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Curtiss Aeronola and the Post War Effect

Photograph of a Curtiss float
in a 1918 Toronto Victory Bond parade.
(Collection of Bill and Betty Pratt)

As is well known, at the height of the gramophone production craze during the late teens and the twenties of the twentieth century, talking machines were being produced by a plethora of companies in Canada. Some had definite bona fides to do so, such as Casavant Frères of Quebec, who produced world-class pipe organs, and the various piano manufacturers such as The Amherst Piano Factory of Nova Scotia and Gerhard Heintzman Ltd. and Mason & Risch of Toronto. Others had somewhat tangential expertise, such as the Brantford Piano Case Company and George McLagan Furniture Co. Ltd. And then there was the seeming-outlier among the bunch, Curtiss Aeroplanes and Motors Ltd. During my research into W.H. Banfield and Sons, who were machinists and went into the production of ‘phonograph motors’ and perhaps whole machines, it dawned on me why Curtiss would have made such a curious change in production.

Announced in The Toronto Daily Star on February 12, 1915 was that an aeroplane factory was to be located in Toronto. “150 Men To Be Employed to Build Biplanes for Military Purposes,” and “Pilot to Be Trained Here for the Canadian Contingent of British Army.”

As noted

“Mr. J.A.D. McCurdy…has formed a company which will be in operation almost at once to manufacture these machines. Mr. McCurdy has been in close touch with Glen Curtiss…one of the most prominent of aeroplane builders in the States, and the machines which will be constructed will be of the standard Curtiss types…”

And later in the article,

“Along with construction, arrangements will be made to train pilots to handle the machines…”

Long Branch Aviation School started by Curtiss company, 1915.
(Images courtesy John Boyd Sr. Toronto military training photograph album from the Toronto Public Archives)

On February 22 the same year, it was reported that the company received an order for 8 planes from the Dominion Government. Things continued to go well for Curtiss/McCurdy as a report later that same year noted that there was “Money In Aeros” with the Curtiss company receiving $15,000,000 from Great Britain after having already produced $6,000,000 worth of aeroplanes and motors in the previous fiscal year, most of which went to the British Government. (Another report mentioned that representatives of the Spanish Government were buying Toronto-made planes.)

The flying school was located in Long Branch where the old Lakeview generating station (of the “four sisters” chimneys fame) later resided and was, in fact, the very first airport (“aerodrome” at the time) built in Canada. The school itself was reported to be the “largest in existence”.

Curtiss looking for help to build the many
gramophones they were planning.
(Toronto Daily Star, August 9, 1919 pg 18)

This article is not intended as a review of Canadian aviation history, but as background. John Alexander Douglas McCurdy (August 2, 1886 – June 25, 1961) was born in Baddeck, Nova Scotia and graduated from the University of Toronto in mechanical engineering and became the first Canadian to receive a pilot’s license. In 1907 he joined the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA), along with another U of T graduate, Frederick W. “Casey” Baldwin, under the leadership of Alexander Graham Bell— who not coincidentally had his summer home in Baddeck, Nova Scotia and whose one-time personal secretary was McCurdy’s father. Later the group recruited Glenn Curtiss, a bicycle racer who developed an interest in motorcycles and went into their manufacture. At one time Curtiss was known as the “fastest man in the world” after setting an unofficial speed record on a motorcycle—which went unbroken for 23 years. The AEA experimented with heavier-thanair machines in Hammondsport, New York and Baddeck, Nova Scotia. Curtiss would later found an aeroplane company in the US, which in part still exists today as Curtiss-Wright.

As noted above, the Curtiss plant in Toronto was created to manufacture training aircraft for the British Government. However, according to the Canadian Aviation Museum,

“Within days of the training program’s approval, on December 15, 1916, Canadian Aeroplanes was incorporated for the purpose of providing all aircraft required by the training schools. The Canadian-based Imperial Munitions Board, an organization responsible for awarding war contracts to Canadian manufacturers, took over a small airplane manufacturing plant in downtown Toronto, formerly used by Curtiss Aeroplane & Motor Limited [possibly the 163 Dufferin Street location]. But the expanding company soon outgrew this space and, by May of the following year, all operations had been moved to a new plant (still in Toronto).”

It was 1244 Dufferin Street which includes the land where the Galleria sits today.

As I mentioned before, it was research into W.H. Banfield and Sons that drew my attention to the idea of post-war production. Obviously as WWI ended, the amount of manufacturing capacity for war material, including human resources, wasn’t required and the populace could concentrate on more domestic matters.

(Canadian Music Trades Journal,
Volume 20, No. 2, July 1919)
(Edmonton Journal,
September 27, 1919, pg. 19)
(Toronto Daily Star,
December 22, 1919, pg. 22)

The major patents protecting the North American talking machine triumvirate (Edison, Victor and Columbia) were expiring and thus the talking machine boom began. There is a full page in the November 29, 1919 edition of The Globe devoted to talking machines, pianos and the music industry in general. On that page there is an article about how, with Columbia taking over the 11 buildings of Canadian Aeroplanes Ltd. (1244 Dufferin—not the original site of Curtiss)

“there is the assurance of a considerable expansion of talking-machine manufacture in Canada … [which] will increase Canadian output from 400 to 500 percent.”

There is an article about W.H. Banfield and Sons applying the

“war’s big production lessons…to peace-time business… The munitions plant…is now working at top speed on phonograph motors—and phonographs.”
ID plate from an electric 78 player for sale in 2015. (Image courtesy of the author)

There is also an article about how a “Stratford Firm [McLagan] is Forging Ahead, Putting Phonographs of Wide Variety on the Canadian Market.” And then, there is an article noting, “Aeroplane Company Making Phonographs.”

“’We challenge the statement that there is a dearth of musical education and appreciation in Canada,’” said Mr. E. Sterling Dean, who is in charge of advertising for the Curtiss Aeroplanes and Motors, Limited, which has begun recently the manufacture of talking machines.” Dean continues to suggest that “any boy or girl living in the average home [ can name] the most prominent violinists of the day or the most famous singers” to which he “ascribes…the perfecting of the talking machine, which is within the means of many more persons than the piano.” The article continues to claim that Curtiss “which had been making airplanes for the allies, finding their factory ideal for the purpose, turned to the manufacture of talking machines. They obtained well-known talking-machine experts to assist… Mr. Dean says that the models…reveal startling accuracy.”

What else would he say?

Image purported to be of the Maple Leaf
Aircraft Corporation around 1942.
(From an eBay listing, March 2015)

There are employment-wanted adverts in the Daily Star (August, 1919) and The Globe (October, 1919) for cabinet makers and others, for the 163 Dufferin address, who would be more suited to talking-machine manufacture than aeroplanes. I do note that they are looking for finishers as the only motors that have been mentioned are all from the Newark N.J. thirdparty MeisselBach—whose motors turn up in many “off brand” machines. Curtiss must have had high hopes as an issue of Canadian Music Trades Journal (October, 1919) claims that “12,515,000 Advertisements will appear in Press between now and Christmas.” It sure looks like there were that many. Then…not so much. I have found no references to them so far after 1919, until they are included in the “fire sales” of 1929—presumably as used or left-over stock. If the public didn’t initially take to them, there is a small cadre of collectors today who have.

Of all the people who have contributed to the 40+ talking-machine brands in the Canadian Antique Phonograph Project, the Aeronola pilots are different. They have done more research on their own than any others and there is a palpable pride in how they have carefully made sure that the page lists each of the six known existing machines with as much detail as possible.

According to Aeronola-owner Carl Swanston, the company was forced into receivership in 1920 and the facility became the General (car) Top Company in August of 1920.

“The Curtiss Company was then managed by Canadian financier Clement Keys who brought it back to prosperity sans gramophone production.”
Electric 78 attachment ostensibly from the Maple Leaf Aircraft Corporation of Lucknow, Ontario.
(Image courtesy the author)

Finally, I take this opportunity to mention a later example of the post-war production effect. In February of 2015 a curious electric 78 rpm turntable, clearly from the 1940s, showed up at a meeting of the Canadian Antique Phonograph Society. It was a typical, lidded attachmentturntable but on the underside it had a plate that in part read, “Maple Leaf Aircraft Corp. Ltd. Lucknow Canada”.

According to the “Furniture Factories Information Sheet” of the Bruce County Museum and Cultural Centre,

“In 1898, John Button and H.J. Trevett, known as Teeswater Furniture Company, moved their machinery to Lucknow. They specialized in tables. A modern, fire-proof, concrete building was completed in 1907. During World War II, the firm made [war] products under the name Maple Leaf Aircraft. Following the [war], William Renaud operated the furniture factory for a short time.”

In an article about local Lucknow war hero Warren Wylds, writer Garit Reid notes,

“Before entering the military Wylds worked as a foreman at the Maple Leaf Aircraft in Lucknow where he supervised a crew that made hydraulic systems for landing wheels for military airplanes; one of the many things made for the military at Maple Leaf.”

I have also found a picture of what is purported to be the Maple Leaf factory in Lucknow circa 1942 that is labelled, “Sub-contractors on Hawker Hurricanes.”

No more is known at present about the 78 attachment from Lucknow but it certainly looks like another example of what would much later be called the “peace dividend”.


Aeronola phonograph in the collection of Carl Swanston.
Serial number 5M620, motor number 170523.
  1. John Boyd Sr. Toronto military training photograph album, Toronto Public Archives, Fonds 1548, Series 1418, File 1, Item 31.
  2. Canada's First Aerodrome, Long Branch Curtiss Aviation School by Liwen Chen for Heritage Mississauga.
  3. Toronto Daily Star, May 19, 1908, pg. 3.
  4. Ibid, March 1, 1909, pg. 2.
  5. Ibid, July 22, 1909, pg. 3.
  6. Ibid, August 9, 1919 pg 18.
  7. Ibid, February 12, 1915, pg 12.
  8. Ibid, February 22, 1915, pg. 5.
  9. Ibid, December 15, 1915, pg. 2.
  10. Ibid, July 14, 1915, pg. 4.
  11. Ibid, July 15, 1915, pg. 1.
  12. Ibid, August 9, 1919, pg. 18.
  13. Ibid, December 22, 1919, pg. 22.
  14. Ibid, March 27, 1929, pg.2.
  15. Edmonton Journal, September 27, 1919, pg. 19.
  16. The Globe, November 29, 1919, pg 23.
  17. Canadian Music Trades Journal, Vol. 20, No. 5, October, 1919, pg. 42.
  18. Canadian Aeroplanes Ltd. "mini exhibit" from the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum
  19. Curtiss Aeronola page from the Canadian Antique Phonograph Project
  20. Aviation in Canada: The Pioneer Decades, Larry Milberry, CANAV Books, Toronto, 2008.
  21. Furniture Factories Information Sheet of the Bruce County Museum and Cultural Centre.
  22. The Homefront during WWII was just as important by Garit Reid, Lucknow Sentinel, Nov. 11, 2009.
  23. Carl Swanston, personal correspondence with KW.