After eight years of living in South Florida, I finally ventured over to the “Left Coast,” that is, the Gulf side of my new(ish) home state. Against all expectations I stumbled on a historical site of great interest to early cinema lovers: The Edison & Ford Winter Estates.
Edison was the first to build a house here, a place where he could work out of the public eye, but his very presence drew those who wanted contact with him, namely, Henry Ford, who bought the house Edison had built next to his own for guests.
The Edison & Ford Winter Estates have 20 acres of historical buildings, gardens, labs, and a museum to tour. The printed guide to the estate will tell you all about the furniture, the pool, Edison’s landscape plan, and even a little about his lab for botanical research. What it doesn’t mention is that the museum on the site has a wealth of Edison’s original phonographic and cinematic devices. Even the website hardly clues you in; all it says is “On exhibit are selected artifacts from the Museum collection of movie projectors, phonographs, nickelodeons and like entertainment devices.”
That description is an understatement. There are lantern slide projectors, mutoscopes, phenakistiscopes, kinetoscopes, two home projecting kinetoscopes, a kinescope that purported to have synchronized sound. Almost the entire birth of moving pictures in the U.S. told through it’s devices. Silent movies are also projected on the walls in various displays.
The phonograph display is quite large: tin-foil recording, various different phonographs, sheet music, recordings to be listened to, and movies of people dancing to Edison recordings. One thing stood out for me from the phonograph exhibit, and that was Edison’s Talking Dolls.
Edison’s talking dolls were apparently one of Edison’s failed experiments, a toy that took years to research and develop but ended up being marketed for a just a few weeks in 1890, partly because of Edison's draconian business practices (he formed a partnership with actual dollmaker but then took over the company). The museum’s signage claims that the recordings in the dolls were the first phonograph recordings that the American public ever heard.
The dolls stood 22” high and contained a tiny phonograph system with a small horn that pointed toward the holes in the doll’s chests.
What did the dolls say? They recited nursery rhymes, twelve of them, from Mary had a Little Lamb, to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, to Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep. The voices belong to adult women. Some have been digitized. Take a moment to listen to them here.
Why did Edison’s Talking Doll Project fail? The obvious reason seems to be expense. The dolls had imported bisque heads and articulated joints. They sold for $10 in a simple chemise and for $20 to $25 in a full outfit, an exorbitant sum (two weeks of a workingman’s salary) for the time.
But as I listen to those recordings and stare at the various bisque faces, it seems to me that there is a reason why talking dolls have always been such a popular feature in horror films. They share too much with the memento mori’s, the souvenirs of the beloved dead, that were also popular at the time: lockets with hair, photographs of the dead posed as if they were still living, often surrounded by surviving relatives. The doll’s rouged cheeks, the large glass eyes, the puckered rosebud mouths make me think of those photographs. The scratchy, tinny voices with their near-shrieking, affectless renditions of nursery rhymes reach out to us from the other side of the grave and remind us that they once were, and so too, will we someday be.