Among the most rare antique and collectible dolls are the talking dolls. The earliest talking dolls were the “mama” dolls or “cryers” of the 1800s. These dolls get their name from the noise they emit when the baby doll was tipped. Once tipped, a counterweight inside the doll moved a bellows which in turn vibrated a reed, resulting in the crying sound. However, this sound wasn’t what doll owners dreamed of — they wanted dolls that sounded like real humans. It was Thomas Edison himself who decided to make a better sounding talking doll. Naturally, he would employ what was at the time the latest in audio technology, his invention, the phonograph.
In 1877, Edison declared, “I propose to apply the phonograph principle to make dolls speak, sing, cry and make various sounds, also apply it to all kinds of toys such as dogs, animals, flowers, reptiles.” But it wouldn’t be until 1889, after both William White Jacques and Charles Batchelor joined the Edison talking doll project, that a prototype of the Edison doll, complete with French recordings, would be exhibited at the Paris Universal Exposition.
The first Edison talking dolls went on sale at an Edison exhibit at the Lenox Lyceum in New York City, on April 7, 1890. Soon after, the dolls were sold by retailers, including via mail order. These talking Edison dolls, which stood 22 inches tall and weighed four pounds, sold for between $10 and $25. (The cheaper versions were sold wearing only a simple chemise; the more expensive dolls wore a full dress.) However, there were great problems with the dolls.
The first problem was that while Edison’s patent and license both stated that a sapphire stylus should be used to play the cylinder recordings, the dolls were made with a metal stylus which generally ruined the wax cylinder recordings. This meant that of the 10,000 dolls manufactured, just 2,500 were approved for sale.
The second problem with the Edison talking dolls was that there was no mechanical means by which to control the speed of the revolutions per minute (RPM) of the recordings. Unless great finesse was used to maintain the correct RPM, the sounds the dolls made were rather terrible. Edison himself said, “The voices of the little monsters were exceedingly unpleasant to hear.” The unappealing voices meant that less than 500 of the Edison talking dolls actually sold.
The third problem with these early talking dolls was how fragile they were. They were not made to withstand the average use and play of a child. As a result, most of the dolls sold were returned for refunds.
Overall, the public was greatly disappointed with the Edison talking dolls. The dolls were expensive (costing roughly two weeks salary for the average person) and either didn’t work at the start or broke quickly. As a result, by May of 1890, The Edison Phonograph Toy Manufacturing Company ceased both the manufacture and sales of the talking dolls.
In order to minimize losses, a number of the Edison talking dolls were sold as plain dolls, without their talking photograph mechanisms. But still there were a large number of unsold Edison talking dolls in the company’s inventory. They, along with the returned dolls, were buried in the ground at Edison’s laboratory and residence. And that’s where they remain to this day.
There were at least six other talking dolls made by using the technology of the phonograph. While Edison’s talking dolls are perhaps best known, these antique dolls are quite rare and valuable too.
In 1889, The National Gramophone Company hired German firm Kammer and Reinhardt to make a talking doll using (of course!) a small gramophone. There is only one known surviving example of this roughly two feet tall doll. It resides in a museum in Waltershausen, Germany.
In 1893, the Jumeau doll company tried to improve upon Edison’s wax cylinder by hiring Henri Lioret to create a talking doll using a more durable material, celluloid. Called the Bebe Phonograph, or the Lioretgraph Jumeau, these dolls stood roughly twenty-five inches tall and were made of articulated composition. These talking Lioret dolls were made until the Jumeau doll company became part of the Societe Francaise de Fabrication de Bebes et Jouets in 1899.
In 1906, the German mechanical doll manufacturer Max Oscar Arnold (MOA) patented a composition body doll that played a wax cylinder. These talking dolls were sold under the names Arnolda and Arnoldia.
In 1916, the Jenny Lind Doll Company of Chicago produced a doll that could talk and sing.
In 1918, the Giebeler Falk Doll Corporation of New York made Primadonna dolls which had the phonographs in their aluminum heads. Beneath the real hair wig was a sort of hinged hatch that, when lifted open, exposed the phonograph inside the aluminum head. The phonograph was run by cranking the handles on the necks which wound a clockwork mechanism. These antique dolls, made in wood, composition, and all aluminum versions, were made until 1921.
In 1922, Averill Manufacturing Company of New York produced a line of Dolly Reckord premiums. These dolls are marked Genuine Madame Hendren Doll on their bodies. The celluloid cylinders are marked Averill Manufacturing Co., but are believed to have been manufactured by the Indestructible Record Company of in Albany, New York. The dolls, which stand twenty-six inches tall, have composition heads, shoulders, arms, and legs, attached to cloth bodies. These early talking dolls also have sleep eyes.
In 1939, the Effanbee Doll Company of New York made the Talking Touselhead Lovums dolls.
None of these attempts to make more authentic sounding talking dolls would replace the mama cryer dolls, however.
While the mechanism in mama dolls was far more simplistic and less lifelike, it was also more reliable. Mama dolls typically had composition heads and limbs attached to cloth bodies. This made the dolls far more resilient than bisque dolls. As such, the dolls were advertised as “unbreakable.” And with the crying mechanism safely hidden inside the doll’s stuffed cloth body, the doll’s sounds were more likely to survive regular play than the fancy phonograph versions.
Primarily made by American companies, mama dolls would remain popular throughout the entire phonograph talking doll phase. In fact, these dolls became so popular in the early 1920s, that doll collectors often cite American made mama dolls as having ended the German domination doll manufacturing.
The end result of the popularity of mama cryer dolls is that nearly every family has a mama doll in their family’s toy history. Such nostalgia, coupled with the reliable enchantment of the crying sounds, has led to not only to high collector demand but to many doll companies still make mama cryer dolls today