No Nipper? No! - Who’s a Good Trademark?

Monday, September 26, 2022

Many people are familiar with Nipper, the iconic mascot and trademark of the RCA Victor Company. The little black-and-white terrier was painted by his owner, the artist Francis Barraud (1856-1924), sometime between late 1898 and early 1899.

The resulting work, His Master’s Voice, was purchased for use as a trademark in 1899 by the Gramophone Company, Ltd., with the agreement that the painting be altered to replace Nipper’s Edison cylinder phonograph with a company-branded model. The company also retained the title of the painting for use as an advertising slogan.

The image was transferred to the Victor Company after Emile Berliner (1851-1929), the founder of the Gramophone Company, registered it as a trademark in the United States and Canada in 1900. One year later, those rights were purchased by Eldridge Johnson (1867-1945), a machinist Berliner had contracted to manufacture gramophones in the United States and the founder of the Victor Talking Machine Company in Camden, New Jersey. The image would be retained after the company was acquired by the Radio Corporation of America in 1929, becoming RCA Victor.

From 1901 on and throughout acquisition by various companies associated with RCA and the Gramophone Company, including Electrola, Japan Victor Company (JVC), EMI, and HMV Retail Ltd., Nipper’s likeness adorned audio products, shop windows, and promotional marketing materials across the globe. Variations on the Nipper trademark continue to be used today. However, the fragmented nature of the trademark among competitors has resulted in the corporations that own the likeness reducing their reliance on the image in the later part of the twentieth century. 

But Nipper’s persistent fame wasn’t inevitable. After prominently featuring Nipper in advertising beginning in 1901 and on Victor product labels in 1902, the Victor Talking Machine Company also registered and briefly experimented with other trademarks far less recognizable today than Barraud’s world-famous pup. Three of them are documented in Hagley Library’s RCA Victor Camden/Frederick O. Barnum III collection.

One trademark - seen here in the U.S. Patent Office document below at left - was a “young woman dressed in evening attire,” registered on April 28, 1903, after being first put into use in February of that year. Another, seen below at right, was created for use in January 1904. This trademark, registered in March of that same year, was developed for consumer products in present-day China. According to a July 4, 1908, issue of the Music Trade Review, this trademark was employed out of concern that Asian consumers would find Nipper, “a little dog … mystified by a human voice coming from a metal funnel,” a “distasteful” comparison to “human listeners.

A personal favorite, however, is a third trademark design, registered in April 1903 after being put into use the previous month. This trademark replaced Nipper with a critter the trademark statement described as an “ape.” As in the case of the trademark of the young woman, it isn’t clear which products featured this image.  

It is also possible that the design was a short-lived one, intended only to thwart the ambitions of a competitor; a December 10, 1904, issue of the Music Trade Review discusses a trademark in development by the Universal Talking Machine Manufacturing Company in New York that featured “a monkey or ape—possibly a chimpanzee, or it might be an ourang-outang … crouched before a reproducing horn, listening intently ….” A later issue, published on September 30, 1905, revealed that the Universal Talking Machine had abandoned the trademark. 


Skylar Harris is the Digitization and Metadata Coordinator at Hagley Museum and Library.