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The Cremonaphone Story

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.