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The Mystery of the Universal Autophone (Part II)
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 collection. 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 follow 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 phonograph collectors.)

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.