was robert cohen the godfather of shrinkwrapped albums?

Es­ti­mated reading time is 4 min­utes.

SHRINK-WRAPPING ALBUMS did not be­come stan­dard prac­tice for the Amer­ican record in­dustry until 1963-1964. Prior to that, EP al­bums and LP al­bums were shipped to whole­salers and re­tailers without any pro­tec­tion! Then Robert B. Cohen, a rack jobber in New Jersey, started wrap­ping records in pro­tec­tive plastic sleeves, making him the “God­fa­ther of Shrinkwrapped Albums.”

If you started buying al­bums in the US after 1963, you grew up thinking that Wholly Grom­mett in Heaven had cre­ated shrinkwrap some­time after He took a break from cre­ating the World. That is, it seemed like LP al­bums had al­ways be­come this way from man­u­fac­turer to consumer.

I am here to nom­i­nate Robert B. Cohen as the “God­fa­ther of Shrinkwrapped Albums.”

These plastic cov­er­ings were thin sheets of trans­parent polyvinyl chlo­ride, which is the same sub­stance that is used to make “vinyl” records! An album (which min­i­mally con­sists of a record in­side a card­board sleeve) was wrapped in the PVC, sealed, and “shrunk” using heat so that the wrap clung to the jacket like a new skin.

But when I first started going record shop­ping in ’64, I was sur­prised to see that older al­bums sit­ting in the racks—especially in in­de­pen­dently owned stores—were often without shrinkwrap.

Someone at one of the record shops I vis­ited ex­plained to me that the clingy plastic wrap was a fairly new in­no­va­tion and that older al­bums without it were still brand new and unplayed.

 

Godfather: Elvis Presley's A TOUCH OF GOLD VOLUME 1 album from 1958.

Godfather: Miles Davis's KIND OF BLUE album from 1959.

Elvis Pres­ley’s A Touch Of Gold Volume 1 (RCA Victor EPA-5088) from 1958 is en­closed in a baggy-like wrapper made of thick plastic with a price sticker printed on the baggy. A few record com­pa­nies adopted this “baggy” to pro­tect LP records in their jackets. The per­fo­rated top of the baggy for this copy of Miles Davis’s Kind Of Blue (Co­lumbia CS-8163) from 1959 has been torn open to ac­cess the record.

Sealed cellophane sleeves

While cruising back is­sues of Bill­board and Cash Box for in­for­ma­tion about the first Elvis Presley records that RCA Victor re­leased in late 1955, I stum­bled upon an ar­ticle that may have ad­dressed the be­gin­ning of the Amer­ican record in­dus­try’s selling al­bums in pro­tec­tive plastic coverings.

The De­cember 31, 1955, issue of Bill­board fea­tured an ar­ticle ti­tled Jobber on the Rack With Profit In­roads.” It was date­lined from New York on De­cember 24, 1955. A rack jobber is “a man­u­fac­turer who dis­plays and sells their goods in a store and shares the profit with the store owner.” (Cam­bridge Dic­tio­nary) In the record busi­ness of the 1950s, a rack jobber was rarely a man­u­fac­turer but an in­di­vidual who rep­re­sented most major and many in­de­pen­dent record companies. 

Here are the per­ti­nent parts of the ar­ticle (with slight ad­just­ments made to the text and punc­tu­a­tion to re­semble the style of this blog and ital­i­cized em­phasis added by me):

“The rack job­bers have their trou­bles, too. The worst of these, per­haps, is the rel­a­tively low mark-up on which both jobber and rack store must op­erate. The stores car­rying racks have been com­plaining in some lo­cales about reg­ular disk dealers and de­part­ment stores who sell major label pop disks for 69¢.

Since the rack re­tailer op­er­ates on 25% profit, he can’t meet this com­pe­ti­tion. Then, too, many stores feel the 25% is low con­sid­ering the mark-ups of up to 40% they re­ceive from job­bers of hard goods (such as pots, pans, etc.).

Many dealers also have been com­plaining about the lack of pro­tec­tion against pil­ferage. Su­per­market cus­tomers, they in­sist, are un­usu­ally adept at making bar­gains for them­selves by switching $1.49 EPs into 25¢ jackets.

One big rack jobber in the East, Mer­shaw of New Jersey, is trying to pro­tect its ac­counts by the de­vice of pack­aging its disks in sealed cel­lo­phane sleeves. This is ac­com­plished at a cost of 24¢ per disk, in­cluding labor.”

The ar­ticle ad­dresses the prob­lems that the rack job­bers were having in dis­playing their wares and not having them stolen or dam­aged. Mer­shaw of New Jersey started en­casing their al­bums (here they are dis­cussing seven-inch, 45 rpm EP al­bums al­though I am un­cer­tain of what records were selling for a quarter in the ’50s) in plastic sleeves.

So, 1955 may be the year that Amer­ican record al­bums were first wrapped in pro­tec­tive plastic sleeves, leading to the less cum­ber­some and more at­trac­tive shrinkwrap­ping in the early ’60s.

 

Godfather: the Beatles' RUBBER SOUL album from 1965.

Godfather: the Beach Boys' CARL AND THE PASSIONS – SO TOUGH album from 1972.

This factory-sealed copy of the Bea­tles’ Rubber Soul (Capitol T-2442) from 1965 has a sticker ad­ver­tising Paul singing Michelle af­fixed to the shrinkwrap. The Beach Boys’ ab­surdly ti­tled Carl And The Pas­sions – So Tough (Reprise 2MS-2083) from 1972 is a two-record album in a gate­fold jacket. To open the jacket, the owner had to re­move the shrinkwrap. Con­se­quently, finding a copy in opened shrinkwrap such as the one above is not easy.

Godfather of Shrinkwrapped Albums

There is not much in­for­ma­tion about Mer­shaw of New Jersey on the in­ternet. It was a rack job­bing com­pany started by owner and pres­i­dent Robert B. Cohen, pos­sibly to dis­play and move books for Simon & Schuster. By 1960, the com­pany had of­fices in Florida, Mary­land, New Jersey, New York, and Penn­syl­vania. Cohen was suc­cessful and ex­panded into mag­a­zines and media.

If there is an ear­lier in­stance of records being wrapped than the in­stances de­scribed in “Jobber on the Rack With Profit In­roads,” the only way to find it would be to read through every issue of Bill­board and Cash Box from 1948 through 1955—which I am not about to do. Un­less someone else stum­bles over an ear­lier ar­ticle in one of the trade mag­a­zines, 1955 and Mer­shaw will have to suf­fice as the be­gin­ning of record-wrapping!

So then, I am here to nom­i­nate Robert B. Cohen as the “God­fa­ther of Shrinkwrapped Albums”!

I am here to nom­i­nate Robert B. Cohen as the ‘God­fa­ther of Shrinkwrapped Al­bums.’ Click To Tweet

Godfather: the Beatles' A HARD DAY'S NIGHT soundtrack album from 1964.

FEATURED IMAGE: The image at the top of this page is a stereo copy of the Bea­tles’ A HARD DAY’S NIGHT album (United Artists UAS-6366) from 1964. The record was en­cased in a sealed plastic “baggy” for ad­di­tional pro­tec­tion. This copy was sold by Her­itage Auc­tions (“The World’s Largest Col­lectibles Auc­tioneer”) for $1,250 in 2014. The photo above is from the Her­itage auction.

 


 

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