The articulate doll

One of the first practical uses of the phonograph was as a child's toy.

April 1992
This article is part of the Noteworthy News archives.

A doll that articulates human speech had been a dream throughout the ages. By the 19th century, doll technology had progressed so far as to mimic a baby's cry from a reed vibrated by a bellows. In 1877, Edison prophesied, "I propose to apply the phonograph principle to make dolls speak, sing, cry...also to all kinds of toys such as dogs, animals, flowers, reptiles."

Here's an overview of some of the babies offered for adoption by the phonograph companies:


Edison dolls

It wasn't Edison but William White Jacques, an inventor who had worked with Berliner on telephone improvements in the early 1880s, who first filed a patent for a combination phonograph and doll in October, 1887. White sent a letter to Edison because he felt he needed a license from the famous inventor. White's hand wound cylinder doll was never manufactured, but the letter seems to have triggered Edison's dormant passion to go into the doll business.

White's patents were assigned to Edison, and the project was taken up by Edison's closest associate, Charles Batchelor. Batchelor's two young daughters tested prototypes of the new toy, and in October 1888, Batchelor filed a patent, followed by Edison's patent in July 1889.

A prototype of the doll, with records in French, was exhibited at the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition.

About this time Edison and a group of investors incorporated the Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Company of  Maine. A beautifully engraved picture of Santa Claus adorned the stock certificates.

As finally manufactured, the doll bore wooden arms and legs, a metal torso, and a bisque head imported from the German doll firm of Simon and Halbig.

Although Edison's patent caveat sated that a saphire stylus could be employed, the production doll employed a metal stylus, a decision that would later haunt the inventor. A fixed brown wax cylinder, three inches long, was advanced at a pitch of 56 threads per inch. There was a feed screw, but no spring motor nor mechanical governor. The child was expected to have the expertise to maintain the proper rpm by himself.

Although the records were not interchangeable, twelve titles were offered, recorded by young women at the Edison factory. The name of one of the young voices is known: Julia Miller, daughter of Walter Miller, an Edison employee.

Introduced at an Edison exhibit at the Lenox Lyceum in New York City on April 7, 1890, at a cost of $25, the dolls were later offered through the mail and by retailers such as F.A.O. Schwartz.

An 1891 Harper's Young People articule gushed: "In 1890 about 500 young people were engaged in the manufacture of phonographs and talking dolls at the Edison establishment. Half were employed in the manufacture of each article. It took eighteen women just to recite the nursery rhymes."

Despite such publicity, the dolls were a disaster.

Edison doll mechanism

Out of 10,000 dolls assembled, 2500 were eventually approved for shipment. Within a month, disgruntled customers started returning most of the dolls to the factory. The steel stylus tore up the wax cylinder, and the mechanism could not withstand a child's abuse.

At the same time Edison had a falling out with his business partners. For patent reasons he found that he could not sell the dolls with the mechanism intact so in order to salvage some money from the disaster he sold the dolls with the mechanism removed. Dolls were remaindered at a price of $10.

All told, less than 500 dolls were ever sold with the phonograph complete.

A large part of the unsold inventory was shovelled under the earth at West Orange, where the doll burial ground remains to this day.


Max Arthur Arnold was a German manufacturer of mechanical dolls between 1904-1914. In 1906 he patented a composition body doll that played a wax cylinder about 3" long. The doll was sold as the Arnolda or Arnoldia.


On a trip to Europe around 1889 Emile Berliner struck a deal with the German firm of Kammer and Reinhardt to incorporate the fledgling gramophone in a doll. Kammer and Reinhardt, a manufacturer of dolls and mechanical apparatus, pressed a single sided 3" disc for the toy, the world's first commercail disc record. In lieu of a record securer, the discs were held in place by a center spindle shaped like a keyhold.

The only known surviving example of this doll, about two feet tall, sits in a museum in Waltershausen, Germany.


Lioret Jumeau phonograph doll

A well established Parisian clock and automaton maker, Henri Lioret was approached in 1893 by the Jumeau doll firm to create a talking doll for the daughter of the visiting Russian czar.

Lioret had been awarded a bronze medal at the Parist Exhibition of 1878, and must have been familiar with the Edison exhibit there, which had caused a stir in technical circles all over Europe. As an improvement over Edison's wax record, Lioret chose to work with durable celluloid.

The Bebe Phonograph was introduced to the market in 1896 at a cost of 58 francs by Jumeau, a firm of extraordinary prestige. She stood about 25" tall, with open mouth and composition body. At least 12 titles were offered.

Lioret's interchangeable cylinders, running at 100 rpm, were fashioned of white celluloid. There was a clockwork motor,  metal stylus, and no feed screw. As a prophylactic measure, Lioret advised the child operator to lubricate the cylinder frequently with olive oil.

It isn't often that a baby gives birth, but the Bebe Phonograph begat the French phonograph industry. Lioret's mechanism, dubbed "Le Merveilleux," was later employed in his vertical box phonograph and his talking clock.

Dolly Reckord

Dolly Rekord phonograph doll

This doll most familiar to collectors was made from 1921-23 by the Averill Manufacturing Company as part of its Madame Hendren line. It was also given away in promotions under various names such as the Gloria K or the Watertown Doll. A doll with a slightly different face but the same mechanism was sold as the Mae Starr.

The motor was patented by Richard Arthur in 1917, to replace an earlier doll that whispered "mama."

With a composition head on a cloth body, Dolly Rekord played interchangeable blue or black records on a saphire stylus.

The cylinders have the look of those manufactured by the Albany Indestructible Company, one of the few sources of cylinder records as late as 1921. This might solve the mystery of why the good selling Dolly Reckord was discontinued in 1923: one year earlier, fire had gutted the Albany Indestructible plant.

Sources: Koenigsberg, Allen. Patent History of the Phonograph.
King, Constance and Eileen. Collector's Encyclopedia of dolls.

Copyright 2017 Lynn Bilton

Lynn Bilton
Box 435
Randolph,OH 44265
330 325-7866


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