Exhibit speaks to creation of talking dolls

Posted on March 1, 2016 by Amy Hanson

036-ARTS-SciLong before dolls were saying phrases like “Mommy,” they were reciting the likes of nursery rhymes such as, “Mary Had a Little Lamb” thanks to the invention of the phonograph from Thomas Edison in 1887.

The phonograph, which Edison decided to market in toys, was able to record voices.

“Back then, he really questioned how he would be using this device,” explains Joan Rolfs who wrote a book entitled, “Phonograph Dolls and Toys” with her husband, Robin. The Hortonville couple, who owns two Edison dolls, travels and gives talks on the period toys. In 2015, they traveled to Thomas Edison National Historical Park in New Jersey on a quest to hear their dolls, knowing that if they played the wax cylinders from them, they would be ruined.

The Northeast Document Conservation Center, a nonprofit, was able to pilot a digital recording technology known as, IRENE (image, reconstruct, erase, noise, etc.). According to the Rolfs, “a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services enabled NEDCC staff to test, develop and demonstrate the digital reformatting service for audio recordings.” The NEDCC later imaged the Rolfs cylinders and one from Thomas Edison National Historical Park.

Edison hired little girls to speak the nursery rhyme for his dolls, thus creating the first recording artists. The dolls made headlines for their inclusion of the first prerecorded cylinders and first entertainment cylinders in February 1889. When the NEDCC was able to reveal the recordings decades later, they were played on National Public Radio and the story made headlines nationally.“The Sound of the Edison Doll” exhibit, running March 10–Sept. 25 at Hearthstone Historic House Museum in Appleton will feature recordings from the Rolfs’ Edison Talking Dolls, information about the first dolls and 30-40 other dolls from the 1900s dressed in Victorian clothing contributed by collectors and members of  the Fox Valley Doll Club. The Rolfs’ two Edison Talking Dolls will not be displayed because they will be traveling with them for talks.

Joan and Robin Rolfs

Joan and Robin Rolfs

“We wanted to bring that sound to Hearthstone and thought we’d do it through the doll exhibit,” Rolfs shares. She adds that while the initial recordings were not very good, and may even sound spooky to some, they do mark an important period of history that ties to Hearthstone’s connection to Edison.

Exhibit attendees also will see the Averill Madame Hendren doll, made in 1922, its cylinders and inner workings, Rolfs shares.

“She refined the techniques of the Edison Talking Doll,” she adds. “I think it will be fun because people will get to know how recording began, and it began with a doll.”

Dolls of the time, while not necessarily cuddly, were seen as a commodity, which young girls enjoyed dressing up and having tea parties with, Rolfs explains.

She hopes the exhibit will “inspire young people to be creative.” In conjunction with the exhibit, a tea party is being planned for summer. For more information, visit


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