders, see Standard Phonographic Company of New York).
Thomas Edison took notice of Lambert’s innovations almost immediately after the label’s founding, and in late 1902 he brought the first of several frivolous lawsuits against the Lambert Company. Despite losing every case, by January 1906 Edison's lawsuits had the intended effect of draining Lambert’s finances, causing the label to declare bankruptcy. At the time of its demise, the Lambert Company had released over 1,300 recordings.
After leaving the company, Lambert worked in toy making and later entered the telephone industry, working for Illinois Bell. Towards the end of his life, he became a vice president at Marsh Laboratories, the home of Autograph Records and the first label to commercially release electrical recordings. Lambert's skills as an engineer extended far beyond his knowledge of audio technology; his obituary lists a number of fields in which he claimed expertise: telegraphy, telephony, photography, moving pictures, and radio.
Lambert died in Chicago on January 9, 1928, survived by his wife Mabel and daughter Gertrude Lambert Carl. His Masonic obituary noted that "Personally Illustrious Brother Lambert was a lovable character, a student of exceptional versatility, a lover of good literature, art and all that is beautiful, a poet of no mean caliber, yet rarely given to poesy; reserved in the presence of strangers yet frankly witty and entertaining when surrounded by his familiars. Square as a die and honest as the day is long was often said of 'Tom' Lambert."
Scott A. Carter
"New Incorporations." Chicago Daily Tribune. March 6, 1900: 10.
Proceedings of the Supreme Council of Sovereign Grand Inspectors General of the Thirty-third and Last Degree of the Ancient Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry for the Northern Masonic Jurisdiction of the United States of America. Boston, 1928: 314-315.
Joss, Angus. "The Celluloid Record." The American Record Guide. February, 1946: 155-157.
Klinger, Bill. "Lambert Co." In Encyclopedia of Recorded Sound in the United States, ed. Guy A. Marco. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1993: 380-381.
Koenigsberg, Allen. "In the Pink: A Lambert Discography." Antique Phonograph Monthly. May 1981: 4-10.