The Birthplace’s Edison Talking Doll and her Excellent Adventure
Edison had invented the phonograph in 1877 and he set about imagining the uses for his new machine. Beyond just recording sound, he speculated that it might animate toys. His idea took the form of a large doll (22” tall). She would talk and quote a nursery rhyme or a prayer played by a miniature phonograph. His vision included a doll with a ceramic head, a metal body, and articulated limbs made from painted wood. The phonograph was mounted inside her metal torso. Turning a crank inserted into her back rotated the cylinder for play and shifting an adjacent lever returned the needle of the phonograph to the start position. In 1887 Edison licensed WW Jacques and Lowell C. Brigs of Boston to make and sell the dolls as the Edison Toy Phonograph Company. They were introduced to the public in 1890. The dolls were way too heavy with the phonographs inside. Recitations that were recorded by young women on the cylinders, but played back through the small phonograph, distorted the voices and they became the stuff of nightmares for children. The dolls sold poorly and proved a costly mistake for Edison. Despite the angelic look on the doll’s face, Edison referred to the dolls as his “little monsters.” Of the 2500 sold to stores, only about 500 dolls were bought before manufacture was ended. Unsold dolls were put in a vault at Edison’s labs in W. Orange, NJ.
Edison’s younger daughter, Madeleine Edison Sloane, with her mother Mina Miller Edison, established the Edison Birthplace Museum in 1947. Among the many things that Madeleine first loaned and then bequeathed to the Birthplace, was one of the Edison Talking Dolls. Madeleine took the doll out of the vault in 1957. According to records from the Edison National Historic Park, the doll was briefly exhibited at the NJ State Museum and at the Historic Park before Madeleine took her to Milan. The tag on the doll says, “Thomasina”. It was speculated that the doll had belonged to Madeleine, who was born in 1888, but a letter from Madeleine to the Curator of the Birthplace told the story differently. “Though I suppose I was pretty young to have such a doll when they were being manufactured, you might have thought I would have been presented with one later – but I never owned one..."
Thomasina’s miniature phonograph has been removed and the fragile, narrow cylinder is separated from the phonograph. Thomasina herself had been dressed originally and has adorable cotton undergarments (half-slip, drawers, chemise), black cotton stockings with Mary Jane style brown leather shoes. Her dress is a combination of silk foulard sleeves and wool crepe skirt and bodice. Bodice and skirt are decorated with silk moiré ribbons and her sash is also silk moire. Time and the environment were hard on the delicate silk and dust had infiltrated her wool crepe skirt. The paint on the wood of her limbs became flaky and loose, her legs became disengaged from her torso and her sweet face became dirty. Her mohair locks were dusty. Was there a solution to her deterioration? Was there someone who could bring her back to her former beauty?
Stay tuned friends and all will be revealed next month.