The golden age of popular Christmas music started right around the time that the great depression was ending and lasted for over 25 years. It was part of a phenomenon fueled by the convergence of disparate developments, all coming together in a way that might be hard for us to envision today.
Although Thomas Edison had invented the phonograph over 50 years earlier, it took until the 1930’s for a generally accepted format to become widely established. By this time, the 78 RPM record was king. Prior to this established format, each manufacturer produced both records and record players, and they were not interchangeable. The standardization of sound recording and playback was the first piece of the puzzle. Now, record companies could produce and distribute albums, and it could be played on any manufacturers record player.
Around that same time, movies began to have synchronized sound, meaning they could talk and sing. Although movies had been popular since the turn of the century, they were largely considered entertainment for children, and the working masses. With the advent of sound, movies had a surge of popularity, with an appeal to all people. The movie musical was born.
As “talkies” were coming out in the theaters, the world bore witness to the invention of the microphone. Amplified sound, ironically, lead to a singer being able to use nuanced phrasing to express the emotions of a song. Prior to this, a singer had to be a ‘belter’, so that the song could be heard in the last row of the balcony. Arguably, one of the early benefactors of this new technology was Bing Crosby. He had a big hit in 1935 of Silent Night; it foreshadowed the beginning of an era.
Although today, we tend to identify a single song with a particular singer, and perhaps a singer writing his or her own songs, that was not the case before the mid 1950’s. During this earlier period, many singers would record the same song. If the song was a hit there would be plenty of work for songwriters. Even in the depression, when work was tough to find for many people, the entertainment industry had a need for songwriters to supply the demand for movie scores. The Broadway musical, as we know it today, was also developing in this same early period. And then, after W.W.II, came two huge trends: the baby boom, and a prolonged period of affluence which propelled a large number of people into the middle class. People had money to spend; they spent it on themselves, and they spent it on their children. The combination of musical movies, broadway shows and a plethora of songwriters created a broad, prolific period of sophisticated, and skillfully written American popular music, with an attendant proliferation of Christmas tunes.
Collecting Christmas music can be broadly classified into two areas: the music itself; and then all the visual tools used to sell the music. Early on, sheet music established the practice of using attractive illustrations to sell music. Collecting sheet music is a sub-category onto itself. Almost all popular Christmas music of the period could be available in sheet music.
Developments in marketing led to the picture sleeve. This was a protective piece of paper, in envelope form, into which a record could be placed. The picture sleeve, started with children’s records after W.W.II, and spread into all music shortly thereafter. It became the way to visually attract the customer to the record. They are often colorful and are collected in their own right. They developed at the same time the seven inch, 45 RPM record (the one with the big hole) became the standard for selling a single song.
During the 1930’s and 1940’s, when the 10 inch 78 RPM was the main format, a group of records could be purchased in an album. That is, the music from a movie or Broadway show was put onto a group of records, and the records were sold in a folder with pages that held the records and resembled a book or “album”. Hence, the derivative of the word. The cover of the album was often a scene from the show, or some other illustration conveying visually what was inside musically. When the 12″ LP developed in the mid 1950’s, the word album was still used. This time, the large format gave illustrators a bigger area to show off their work. These albums are also collectible, and a very important part of collecting music.
Some collectors enjoy the sound of the early records, and actually play their collections. Other collectors just like the appearance of the album, and collect them as such. A tremendous amount of early Christmas music is available in modern formats, and some collectors enjoy listening to early recordings in that way. Often, the illustration which was used on an early record is replicated on the cover of a modern CD.