Monday, October 5, 2009
If you are a frequent visitor to this blog, you probably have some sense of how many unidentified photographs we have in our collection. In order to identify a photograph, we have to find the right person with the right knowledge, but sometimes that knowledge is not of names and faces.
The photograph you see above belonged to the late Margaret Woodrow of Hillside Avenue. It has no name, no date, no marks of any kind on it. Our resident costume expert, Kenneth Loyal Smith, was attracted by the young lady’s gorgeous sleeves. That kind of sleeve, he says, became popular in 1897, and the tight collar narrows the date of the dress down to right around 1899 or 1900. Kenneth also recognized the machine at her elbow as an early phonograph, the kind that played wax cylinders.
Some online research turned up the following advertisement for a machine with a similar silhouette. It was produced by the National Phonograph Company, a company founded by Thomas Edison.
The ad belongs to Neil Lerner, a collector of early Edison phonographs who lives in North Carolina. Neil was kind enough to look at our picture, and in his opinion the phonograph in is one of Edison’s “Home” units. You can identify the model, he says, by the clips on the side of the case. These clips were used to attach the lid of this “portable” (25 lbs.) machine. Behind the woman’s elbow is a hole in the case into which a crank would have been inserted to wind up the phonograph. Only a dozen seconds of cranking, and then you could sit back and listen to an entire 2-minute cylinder -- a song, a speech, or a story.
In the 1850s, several inventors had toyed with ideas for a sound recording machine, but it was Thomas Edison who developed the first machine that could reliably record and play back sound. He demonstrated his new invention in 1877 and patented it in 1878. At the time, the phonograph was seen as an almost magical device, and was the first of Edison’s inventions to bring him international fame. Edison went on to work on other projects and came back to take up the commercial manufacture of phonographs in the late 1880s. His earliest machines were leased for business use, but in 1896 he started the National Phonograph Company specifically to manufacture phonographs to be sold to home owners.
Edison’s first domestic machine was the phonograph in Neil’s ad, the “Home” model A. It was originally priced at $40, but competition with The Columbia Phonograph Company’s “Gramophones” reduced the price of Edison’s unit to $30. As the advertisement claims, the phonograph could both play and record. Undoubtedly a bargain. In 1901 this model was restyled and the clips removed, and this allows us to date the machine that appears in our photograph to between 1896 and 1901. If the picture was taken, as the dress suggests, around 1900, the phonograph would certainly have been a new and exciting addition to the household.
The woman in the photograph remains a mystery, but we can make a guess. Margaret Woodrow was born in 1904, and this young lady looks about the right age to have been Margaret’s mother. It does seem unlikely that Margaret would have had in her possession a picture of a woman of the previous generation, taken before she herself was born, unless that woman was a relative. Margaret’s mother was Frances McConnell, daughter of Benjamin McConnell who built a house for his family at 65 Washington Avenue in about 1860. We may be looking at the interior of that very house, and the woman may be Frances or Frances’ sister, whose name was also Margaret.
This is a photograph of Margaret Woodrow taken in 1923, the year after she graduated from Hastings High School. Is there a resemblance?
Of course, we can’t say for sure. The photograph at the top of the blog may show an older friend or mentor of Margaret’s who didn’t even live in Hastings. But, even if that is the case, photographs of domestic machines and household appliances are rare, and it is exciting to discover in our collection an image of one of the earliest phonographs.