Talking Doll FAQ - Sound Recordings

When were the Edison Talking Doll Records made?

Primarily between February and May 1890.
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Who performed for the recordings?

Girls hired by the Edison Phonograph Works.

On August 8, 1889, Charles Batchelor wrote to EPTMCo:
We are now commencing to train small voices to talk on to the cylinders for these phonograph toys, and should be glad to have from you a list of all the little verses that you would be likely to want put on them. It matters a great deal just how the thing is said in the phonograph. Therefore we should like to have them before hand to get our small voices well practised in the art.

On September 16, 1889, Mrs. E. L. Fernandez (of the General Dramatic & Musical Agency, New York) wrote to Edgar S. Allien (General Manager of EPTMCo):

Pardon my delay but I was making inquiries to find if I could fill your bill and I find I cannot do so among the stage children you see, the children that are studying for the stage attend school and I find their parents would not consent to their doing otherwise. the children already prepared for the stage are travelling and that would rend it impossible to do your work.

Now my advice would be to get a number of very bright little girls (which you could easily do through an advertisement) and take them to Orange and train them a few days would do for that board them out there and pay them so much per week allowing them to go home every Sat. till Monday in this way you could get them cheaper they would be more regular at their work and they would live so regularly that their health would be good and consequently their voices be in good condition in selecting them I would have them all read or recite for me and select the best voices and most perfect pronounciation.

You could rent a furnished house reasonably in Orange hire a cook and then get some one to take general charge a lady who would assist the girls in their voice culture why you could establish quite a nursery there and have it quite extensively written about. I do not feel quite sure that I would not give my evenings & general supervision to it if I was wanted and it was profitable excuse my writing in this way but I am an enthusiast about the comfort of children.

The April 26, 1890 issue of Scientific American reported:
... a girl speaks the words to be repeated by the doll. A large number of these girls are continually doing this work. Each one has a stall to herself, and the jangle produced by a number of girls simultaneously repeating, "Mary had a little lamb," "Jack and Jill," "Little Bo-peep," and other interesting stories is beyond description.

What titles were offered?
As listed by the Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Co., for an exhibition in the "Doll's Theatorium" at the New York Lenox Lyceum, during April and May 1890:
  1. Mary had a Little Lamb.
  2. Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.
  3. There was a Little Girl and she had a Little Curl.
  4. Little Bo-Peep. Little Tom Tucker.
  5. Hiccory, Diccory, Dock.
  6. Little Jack Horner.
  7. Ba-Ba, Black Sheep.
  8. Jack and Jill.
  9. Two Little Black Birds.
  10. Old Mother Hubbard.
  11. Now I lay me down to Sleep.
Souvenir of Thomas A. Edison and His Inventions.

Charles Batchelor listed the twelve titles—in the same numbered order as above—together with the quantities of "Dolls tested and passed to date" (for each of three factory machines), as of March 7, 1890.
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What was the typical duration of the doll recordings?
On June 25, 1888, Charles Batchelor reported:
... the speaking capacity or time limit of the doll phonograph, as we are at present making the models, is about six or eight seconds, sufficient to be able to get on a small verse, such as "Jack and Jill" or "Mary had a Little Lamb." Of course it can be made to take much more, but at present that is what we are doing for the models.

In the passage above, Batchelor described a very early form of doll cylinder, which probably had a rather coarse groove pitch, severely limiting the playing time of the record.

Two surviving metal records, likely made in late 1888 and early 1889, play for 13 seconds and 15 seconds, respectively.

The commercial brown-wax talking-doll records of 1890 have a duration of 18 to 22 seconds.

Would the records have sounded better in 1890 than what we hear today?
No, not when played back using a talking-doll phonograph. The components of that small mechanism were not optimized for high-fidelity reproduction.

Even with a brand-new, unplayed record, the sound emitted by the talking doll was always distorted and unnatural. The difficulty of maintaining a steady rotational speed while hand cranking the toy phonograph only made the playback more erratic.

What did people say about the Edison Talking Doll's sound, back in 1890?
Miss J. T. Spalding (an investor in EPTMCo stock) wrote to A. O. Tate (Edison's Private Secretary) on March 6, 1890:
The dolls at the office now certainly are very beautiful specimens, only they do not yet speak distinctly enough I am afraid—not so that you would understand them, if you did not know what they were going to say! That will come with time, no doubt.

"[An Edison Talking Doll] which has been sent to this office is supposed to say 'Baa, baa, black sheep, etc.,' but it must be confessed that its voice is rather indistinct." New York Tribune, April 20, 1890.

New York World, September 7, 1890:
The Edison phonograph dolls have just been put on sale in London and Paris, but they seem to have proven a disappointment so far in New York. The supposed words or verses which are ground out in a flat, uninflected whine, do not appear to come from the "talking" doll's lips at all, and during her most impassioned recitations, such as "Mary Had a Little Lamb," the doll's eyes and lips remain [still ?] and motionless. Marshall Wilder, personifying the wax figures in the Eden Musee makes himself look much more like wax than these dolls do like flesh and blood.

Last updated: April 25, 2015

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