Toy Gramophones and Unusual Portables
by Mike Bryan
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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)
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)
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
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)
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.
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
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)
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.
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
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
- 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.