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Toy Gramophones and Unusual Portables
Mike Bryan describes the history behind this collection of 'toys'

A report on Mike Bryan's presentation at the February CAPS meeting.

In case you are wondering about the connection between toy and unusual portable gramophones, let me assure you that there isn't one, apart from the fact that toy machines are as portable as those that I would define as "portable." I'll leave it to John Rutherford to find any deeper religious or psychological connection than that! No, I must confess that the only reason I chose to present both, was that I feared I would not be able to find enough machines from toys or portables on their own for display at our meeting. As the presentation day approached,it was clear that I had underestimated the wealth of such machines owned by our local members, who were tremendously supportive in bringing them out and carrying them through Toronto's ice and snow to our meeting room. Indeed, there were 18 machines, which is certainly the most I can remember at a CAPS meeting.

Eureka Stollwerck

Toy Gramophones

It is no surprise to learn that toys have existed for as long as there have been children. Early musical toys took the form of rattles with bells, whistles, pipes, trumpets and, as a particular annoyance to parents, drums. Whistles in the shape of birds date from as far back as 1100 BC and water whistles kept many a child occupied in ancient China and Japan. It wasn't until the 19th century that musical toys started becoming more sophisticated. Using their skills in the making of watches, the Swiss developed the first music box mechanisms and combined these with some of their earlier expertise in automata. This resulted in the creation of singing birds in cages and all kinds of visually, as well as aurally, stimulating animated figures and scenes. The inventive Victorians delighted in their musical tower clocks, windmills, lighthouses and seascapes. Such mechanical marvels were only for the rich and were created as much for the pleasure of adults as for their children. It wasn't until industrialization in the latter half of the 19th century that cheap mass produced toys became available for the average child.

Little Wonder

The first mass produced mechanical toys were made by the French company, Cruchet. Many of its clockwork toys made in the 1860s and 70s came with musical accompaniment, such as a music box with dancing figures. By the turn of the century, the German toy maker, Bing, had become proficient in the manufacture of tin toys, particularly trains, but it wasn't until the 1920s that the company would start making toy gramophones. Children have always wanted to copy their parents and many toys have been created to support this desire. It is interesting to note that Bing did not commercialize its outside horn toy gramophones until well after the novelty period at the turn of the century when children might have been expected to covet their parents' splendid new talking machine.

Bingola I

But we need to step back a little to examine the origins of the talking machine industry and to see how the toy played its role in the early stages of development by the "Big Three."

When Thomas Edison invention the phonograph in 1877 he saw its use as a device which would allow businessmen to dictate letters which could later be played back and typed by a stenographer. Ten years later when he restarted his efforts to find a marketable use for his invention,the first attempt was in the form of a doll. More on this later...

Emile Berliner invented the disc gramophone in 1888 and the following year sold his rights to the German toy maker, Kammer and Reinhardt. By 1890 the company had launched the world's first disc gramophone in the form of a hand driven toy which played 5" discs.

Columbia is recognized for its development of the cylinder phonograph through the 1890s, but as the company prepared to enter the disc gramophone market, it decided to test the water with...you've guessed it... a very small child's toy cast iron machine which played centre-start brown wax records.

Bingophone

The sound quality of these machines was poor, even by current standards and each company quickly moved on to focus on the mainstream adult market. However, some companies involved in metal fabrication or with some connection to the talking machine industry, produced their own machines, some of which will be referred to later in this article. But most children wanting to copy their parents had to wait until the 1920s before they could own a Bing Pigmyphone, Nifty Nirona or Coronet tin machine.

Here is a brief description of the fascinating array of toy machines which members brought along for this presentation. If some of the more modern ones seem frivolous, I make no apology, because that is what toys are. The earlier machines would have seemed just as frivolous to adults during or just after their era. Tin would have been regarded as cheap and inferior, just as we might regard plastic in certain forms today. The machines are described in approximately chronological order.

Mae Starr doll

Eureka Stollwerck

In 1903 the German toy maker, Eureka, made a small tin gramophone for use as a promotional item. Several of its 3'/2" records could be stored under the turntable. The Belgian chocolatier, Stollwerck, adopted the machine and promoted its confection with chocolate records. (Owner Mike Bryan)

Little Wonder

This was made by the Boston Talking Machine Company between 1901 and 1912. It looks similar to a full size machine of the same period, with its cast iron base and panel horn. It was designed to play many brands of small diameter records, both lateral and vertical cut. There is no connection between the name of this machine and Little Wonder records which were made by Columbia. (Owner Domenic DiBernardo)

Bingola 1

By the 1920s tin talking machines had become popular and Bing produced several models with names such as Kiddyphone, Pigmyphone, Bingola and the next two machines:- (Owner Domenic DiBernardo)

Bingola 2

Is this an improved Mk2 version of the Bingola 1? If so, the difference is imperceptible. Never mind the product, it's the marketing that sells it! Not sure if owner, John Peel's description of it as a "canned ham" would have helped the marketing campaign, though!

Colibri

Bingophone

A larger and more unusual octagonal machine, probably to tempt those who had so far resisted the round and "canned ham" style Bing gramophones. (Owner Domenic DiBernardo)

Coronet

This 6" square machine comes with an interesting sound box which owner, John Peel, again describes with great perception as a "tea cup." This style of sound box was also used on Nifty Nirona machines.

Thorens Excelda

Mae Starr Doll

In 1887 when Thomas Edison first renewed his interest in the talking machine, after inventing it, but failing commercially with it some 10 years earlier, he allowed William Jacques and Lowell Biggs to found the Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Company. Repeated problems with the doll's mechanism prompted Edison to take over the manufacture, but the product continued to be plagued with the fragility of the cylinders and problems with the mechanism. The bisque head and tin body were also somewhat less than cuddly which just about eliminated any reason why the doll should not be abandoned in 1890.

A more successful attempt at a doll phonograph was made by Henri Lioret. He invented the celluloid cylinder in 1893 and made a small machine for it, which he encased in the body of a doll, Bebe Jumeau, and sold through the Maison Jumeau company. He later used the same mechanism in his small cardboard box machine, Le Merveilleux. Lioret was a watchmaker by trade and was perhaps more suited to the fine detail engineering than Edison at that time.

Later, in the 1920s the idea of a talking doll was rekindled by the Averill Manufacturing Company of New York City which made a mechanism for use in the Madame Hendron and Mae Starr dolls. The cuddly, cloth-bodied dolls were sold with 6 cylinders and were sometimes used as premiums, for example, to reward children who sold a certain number of newspaper subscriptions. They could select a Mae Starr doll as their "gift." (Owner Domenic DiBernardo)

The Mighty Tiny player with its 2 1/2 inch records generated the most discussion.

World's Smallest Phonograph: the Mighty Tiny

This tiny battery-run plastic machine comes with 15 records and dates from the 60s or 70s. Owner, Bob Nix, agrees that the sound quality is less than hi-fi, but then so is that of the canned ham! (owner Bob Nix)

Fisher Price

These plastic machines made in the 1970s are virtually indestructible, as are the records which are played by a mechanism similar to that of the disc music boxes made in the late 1800s. (I suppose I had better confess to being the owner... well, the father of the owner, anyway.) (Owner Mike Bryan)

Unusual Portable Gramophones

The origin of portable machines is founded in the simple desire to use music for creating a mood or an atmosphere outdoors. Courting couples were able to carry these mood setters to the beach or countryside and enjoy a romantic picnic to the strains of the latest hits of the time. Whilst most machines conformed to the standard black or brown box style, there were many attempts to be different and create attention.

Colibri

This small portable was made in Belgium in about 1928 and has a special sound chamber in the lid. When the telescope tone arm is assembled a spring loaded panel rises automatically to create a baffle. (Owner John Peel)

VW bus Phonograph

Thorens Excelda

This camera style machine dates from c1930. It can only be wound when placed on the edge of a table and after the record is secured in place. (Owner Horst Weggler)

Victrola 50 Style

The RCA name indicates that this gramophone was made after 1929. It is unusual in that it has an electric pick-up which appears to be original, but also has a crank for manual winding. (Owner John Peel)

VW bus phonograph

No, this is not for sale, Owner Horst Weggler brought one of the most unique portable machines. This VW bus drives around the record at 33 1/3 rpm and leaves no tire tracks. One has to see this one to believe it.

Special thanks to all those who brought their machines for display. Your support enabled the large audience to see and learn about a lighter sided cross section of the phonograph industry's products.

Sources:

  • The Talking Machine, an Illustrated Compendium by Fabrizio and Paul.
  • The Compleat Talking Machine by E Reiss.
  • Illustrated History of the Phonograph by D Marty.