The Cremonaphone Story
by Norman F. Brooks
The Cremonaphone was a product of
Amberst Pianos Ltd., located in Amherst,
Nova Scotia. Before commenting on the
companies gramophone business, a short history of
the company is in order.
Amherst was a bustling town in 1912, with a
growing population. Like so many small communities then, as now, they were eager to attract new industry. A Mr. Lamy, writing in the 1930's, says
in his Thesis on Amherst business that the town
was "industrially mad." So it perhaps comes as no
surprise that in the fall of 1912, rumours began
circulating about the establishment of a piano factory. In fact, Amherst was already making pianos on a very small scale at this time. A Mr. H.A.
Hillcoat had produced a piano that had been used
at the new Empress Theatre, which opened in
December of 1911. He had patented a new friction
pin block to keep a piano in tune. Mr. Hillcoat,
who had been operating a music store since before
the turn of the century enlisted a number of local
firms to aid him in the construction of his pianos.
In February of 1912, the announcement was made that
the Hillcoat Piano Co. would be producing 20 pianos.
However, this small enterprise was to be absorbed after
the formation of Amherst Pianos, which was announced
on January 8th, 1913. The new concern began building
pianos immediately but it wasn’t until November that its
new factory building was complete.
Just when the Amherst Pianos concern decided to enter
the gramophone business is unclear. The President of the
company, Mr. J.A. McDonald was certainly well versed
with the merits of the gramophone. He operated a chain
of music stores headquartered in Halifax and was an official Victor dealer.
At the inaugural banquet to officially open the new factory, attended by
nearly 500 people, a Victrola demonstration was given. Later, in April 1916,
when the capitalization of the company was increased,
one wonders if gramophone production was being
planned. The official unveiling of the Cremonaphone
occurred on April 14, 1917 (in general the Company
referred to its product as a "talking machine"). A large
advertisement in the Amherst Daily News announced
the exciting news. Surprisingly I have yet to find any
further comment in the local papers regarding this
event. This seems odd as the recent opening of two
Pathé shops did garner interest. Commenting on this
event, one reporter wrote, "their rooms were visited by
quite a large number of ladies and gentlemen who listened with great interest..."
The following September the Cremonaphone was
exhibited at the Provincial Exhibition in Halifax.
According to reports of the event, the Cremonaphone
was met with enthusiasm. "Each year shows something new and something better and this year interest is centering in the marvelous
Cremonaphone." "...the manufacturers have attained fine artistic effects... in the
design of the case and its finish, in the rolling front
doors... and in the special construction of the amplifier
and Bliss reproducer which have given the
Cremonaphone its cello qualities." Mention is also made
of an electrically driven machine. This use of tambour
doors ("roll top desk" style) over the horn was one of the
most notable features of the Cremonaphone. If anyone
knows what a Bliss reproducer was let me know,
I suspect it is just a brand name. The Cremonaphones
I have seen incorporate a universal style tone arm and an inexpensive
"pillar and plate" style motor. The equipment
appears to be from the Otto Heineman Co. in the USA.
The connection from tone arm base to wooden horn
varies from tin to cast iron. I have only seen a few examples,
but the impression is that quality is variable.
The Cremonaphone was well advertised in the Halifax
papers of the day. Ads were most frequent in 1919, which
seems to be the peak of the phonograph
industry in general. I believe that the Cremonaphone
was advertised across Canada, often on a free trial basis. Though
this requires more investigation. In December of 1919 it
was announced that Amherst Pianos Ltd. had purchased
the former Maple Leaf Hotel in Amherst where production of the Cremonaphone
would be moved. Some features of the Cremonaphone
that are noted in ads include the mention of a "Cremonaphone
Sound Post." Norma Joan Paul writing about Amherst Pianos in 1981
mentions the use of "S" shaped perforations in the curved
maple horn of the Cremonaphone. An ad from November
of 1921 tells us about the new Cremonaphone Deluxe.
This model incorporated a new patented sound box based
on the Stradivarius principle. If the illustration is to be
trusted this model also made use of doors instead of the
familiar tambour doors. I have come across an Amherst
gramophone with the "Cremonatone" brand (a model D).
This is interesting as this was the name used for
Amherst’s line of player pianos. Perhaps the factory had
run out of Cremonaphone trademarks?
The illustration shows the seven models
that were available from Amherst Pianos. An eighth
model (shown as model E) appears often in promotional
contests, though I have not seen a model designation for
it. (In September of 1918, only seven models are men-
tioned as available.) The last picture is the
Cremonaphone Deluxe first seen in November 1921.
A news note from January of 1920 mentions that the
Company sold 250 Cremonaphones during the previous
December and that the firm was quite busy with orders.
But the early 1920's were to prove difficult for industry
in Amherst. Unemployment was increasing as a general
post war depression settled in. Amherst Pianos and
Cremonaphones were advertised at 20% discounts for
much of this time. However, by the end of 1924, the
company's fortunes seem to have improved and in
January of 1925 it was described as one of the "bright
spots" in Amherst.
By this time radio was firmly entrenched and a notice
from Amherst Pianos Ltd. asks readers to write in for a
catalog of pianos,talking machines and "our wonderful
radio". Just what this radio looked like is unknown to me
at present. Though, as with the gramophones, the
Company probably just made the cabinets and purchased
the hardware from various suppliers. As the 1920's progressed,
advertising from Amherst Pianos and its representatives becomes scarce.
This led me to wonder if they
ever introduced a new style gramophone to compete with
the Victor Orthophonic and other acoustically
improved machines. They displayed gramophones at the Provincial
Exhibition of 1926, but no description was given. The
only clue I have found is a small 6" cardboard ruler that
is in the collection of the museum in Amherst, N.S.
Probably used as a promotional item, the ruler states that
Amberst Pianos Ltd. are manufacturers of Ampliphonic
Talking Machines. The use of the "phonic" suffix indicates
to me a new process machine. This might solve the
mystery were it not for the fact that the Canadian Trade
Index for 1928 lists the National Cabinet Co. Ltd., of
Toronto, as having the phonograph brands of Beverly and
Ampliphonic! Did both Companies use the same brand-
name? Or was there some tie between the two? The same
book lists Amherst Pianos Ltd. as a supplier of gramophones
though no brand is listed.
It was in October of 1928 that the papers carried the news
of the collapse of Amherst Pianos. The bankruptcy being
the result of the collapse of Manufacturers Finance Co. in
Ontario. This firm was founded in 1923 to help finance
piano manufacturing enterprises. This story is no doubt
fascinating but it will have to wait for another day. There
were hopes for the resurrection of Amherst Pianos early
in 1929, but by the end of 1930 a British Industrialist is
noted as touring the vacant factory. Many years later the
old drying kilns would be used by the Eastern Hay and
Feed Co. for crop storage. Today the decaying factory
still stands, and perhaps if you listen to the wind
whistling through the eaves you might just hear the
toasts that were raised during that banquet so many years
ago. I would welcome comments from readers regarding
the Cremonaphone. Any additional information on the
history of the company, its pianos and gramophones
would be most appreciated.