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Donalda: A Canadian Melba?

Pauline Donalda nee Lightstone or Lichtenstein. Canadian opera singer whose career spanned 1905 to 1922.
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

As is often cited, the major equipment patents on phonographs, gramophones and talking machines began to expire near the end of WWI. This enabled others— previously too timid to jump into production, unlike Pollock of Berlin, Ontario— to enter the business and compete with Victor/Berliner, Columbia and Edison. In those days, when mass transport of goods was not cheap or convenient, local manufacturers with tangential expertise sprang up to supply their neighbours, and perhaps beyond, with machines of various quality. Thus begat the bewildering number of companies that are currently listed by the Canadian Antique Phonograph Project (accessible directly CAPP or through the CAPS main page CAPS). Naturally, we would expect these companies to be distributed according to population density, which begins to explain a lack of representation from provinces west of Ontario. Until recently.

As is so often the case, this story begins with an e-mail:

“My mother bought a cabinet gramophone, around 50 years ago, from a Salvation Army Store in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It stands on legs, has storage for records on the left side and a drawer on the bottom. It is marked with the Hudson Bay Company Logo on the inside, and also a Donalda logo as well.

“[signed] Lynn Houde”

Pictures later supplied show a typical console model with the described Hudson’s Bay Company and “Donalda” logos. I can’t remember the precise, “aha” moment but my research started in two places and fortunately met in the middle.

Pauline Lightstone was born in Montreal in 1882 of Russian and Polish parents who changed their name from Lichtenstein. She studied music on a scholarship at the Royal Victoria College. Her father sought confirmation of her talents, which was received from French tenor Thomas Salignac, and allowed her to study opera in Paris starting in 1902, on a grant from one Donald Smith, Lord Strathcona. Pauline made her debut in 1904 at Nice, apparently with the help of French composer Jules Massenet, and allegedly

Detail of console “Donalda” model that sparked the research.
Image courtesy Lynn Houde.

to honour her benefactor adopted the stage name Pauline Donalda (aha?). She made her London debut at Covent Garden in 1905, her professional Canadian debut in 1906 and her New York debut later the same year (after breaking her contract to accept an offer from Oscar Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera Company). The Canadian Encyclopedia entry makes the rather prescient comment, “[Donalda was] Considered a rival of [famous Australian operatic soprano Dame Nellie] Melba, she often replaced her and thus sang Mimi with Enrico Caruso.” (An interesting side note is that Lord Strathcona earlier brought one Clara Lichtenstein to Canada (no relation), who became director of music at the Royal Victoria College and had a profound and lasting effect on Pauline.)

Pauline’s performing career spanned 1905 to 1922, including nine recordings, after which she turned to teaching and administration. She opened a studio in Paris in 1922 where she taught before returning to Montreal in 1937 where she again opened a studio, then in 1942 founded the Opera Guild. In 1967 she was made an Officer of the Order Of Canada and died 3 years later in Montreal. On the recording side, she cut 7 sides for G&T in London, 1907 and 1908, one for Victor in 1914 and one for Emerson around 1916.

Donald Alexander Smith, 1st Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal ceremoniously driving the last spike of the CPR November 7, 1885.
Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Starting from the metaphorical other side of the river, The Right Honourable Donald Alexander Smith, 1st Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal, cuts an impressive swath in Canadian history. He was president of the Bank of Montreal, co- founder of the Canadian Pacific Railway (he is in the famous photograph driving the last spike at the railway’s completion), chairman of Burmah Oil and the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, high commissioner for Canada in the UK, and Chancellor of McGill University and Aberdeen University. Elected to the provincial legislature in Manitoba’s first general election, he was also elected to the House of Commons. For our story, however, we need only to concern ourselves with two slivers from this massive biography. King Edward VII is said to have called him “Uncle Donald” in reference to his philanthropy, which apparently totaled over $7 million during his lifetime. Clearly a sprinkling made it in Pauline’s direction. The other sliver is the fact that upon his original emigration to Canada in 1838, as the nephew of a fur trader with the North West Company and former HBC Chief Factor, he started working for the Hudson’s Bay Company. He rose through the ranks over a 75-year career becoming at one point the company’s largest shareholder and in 1889 being named their 26th Governor (aha?), a post he would keep until his death at age 93. He was given a state funeral in Westminster Abbey, in 1914.

“Donalda” phonograph line, Saskatoon Phoenix, August 11, 1922, pg. 12.

So, my current theory is that a series of gramophones was made to be sold through the retail arm of the Hudson’s Bay Company under the name “Donalda”, likely in honour of the famous Canadian opera singer, who retired from singing about the time the machines were available. I wonder if they were at all aware that they were also honouring one of the most famous managers of the company?

Naming a gramophone after a famous opera star does have a precedent. The Compleat Talking Machine: A Collector’s Guide to Antique Phonographs by Eric L. Reiss has a picture on the rear cover of the author with an ornate outside-horn machine labelled a “Melba”. The accompanying text reads, “The ‘Melba’ gramophone was produced by the Gramophone & Typewriter Co. in England around 1904. Named for the famous opera singer, Nellie Melba, with its 12” turntable, triple-spring motor, and elaborate ‘art nouveau’ cabinet, the Melba was G&T’s top- of-the-line model. Quite rare today, surviving Melbas are usually found with brass horns...” Dame Nellie Melba of course became one of the most famous opera singers spanning the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In researching the “Donalda” machines themselves, we find a narrow window of Hudson Bay Company adverts in western newspapers during 1922 and 1923. One 1922 advert shows a handful of uprights in the $95-$155 range as well as one $200 console—which does not quite match the machine from the e-mail that started the story.

Of more interest is a later 1922 advert selling a console with an electric motor. Two other electrically-driven acoustic machines of this era are so far described in the CAPP pages: the “Canadian” Electric Phonograph and the Musicphone, both made in Ontario.

So who made these “Donalda” machines? The only reason they existed at all is likely because of the exorbitant cost of shipping similar machines westward from their point of manufacture in southern Ontario. Of course, Hudson’s Bay would not have built the machines themselves, but merely branded those of another supplier, much like the company buys then sells Beaumark appliances even today. There is a long history of retail re-branding such as Sears Silvertone phonographs, Kenmore appliances and Eaton’s Viking appliances.

Two possible manufacturers have been uncovered to date. Moogk, in Roll Back The Years (page 64) reads, “...Winnipeg became the focal point for distribution in the growing Western Canada Market [for phonographs]. The Chopin Piano and Talking Machine Company handled the Chopin Talking Machine from its offices in the Keewayden Building, and the Melotone (‘The sweetest of them all’) was available from the Melotone Talking Machine Co. Ltd. at 235 Fort Street.”

The “electrically operated console”,
Calgary Daily Herald,
September 10, 1923, pg. 16.
Winnipeg Tribune, Feb 22 1921, pg. 12.

“Puritan” model, Calgary Daily Herald,
January 5, 1923, pg. 24.

I’ve found 1917, adverts for “Chopin” published in Regina, Saskatchewan and Calgary, Alberta trumpeting “one of the oldest established Talking Machine factories on the Continent”, apparently looking for distributors of “this wonderful machine” throughout “The West, every City, Town and District”. But so far no further information has been uncovered on possible sources for the “Donalda” machines.

Possible manufacturer of the “Donalda”?
The Morning Leader, Mar 24, 1917, pg. 17
(Regina, Saskatchewan).

So here’s to the “Donalda”, first physical Canadian phonograph we’ve so far uncovered west of Ontario and maybe Canada’s answer to the “Melba”, in more ways than one!

[Late addendum: new information shows up constantly. After I wrote the above, an email from Betty Pratt sent me looking at a new source and now I have uncovered references to the following machines sold in western Canada and are unknown in the east—further help on them would be appreciated: Larktrola, Euphonolian, Strolla and Sovereign. Also found was a one-line reference to a “Chopin Phonograph” for sale by the Winnipeg Piano Company in 1917.]


  1. Pauline Donalda career entry in the Canadian Encyclopedia.
  2. Pauline Donalda "quick biography" in the Canadian Encyclopedia.
  3. Pauline Donalda, The Life of a Canadian Prima Donna, by Ruth C. Brotman, The Eagle Publishing Company, 1975.
  4. The Compleat Talking Machine: A Collector's Guide to Antique Phonographs, by Eric L. Reiss, Sonoran Publishing, 1998, rear cover.
  5. Biography of Lord Strathcona from the Hudson's Bay Company.
  6. Lord Strathcona's entry in the Canadian Encyclopedia.
  7. Roll Back The Years, by Edward Moogk, National Library of Canada, 1975, pg. 132-133.
  8. Ibid, pg. 64.
  9. Saskatoon Phoenix, August 11, 1922, pg. 12.
  10. Calgary Daily Herald, October 16, 1922, pg. 18.
  11. Ibid, January 5, 1923, pg. 24.
  12. Ibid, February 3, 1923, pg. 24.
  13. Ibid, September 10, 1923, pg. 16.