Guys and dolls - Edison and other phonograph dolls

Phonograph Dolls That Talk and Sing

by Robin and Joan Rolfs

This article is part of the Noteworthy News Archives

Additional photographs of the Edison doll.

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 Batchelor’s 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.

Edison doll motor
Charles Batchelor's 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 wouln’t stay in the groove, the wax records were too fragile, and the dolls just wouldn’t 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 Edison’s 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 Edison’s man Ezra Gilliland. Lioret experimented with celluloid as a recording medium, and developed an efficient if primitive clockwork motor with cardboard diaphram--Edison’s 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.

Lioret doll chest plateLioret doll motor
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 wasn’t 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 can’t be sure) and were equipped with horns funnelling through the heads; the later, more familiar models employed a robust Averill coil spring motor.

Arnoldia phonograph doll
>The 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 Doll.

Madame Hendren phonograph doll
Averill's Madame Hendren was introduced in 1922. From A Gallery of Vintage Phonographs, With Prices.

Averill phonograph doll motor
Later Averill motor, disassembled.

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.

Copyright 2015 Lynn Bilton

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


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