By Dr. Ellen Tsagaris
Edison’s Phonograph Doll: A magnificent failure
By the time Chatty Cathy and her friends surfaced during the early sixties, talking dolls were established members of the doll family. In fact, the sixties and seventies saw many talking doll innovations, from Mattel’s Charmin Chatty and Remco’s Mimi that used records to sing and talk, to pull string dolls like the rest of the Mattel Chatty Family, Shrinking Violet, Bugs Bunny and more.
Mamma dolls with their voice boxes that cried “Mama!” were plentiful. Yet, they weren’t new, either. Maezel, who consorted with P.T. Barnum and invented the Metronome, is credited with inventing the mama doll.
Before 19th and 20th century talking dolls, there were gigantic statues in ancient Egypt that “talked” via a tube that passed through their hollow bodies. The wind that passed through the tube made the statues seem to talk. Since those first ancient statues, doll makers and automaton artists were creating technologies that would allow dolls to sing, play music, and talk.
The Webber Singing Doll was created in 1882 and had a wax over composition head. The doll “sang” via a type of bellows mechanism. There was a patent taken out for the doll in the U.S., in Brussels, Belgium, and in France. It was assembled in Germany. It predated Edison’s doll, but it was not a phonograph doll. The Massachusetts Organ Company marketed the Webber doll, and proclaimed that consumers could have a “Primadonna in every home!” The doll played around 27 tunes, including patriotic songs.
Mae Starr Phonograph Doll
The Mae Starr Phonograph Doll was made by Effanbee, which made dolls that “touch your heart.” It was made between 1928-1944. Mae Starr was a 30” tall doll with a composition shoulder head and limbs, a cloth body, a human hair wig, blue sleep eyes, and an open mouth with four upper teeth.
There was a phonograph in the doll’s body, and with her came six cylinders that played nursery rhymes. The doll was marked “Mae Starr Doll” and was part of the Patsy Doll Family. These predecessors are amazing, but they just don’t compare to Edison’s doll.
The first Edison doll I saw was at Edison’s home; I was five. That doll actually had the phonograph mechanism, but most don’t anymore. I felt magic when I saw that doll; I was entranced, but even at age five, I knew how rare it was and never thought I would own one. Another appeared on the television show “Oddities.” Now, I have one in my collection.
Thomas Edison's phonograph doll
Edison created a metal body with holes in the torso that housed a mini version of his famous phonograph, its cone turned towards the hole. The wax cylinders were an innovation created by none other than Alexander Graham Bell! The Edison Phonograph Doll was introduced in 1890 and it was a failure. At 22” tall, the doll was large, heavy, and expensive. The heads were made by Simon & Halbig, a famous and popular dollmaking firm of the time, yet even they could not sell the doll.
Later, the phonograph was removed from the torso and the dolls were sold as ordinary poppets for kids to play with. Comments by modern writers allege that the heads were “scary” and the voice “creepy”; these writers put a modern spin on the doll and are just speculating. If Edison indeed called the dolls his “little monsters” it was because they didn’t sell well. He also compared his efforts in creating the doll to “spilled milk.”
Yet, even if Edison’s dolls failed commercial, they inspired another great dollmaker, Jumeau, to manufacture his own phonograph dolls. Jumeau Bebe Phonograph, with a mechanism designed by Henri Lioret, was manufactured in 1895. Lioret’s signature is on the phonograph, and the doll is marked on its head “Depose Tete Jumeau 11.” The phonograph on the Jumeau doll was located in its torso and key-wound using a metal sound plate.
Phonograph doll successful as a collectible today
While today the Edison doll is a rarity sought out by collectors, it initially failed as a toy.
Yet, it was the first time a recording was used for entertainment and commercial purposes, and the first time individual people were used as recording artists. As many as 18 young women did recordings on wax cylinders to make the doll sing and talk.
The Edison talking doll returned the phonograph to its origin as a talking machine.
For those who want to know more, the most important book on Edison’s doll is Gaby Wood’s Edison’s Eve, A Magical History of the Quest for Mechanical Life. Wood talks about the role Edison’s invention played in early robotics, and also discusses the motives early creators of automatons had for creating mechanical life.
What failed as a child’s toy has become the Holy Grail of cross collectibles to those interested in dolls, robotics, engineering, Edison, Bell, and phonograph history. In a way, it’s sad that a doll becomes rare because it failed to appeal to a child, yet there is a child in all of us collectors who can appreciate the novelty and ingenuity that went into making Edison’s Eve.
Ellen Tsagaris is a doll advocate, an educator and the author of With Love from Tin Lizzie: A History of Metal Dolls, Mechanical Dolls and Automatons. The life-long doll enthusiast confesses to have never met a doll she didn’t like. Read Ellen’s blog at http://dollmusem.blogspot.com/.
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