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Off-Brand Phonographs

2011 was a good year for me for phonograph purchases. Out of the four machines I acquired that year, two are "off-brand" and it is these two, along with another unique "off-brand" I acquired in the early 80’s, which are the subject of this article. Particular note is given to one, the Dual-Tone.

Dual-Tone Phonograph

Dual-Tone Phonograph

The Dual-Tone phonograph’s tone arm was invented by Austin W. Hoover and Robert Winter, Jr., of Irwin, Pennsylvania. The application of the patent was filed November 12, 1919, Serial number 337,605 and the patent, number 1,516,603, was granted November 25, 1924.1 What is unusual about the machine is that the tone arm’s base, mounted on the motor board leading to the internal horn, branches into two barrels. These two barrels join back into one, and loop to the right position to hold one reproducer. My observation is that the two barrels do not affect the tonal sound at all, and perhaps it was just an attempt to get around the Victor Tone arm patent. Regardless, the tone arm is eye-catching.

All the hardware is pot metal and gold plated. It stipulates in the patent that the reproducer and the horn were made of Bakelite, but that is not the case. The reproducer is also gold-plated pot metal and the horn is made of wood. Unfortunately, the machine came to me with the wrong reproducer. Fortunately, one of The Talking Machine Forum members, sent me a post, saying that he has this machine and described the reproducer as pentagon-shaped, with clipped corners. I have a reproducer that is pentagon-shaped with clipped corners and sent him the pictures in different angles. He confirmed it is exactly the same as his reproducer, with the US patent number 1392677 (granted October 4, 1921). The owner of the patent was Julius A. Brown of Peekskill, New York. In the patent drawings, there are seven sound control openings, which he called "apertures".2 While my reproducer was marked "Supreme", it is the same construction as described in the patent drawings but it has four sound control openings or apertures. It is a common knowledge at the time, that the "off-brand" manufacturers used whatever components were readily available. These reproducers were modifications of the Fletcher reproducer, which is six-sided (hexagonal) with six sound control openings or apertures at the centre of each side. The sound waves enter through the six sound control openings, go into the air chamber, and thus have more chance to expand, before passing through the tone arm. This is Elmer Fletcher’s principle, the inventor of this reproducer (US patent number 1,322,890, patented November 25, 1919).3 Elmer is not connected with the Dual-Tone Phonograph and Julius A. Brown just used the same principle of the sound control openings patented by Elmer Fletcher almost two years earlier. According to the Canadian Antique Phonograph Project, the Canadian McLagan Phonograph also used the Fletcher reproducer.4

Another interesting aspect about this Dual-Tone Phonograph, is the placement of the brass plate right in front, which was odd for the 1920’s. The motor is "The Motor of Quality", which was used by many "off brand" Machines.

Sometime in the 1920’s, Franklin Cox, of Manor, Pennsylvania, a retiree at the age of fifty from the Irwin Mine Car Foundry Company in Shafton, was asked to make cabinets for the Dual-Tone phonograph. His sole experience as a cabinet maker was through making and repairing furniture for his family as a hobby. The Cox family has had a strong thread woven into the tapestry of Manor, Pennsylvania since the early 1900’s. The factory was doing a great business.5

Detail of dual tone arms
Fletcher reproducer with dual tone arms

Charles W. Bowers was hired to be in charge of Merchandising for the Dual-Tone phonograph, headquartered in Rahway, New Jersey. According to Bowers, "Dual-Tone is a splendid product, and its demonstration quickly proves to the prospect, that it represents everything that the name implies."6

G.M. Soule was appointed as a travelling representative for the Dual-Tone Phonograph Company and started on the job on a trip to New York State and New England. He was known in the piano industry, and practically visited every state in the Union.7

Dual-Tone Phonograph

With the advent of radio, the demand for Dual-Tone, like most of the "off brand" machines fell and the company went bankrupt. The building sat empty until it burned in July 4, 1933. Later, Jake Meyers opened a lumber company on the site.5 There are still two Dual-Tone Phonographs associated with the Cox family. One was purchased by Rexford Franklin Cox Sr., of Harrison City, at a sale. The second was a wedding gift to Bertram and Elizabeth Cox, from Franklin and Margaretha Cox. It remained in their house for many years. Later, they gave it to the Manor Outing Club. When interest waned in the Dual-Tone Phonograph, a club member, George Y. Heasley asked if he could have it. Eventually, George gave it to Dale Cox. Today, it remains at the residence of the late Dale Cox.5 Aside from the two, an acquaintance from northeastern New Jersey and I each have one and as of the time of this writing these are the four Dual-Tone Phonographs I know to exist. Please contact me if you also have one in your possession.

Knee-Hole writing Desk Phonograph

Knee-Hole writing Desk Phonograph

Beside my featured Dual-Tone Phonograph, I also have a no-name double-sided knee-hole writing desk phonograph, which I acquired in the early 80’s from a friend in Buffalo, New York. I suspect I still have the Canada Custom clearance either under the desk top or in the record compartments from when it was transported to Canada through Port Erie. It is constructed with ninety-five percent solid mahogany, and is very heavy and very attractive, footed with a ball and claw. The phonograph is held within a pull-out drawer, and the horn is connected to the tone arm, sliding back and forth with the drawer. It was made by an anonymous expert cabinet maker, most probably in New York City. It is possible, that it was a custom-made order by a client. It is also possible that there was a paper label from the cabinet factory, which peeled off over time. Coincidently, it is equipped with a Fletcher reproducer. The dimensions are: 47.5 inches in length, 19.5 inches in depth, and 30 inches in height. It looks like a Columbia Grafonola, Regent model, but the ball and claw legs and the grille are a completely different style. It does not have a Columbia motor, turntable platter, nor a Columbia tone arm and reproducer.

Virgil Phonograph, Plaola Piano Company Limited, Oshawa, Ontario

Virgil Phonograph

The last machine included in this article is Virgil, of the Plaola Piano Company Limited, Oshawa, Ontario. The Plaola Piano Company Limited is a subsidiary branch of the R.S. Williams Company. R.S. Williams started in Hamilton and later acquired the Canada Organ and Piano Company in Oshawa in 1888. Williams had established retail outlets in Calgary, Winnipeg, London, and Montreal by 1903 and died in February, 1906. His son Robert expanded the business internationally. By 1920 a popular player piano had been developed called Plaola.9 A floor model Virgil Phonograph was advertised at The Toronto Daily Star, Saturday, October 11, 1919, page 3. Prices range from $85 to $375, and there were 12 styles, one of them must be a table top.10 The address is listed in the 1921 Oshawa City Directory as Plaola Piano Company, F.W. Bull, mgr, 5 Simcoe N.11 The Virgil Phonograph came to me in a very rough shape, and had to be restored carefully. It has a well-crafted cabinet and there is no doubt that it was made by an experienced piano cabinet maker. It has a beautiful intricately cut grille, beautiful enough that it does not need a grille cloth behind it. The shape is reminiscent of a music sheet stand that sits on top of a piano. The phonograph is really a nice piece of Canadiana, and has now been given another chance to be enjoyed by future generation of collectors.


During World War I, the basic patents held by "the big three in the phonograph industry", Victor, Columbia and Edison, began to expire after the two decades that they had dominated the talking machine trade. To the purest collectors, only Victor, Columbia and Edison are worth collecting, while other collectors may include companies such as Aeolian, Brunswick, Pathé and Sonora. There were 263 "off brand" machines advertised by Talking Machine World from 1916 to 1923 in the States,8 though, through my observations, they missed a few machines. Canada had its adequate share in the production of "off brand" machines as well. Many of them were manufactured in small towns. As the basic patents began to expire in the early twenties, new companies entered this field, expecting big bucks. Furniture stores, department stores, piano and music stores, and even cabinet makers sold phonographs under their own name, while others just supplied the cabinets. Some companies even named their machine after themselves. Motors, reproducers, tone arms, and other hardware could be purchased from a number of independent manufacturers. The Otto Heineman Phonograph Supply Company was especially important for supplying basic parts. Some hardware was obtained from other companies who dumped their unwanted parts.

Virgil Phonograph

Most phonograph cabinets were made of veneers and high-quality three or five-ply veneers were produced. (Although, as noted above, the double sided knee-hole writing desk in my possession is made of 95 percent solid mahogany.) Mahogany, walnut, oak, birch, and gum wood were the most often used woods for veneer. Spruce was the most favoured wood for internal horns, because of its proportioned grain, and was considered to provide an ideal sound chamber. Norway pine, hemlock, balsam fir, and white pine were also used. There were some exotic wicker cabinets considered for outdoor phonographs, made by The Lakeside Supply Company whose "Art-Kraft Luxfibre" case sold for $200 to $300, depending on finish and hardware.

Most tone arms sold by independent manufacturers were of the "universal" type which held reproducers that could be turned and positioned to play either lateral or vertical-cut shellac records. The tone arm varied in size and shape to accommodate different sizes of phonograph cases. Most of them were composed of two or more sections, and were not truly tapered in design so as to not to violate the tapered tone arm patent owned by the Victor Talking Machine. Many of these "off brand" phonographs have tone arms and reproducers made of pot metal, which tend to become brittle in time, and can easily break.

The on-set of "off brand" phonographs make phonograph collecting more enjoyable. The cabinet design, the name given to the machines and the interesting decals they have all give someone the incentive to bring them home. It is also fascinating the places they came from, especially a small town, and the phonograph will give awareness of the town’s existence. As an added bonus, if you can trace the maker, there sure is a special feeling of attachment to the phonograph.


  1. U.S. Patent 1516603
  2. U.S. Patent 1392677
  3. U.S. Patent 1322890
  4. McLagan (Canadian Antique Phonograph Project)
  5. Gail Noll, James Thompson and Dorothy Y. Miller, Manor, Pennsylvania: A Place in History, Word Association Publishers, Tarentum, Pa
  6. The Music Trade Review, July 2, 1921, page 17
  7. The Music Trade Review, September 10, 1921, page 20
  8. 263 Machines and Their Makers: 1916-1923 by R.J. Wakeman (last three paragraphs)
  9. Bruce Young - My Player Pianos
  10. The Toronto Daily Star, Saturday, October 11, 1919, page 3
  11. 1921 Oshawa City Directory

Thanks to:

   My niece, Jessica Carino-Lee, University of California, Berkeley
   Mrs. Betty Minaker Pratt
   Ms. Shannon Metcalfe, Director, Manor Public Library

All photographs by the author