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Forgotten giant

Hawthorne and Sheble was the industry's fourth largest powerhouse, yet is little remembered today.

(September 1997)

Around 1893 Ellsworth Hawthorne, a prosperous manufacturer of bicycle accesoriesMahoganyStar(7577 bytes) in the Philadelphia area, was searching for a product to supplement his business. Sales were brisk during the summer riding season, but soft during the winter. Like many others, he turned to the phonograph.

Illustraphone.gif (6754 bytes)With a family friend, Horace Sheble, he obtained an Edison dealership in Philadelphia. They chose the title Edison Phonograph Agency, but Edison shortly thereafter objected to what he saw as the misappropriation of his good name, and so the firm was renamed as simply Hawthorne and Sheble.

The demise of the bankrupt North American Phonograph Company in 1894 birthed a free-for-all in the record business, with a plethora of regional companies issuing brown wax cylinders, including Hawthorne and Sheble who recorded pioneer singers Herbert Holcombe and Charles Asbury.

But it was as a manufacturer of accessories that the company found its niche. Listening tubes had never proven popular with the average owner, so the firm invented a brazed, seamless horn. As machines came down in price the company introduced the inexpensive familiar brass bell horn with black enamelled body and all sorts of cranes. Hawthorne and Sheble became the largest aftermarket manufacturer in the world, offering at one time more than 100 different types of horns alone.

By 1898 the firm's expertise had become well enough regarded in the trade that Edison approached it to manufacture his new 5 inch machine. A few prototypes were assembled when as part of some legal infighting Hawthorne and Sheble was sued and enjoined by Columbia. The project eventually appeared as the Edison Concert, though it survived in a Hawthorne and Sheble version as an attachment to convert a 2 inch machine into a 5 inch machine, the Dupliphone.

(Relations with Edison weren't always so cordial:as dealers and jobbers of Edison goods the name of Hawthorne and Sheble often appeared on Edison's "Suspended List" or blacklist for price cutting, which was illegal under the reigning Fair Trade laws.)

Star35.gif (4240 bytes)Early catalogues depict a bedazzling cornucopia of special reproducers, custom cases for the Gem and Q, ornate record cabinets and more.

Around late 1904 a decision was made to go into the record business. The firm went into partnership with E.M. Prescott, an official of the International Zonophone Company. Prescott had supervised Zonophone's European operations and had advertised in trade journals that he designed record pressing plants.

A brilliant blue American Record embellished with a logo of an Indian puffing a pipe was introduced. Some of the records were probably pressed at Odeon's facilities in Europe, as they seem to measure in metric sizes. Original matrices, the records sold well, particularly as client forms such as Busy Bee. "If the present rush continues we expect to manufacture 5 million records by 1906," Ellsworth Hawthorne confided to Talking Machine World.

At this time Hawthorne moved the sales office to his new home in Springfield, Massachusetts. Sheble remained as factory manager.

Around 1906 the Indian was retired and a new line of Star records made from Columbia matrices was introduced. (All but the first four digits of the Columbia matrix number was dropped.) An initial gambit into the machine sweepstakes, the Star phonograph, was announced. To be on the safe side, both the five pointed and the six pointed star were trademarked.

There was a full batallion of Star machines, many more commonly seen in camoflage asStar 18.gif (4644 bytes) client brands, such as the Busy Bee and Arretino made by O'Neill James, the Imperial #1 and #2 made for the D and R Record Company, and the True Tone made for Wurlitzer.

But there was also a very substantial Star with H and S nameplate that ported a Yielding Pressure Arm invented by Thomas Kraemer. A subtrefuge against the Berliner patents, a small spring in the arm was supposed to exert a gentle feed.

In keeping with the "ola" craze there was also a Starola, a sumptuous horn-in-lid machine on the order of the Keene-o-phone.

By early 1907, with over 1000 employees, Hawthorne and Sheble had reached itsStar22.gif (3636 bytes) highwater mark. Besides a facility in Bridgeport, Connecticut, a major center of manufacture, the firm owned three factories in Philadelphia.

Factory Number 1, at Howard and Jefferson Streets, consisted of 80,000 square feet and manufactured flowered horns, floor cranes and the Star talking machine. Factory Number 2, at Masher and Oxford Streets, contained 25,000 square feet and spewed out spun bell horns and flower horns. Factory Number 4, at 1109-1121 N. Front Street, was a complete iron foundry. So intense was business, confided Horace Sheble, that the company had been obliged to rebuild its entire nickel plating facility to keep up with the demand for cranes.

There was also a recording laboratory at 241 W. 23rd St. in New York City.

And yet lean times were ahead. With the advent of the internal horn Victrola demand for horns diminished and the company fought for market share with other suppliers such as theTea Tray Company, which owned the patent on the 14" self-supporting horn.

The panic of 1907-08, during which business imploded 29% nationwide, was particulary brutal upon the phonograph industry. Hawthorne and Sheble sales were almost nil.

Just as the Great Depression brought out the jukebox, the hard times of 1908 brought out a sequence of coin-operated amusement machines such as the Regina Hexaphone and the Multiphone. Hawthorne and Sheble's entry was the Illustraphone, a series of rotating glass slides with cylinder musical accompaniment. It wasn't enough.

The coup-de-grace was delivered by a Victor lawsuit. Victor had been picking off the smaller companies like Keene-o-phone and Talk-o-phone on the basis of its Berliner needle-in-the-groove patents and had turned its attention to the Star machines.

The Yielding Pressure Feed didn't stand up to court scrutiny and in June 1909--at the instance of the Victor Talking Machine Co.--Hawthorne and Sheble was petitioned in bankruptcy. Liabilities were estimated at $140,000; assets were machinery at $70,000, talking machines at $22,000, and supplies at $12,000.

On April 11, 1910 the stock of Hawthorne and Sheble was sold at public auction. Macy's department store bought all the Star records.

Ellsworth Hawthorne with some new associates set up the Hawthorne Manufacturing Company and sold Columbia records under the Clarion label. Horace Sheble became factory manager for Columbia.

Hawthorne and Sheble had a fabulous 16 year  run as an industry powerhouse, yet because they manufactured most accessories they are little remembered by collectors today--a forgotten giant.

Sources: Fabrizio, Tim and Paul, George. The Talking Machine, an Illustrated Compendium.
Koenigsberg, Allen. Patent History of the Phonograph.
Read and Welch. From Tin Foil to Stereo.
Talking Machine World.


1998 Lynn Bilton