The Mystery of the Universal Autophone (Part II)
by Steven I. Ramm
Illus. No. 1
The cover photograph of the July-August 1992
issue of Antique Phonograph News, showing a
man seated next to his "horn phonograph", nearly knocked me off of my seat when I first saw it. While it
may have been new to many readers of the CAPS newsletter, it was nearly identical to several I had in my ephemera
I anxiously turned to the accompanying article,
"The Mystery of the Universal Autophone", by Bill Pratt
and realized that the author had found another piece in a
"puzzle" I was trying to solve and I, in turn, had answers
to some of the questions he raised. With hopes that there
still may be more pieces to this mystery available, I'm
sharing with CAPS members the information which
I have, and additional photographs from my collection and others that have surfaced.
In his article, Bill explained that in 1983 he had
found a sepia toned photograph (Illus. No. 1) at a flea market in Clarence, New York. It showed a man seated next
to a table on which was a horn talking machine that
appeared to play both cylinders and discs. The label on
the front of the case reads, "Universal Autophone" and
a sign on the wall behind the machine states, "Art
Studio, W.C. Wolfe, Artist". Bill speculated that the
machine was manufactured in Philadelphia because in
the photo those words appear on a blotter behind the
cabinet. Bill had contacted Bill Klinger of Chardon,
Ohio, who estimated the photograph pre-dated 1907,
based on the cylinder boxes pictured.
But neither of the two CAPS members could support their conclusions. Bill
Pratt explained that Allen Koenigsberg, editor of
Antique Phonograph Monthly, had "found, by chance,
at the Newark Phono Show... an original blueprint
folded inside a Decca record jacket". This "blueprint"
was reproduced with Bill's article. From the blueprint
(actually a photograph of a blueprint) Bill was able to
determine that Mr. Wolfe, the inventor, was from
Lilly, Pennsylvania, and the blueprint was dated 1906.
Unfortunately the illustration published did not show
the section where this information appeared due to the
darkness of the original print.
After reading Bill's article I phoned him to advise
him that I, too, had photographs of the Universal
Autophone and additional information. When questioned about a "second" photograph used to illustrate
his article, which showed just the talking machine. Bill
explained that it was actually a "cropped" version
of the cover photograph, and that he only had one picture.
Illus. No. 2
Illus. No. 3
It was also about 1983 when I received a call from
a dealer who locates phonograph ephemera for my collection. She had returned from Cincinnati, Ohio, where
she purchased, at an antique show, three photographs
she thought might interest me. These turned out to be a
photograph of the aforementioned blueprint, and two
different photographs of the Autophone talking
machine. The first showed a man standing next to the
machine (Illus. No. 2) and the second pictured a woman
and two children next to the machine (Illus. No. 3). Both
photographs were taken in the same studio but in the
first photograph the machine has a "straight" horn and
is playing a cylinder record, while in the second the
machine has a "morning glory" horn and is playing a
disc record! They were most unique but I did not fol-
low up with further research at that time.
A few years later, at an antique show in Atlantic
City, I noticed a dealer who had about a dozen copies
of the Autophone "blueprint" picture for sale. They
were all of the same blueprint but the contrast varied,
as though the photographer had made several attempts
at getting a better picture. I inquired about their
source from the dealer and was advised that he was
from Ohio and had picked them up at a location he
could not remember. Of course, I bought them, figuring that I could sell the extra copies to recover some of my original investment.
Then, in 1988 during the Newark Show, I ran into Allen
Koenigsberg and asked him about the
"Autophone". When he said he was not aware of it, I
sold him one of the blueprint photographs I had
recently purchased. This resulted in a call for information in Antique Phonograph Monthly. (Recently Allen
informed me that "maybe [he] did purchase the
photo" from me).
Illus. No. 4
A comparison of the man pictured in Illus. No. 1
with the man in Illus. No. 2 shows them to be different
but with identical table and chairs. The latter is of a
younger man with curly hair. Could this be Mr. Wolfe?
And, does the Cover illustration show Mrs. Wolfe and
their children? Note too that the label on the front of
the case in both photographs is in the "banner" style
used on Edison Home Phonographs, only this time it
states "W.C. Wolfe's Combined Phonograph".
Two years later (1990) I received a letter from a
man in Gobles, Michigan, who said he was researching
the "Universal Autophone" and wanted my help. He
enclosed photocopies of two photographs he had
which were, again, different from mine. I called him
and learned that he collected such photographs, and
had just purchased those of the Autophone at a paper
and book show from a dealer from Toledo, Ohio. The
dealer had bought them at an estate sale.
After Bill Pratt’s article was published, I again
contacted the man in Michigan and he generously
offered to loan me his photographs. To my surprise he
had, not two, but three "new" photographs, one was
partially damaged (Illus. Nos. 4, 5, and 6). These show
the same gentleman as appeared in Bill's photograph.
In Illus. No. 4 he is seated on the opposite side of the
table, with the same horn, but facing to the right,
rather than the left. The label on the machine is the
same as Bill's, but now we see two machines, one with
it's cover on. The machine on the table is also different
than all of the others because the cylinder mandrel has
an end gate which was missing on all the other
machines shown. (In all, the photographs reveal at
least three different models.) In this illustration, note
that the horns on the floor are the same as in the
previously published photograph. The word "Electric"
is missing this time.
Illus. No. 5 shows Mr. Wolfe (?) standing next to
the machine. This appears to be taken at the same
time as Bill's photograph, because the horn is the same
and it is also pointing in the same direction.
Illus. No. 5
Illus. No. 6
Illus. No. 6 intrigued me the most. This shows
two men; one facing the other. One is wearing a
bowler hat while the other has a similar hat in his
hand. When I took the photograph to have a negative
made it was explained that this was an early time exposure which required the subject to pose for up to 15 minutes. When you look at the picture you notice that the curtain appears to be coming through the arm of
the man on the right. I speculate that this is because
Mr. Wolfe (the elder) first posed on the left side of the
phonograph and after six minutes or so walked to the
other side of the phonograph and faced in the other
direction. Because he spent less time in the second
location the exposure was not complete; even though
the subject moved completely across the room any
motion would not be revealed in the "finished" photograph because of the extended exposure time. (This
phenomenon will interest camera fans as well as
The additional photographs, when added to Bill
Pratt’s, raise even more questions to this mystery.
Which man, if either, was Mr. Wolfe? And who were
the woman and children? (Is it conceivable that
"W. C." Wolfe was the woman- artist and inventor-
and the men were her husband and father? How did
the photographs find their way to Ohio? Are there any
more? And, most importantly, do any Universal
Autophone Talking Machines still exist? I hope that
this article will spur other collectors to delve into their
ephemera collections and find more artifacts to help
answer these questions. (A phone call to directory
assistance in Lilly, Pennsylvania, revealed no Wolfe
family residing there.) Perhaps they moved to Ohio
and that is where the Autophones still reside?
This writer would certainly appreciate any additional information from CAPS members or others who may read this article.