In 1887 Thomas A. Edison proposed to rescue his faltering phonograph
works by entering the doll business. Charles Batchelor, his chief lieutenant,
shaved a half inch off a business cylinder and squeezed it into a compact
mechanism with traversing mandrel and stationary reproducer, improving
upon a prior design by William W. Jacques. The patent was taken out in
Batchelors name, and Edison and Batchelor were assigned stock in
the Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Company. The dolls, fitted with
Simon and Halbig heads, were to retail up to $25 each.
Edison announced plans to manufacture 500 dolls per day. The doll factory,
prominently touted in the April 26, 1890 issue of Scientific American,
employed around 100 people, the men assembling the motors and the girls
dressing the dolls, and initially the factory could not keep up with demand.
star-crossed Edison doll motor. (Courtesy Robin and Joan Rolfs)
Then disaster reared. Dealers began returning the dolls in droves: one
dealer returned 188 out of a shipment of 200. The steel sylus woulnt
stay in the groove, the wax records were too fragile, and the dolls just
wouldnt hold up to the service and abuse of children. The dolls
were remaindered out to retailers such as F.A.O. Schwartz or resold with
the mechanisms removed.
So begins the chronology of Robin and Joan Rolfs book Phonograph
Dolls That Talk and Sing, the fulfillment of a work by the late Bessie
Seiter, the first ever volume devoted to the history of the phonograph
as incorporated into the doll. The idea of a talking doll was a fancy
as old as mankind. Other dolls, both successful and obscure, would follow
in the wake of Edisons debacle. Berliner, for one, tried his hand
in 1888 with a doll that played 3 discs with a key shaped spindle:
the only known example now sits in a museum in Germany.
Around 1892 the prestigious French dollmaker Emile Jumeau broached the
idea of a talking doll with Parisian clockmaker Henri Lioret. Lioret was
familiar with the Edison doll, which had been marketed on the continent
by Edisons man Ezra Gilliland. Lioret experimented with celluloid
as a recording medium, and developed an efficient if primitive clockwork
motor with cardboard diaphram--Edisons doll had required continual
cranking. The Bebe Jumeau was sold until 1898 and was a fair success,
as well as birthing the French phonograph industry.
The Lioret Jumeau doll,
shown at left with chest plate, and at right showing cardboard drum diaphragm.
From A Gallery of Vintage Phonographs, With Prices.
From around 1906 on a few dolls were advertised such as the Jenny Lind
and the Primadona, and most notably the Arnolda or Arnoldia (it was spelled
both ways) by Max Arthur Arnold of Germany. But it wasnt until the
1920s that composition dolls began to be mass produced in quantities large
enough that many still find their way into the hands of present day collectors.
Most of these dolls, the Madame Georgene, the Madame Hendren and the Dolly
Rekord, can be attributed to the Averill Manufacturing Company of New
York. Some of the earlier models used a belt driven motor probably of
Averill design (the Rolfs cant be sure) and were equipped with horns
funnelling through the heads; the later, more familiar models employed
a robust Averill coil spring motor.
Arnoldia was powered by a motor similar to the Columbia Q. (Courtesy Robin
and Joan Rolfs)
The Dolly Rekord was never sold but always offered as a premium, such
as for newspaper subscriptions. This led to all sorts of alias in different
places; near Syracuse, New York, for example, it was known as the Watertown
Averill's Madame Hendren
was introduced in 1922. From A Gallery of Vintage Phonographs, With
Later Averill motor,
One unsolved mystery regards who manufactured the blue celluloid cylinders
after the Albany Indestructible plant was consumed by fire in 1922, for
the Dolly Rekord lived on for at least three years after.
The Rolfs have catalogued talking dolls up to the 1990s, but there is
profuse illustration of the bodies and mechs of the earlier dolls of greatest
appeal to phonograph collectors. There is also a section on basic disassembly
and repair of the Averill motor.
The authors will be autographing books at the Richfield show, or the volume
can be purchased through the mail for $28 from Audio Antique LLC, W6273
Cedar Cliff Dr., Hortonville, WI 54944.