A History of Portable Talking Machines


In the summer of 1921 America's talking machine dealers recognized that portable phonographs--machines that fold up like suitcases--were worth promoting in a serious manner. Few dealers actually had a large inventory of portables as early as 1921. By the summer of 1922 nearly all dealers had portables in their shops, and they pushed them. Portables continued to sell well throughout the 1920s. Dozens of manufacturers produced models in this decade, some successfully, others barely making a dent in the market.

A few minor manufacturers had introduced portable models to the American market during the World War I years, but sales had been flat. Prior to 1921, the industry had no incentive to push portables. It was far more profitable when customers bought upright cabinet machines, which sold well from 1916 through 1920. There were even shortages of machines during this period. When the economy was especially hot from 1918 to early 1920, consumers had money to buy full floor models. America's economy finally faltered in 1921, the talking machine industry suffering along with other industries. In the lackluster summer of 1921, dealers needed affordable products in their shops. They did not sell many portables in 1921 simply because too few were on hand. Dealers had not ordered these in advance, never suspecting ahead of time that the summer would be so bleak for big ticket items such as uprights. The time was ripe for a change in the industry, with console models, portables, and radio sets becoming increasingly fashionable.

In the summer of 1922 many pages in the trade journal Talking Machine World (TMW) featured advertisements for portables. Articles stressed that portables were selling well. Various manufacturers by this time had introduced models. Portables also sold well in 1923, at least in the summer. The year 1923 itself might be best characterized as one in which console models--at the time often called "horizontal" models--as well as portables gained public favor, pushing aside upright models.

Precedents go back decades. Early Edison cylinder machines equipped with handles--the Gem, Home, Standard, and others--could record as well to play wax cylinders. Designed so owners could record in various locations, they were the cassette machine of their day.

England's Decca Company was a pioneer manufacturer of suitcase-type portables--for discs, not cylinders. During World War I the company enjoyed success with the Decca, called "The Portable Gramophone." Advertisements show men in trenches being entertained by Decca models, the monotony of life in dugouts broken, patriotic songs helping to boost morale.

A few American manufacturers made portable machines during the war years. The Melophone Portable Phonograph retailed at $30, according to ads in the May 1917 issue of TMW: "Ideal for the home, the school, the outing, the camp, the yacht, the automobile trip, the trench dug-out, the hospital ward, and for the study of languages and music." An agent advertising at the same time was the Thornell-Manton Company of New York City, which represented the Recruit Phonograph, likewise retailing at $30 (weight 15 pounds). Ads proclaim, "A new RECRUIT for the Army, for the Navy, for the Home Defense." No subsequent ads were run in the trade journal, which suggests the machine was no longer available. In TMW's November 1917 issue is an ad for the Little Marvel, priced at $12.50 and made by the Portable Phonograph Mfg. Co.

In TMW's August 1918 issue, John H. Steinmetz' Empire Talking Machine Company of Chicago introduced at $35 retail a portable "for the boys 'over there' and 'over here.'" Soldiers in trenches loved portables, well-suited for their situation. Americans at home did not clamor for portables since the machines did not yet fit many lifestyles (as more and more Americans owned cars in the 1920s, sales of portables increased). Other pioneers in America were the Cirola Distributing Co., Inc, which marketed the Cirola Phonograph as early as March 1920, and the Portable Phonograph Company, managed in Kansas City by Carroll E. Dodson. In August 1920, the Portrola was advertised in TMW as "the perfect portable phonograph." But dealers did not push portables this early.

Also important was the Outing Talking Machine Company of Mt. Kisco, New York, which introduced its portable for $35 retail in 1921. Owned and managed by A. J. Cote, this was the only company with an advertisement in the January 1922 issue of TMW promoting a portable machine. Other companies undoubtedly viewed January as too early in the year to push what was considered a summer product. For the February issue, the company took out a full page advertising its product as "a real machine-made portable." (By this time the British company Decca tried to get a foothold in America but failed. In TMW's February 1921 issue is an advertisement stating, "Applications invited for manufacturing in the United States under our license....A five-year manufacturing arrangement with an eminent American Phonograph Corporation has now expired and we invite applications..." The ad stresses the Decca portable's success during the war: "The Decca is the most popular portable phonograph in the World. Its success has been overwhelming. First manufactured in 1914, it proved the very thing for Active Service. Nearly 100,000 Deccas were sold during the War.")

Although portables were promoted heavily in the summer of 1922 because 1921's summer had been dismal--dealers were eager to avoid a repeat of 1921's sluggish season--I should note that 1921 ended up being a satisfactory year for Victor and Brunswick due to a heavy Christmas rush. Victor's output for 1921 was "about equal to the output for 1920," reports TMW's May 1922 issue. Of course, "output" does not equal sales, but Victor did not lose money in 1921. The year was bad for others. Pathe went into receivership on December 9, 1921. Columbia followed in early 1922.

Portables became frequently discussed in TMW at the time radio became the subject of many articles. In the April 1922 issue is the earliest ad for a combination radio and phonograph--the Lyradion Combination priced at $485. Around this time RCA ran full-page advertisements in TMW.

An article in the December 1921 issue of TMW summarizes how the Chicago Talking Machine Company (an important Victor dealer) anticipated a successful summer for 1922: "This company found out, during the Summer of this year [1921], that the portable talking machines are excellent sellers and now feels that, since last September saw practically the first energetic introduction of this type of talking machine, the Summer months of 1922 will bring about a much larger demand."

From the July 1922 issue of TMW are these lines about sales in New Orleans: "Everyone seems to want a Portable to take away with him during the Summer and the demand shows no sign of abatement....Ralph Young, sales manager of Grunewald, has found the mahogany Victor cased portable his biggest seller and popular records going like hot cakes." Manufacturers would soon encourage dealers to push portables year-round, not just during summer months.

An editorial in the same issue states, "During July and August...dealers should make a special effort through window displays to interest vacationists in the portable talking machine and in a goodly number of records to carry along with them on their outings. There is no one factor that contributes more to the enjoyment of a vacation than the talking machine." A reference in TMW's August 1922 issue to sales in Toledo is typical: "At no time within recent years have so many portable machines been sold. Many of these small machines will be exchanged in the Fall for larger instruments."

One summer later, in the July 1923 issue, an article about sales in Chicago states, "Before the coming of portable talking machines and musical instruments into the retail talking machines stores there was nothing else for [sales]men to sell than the large machines and records during the hot weather season...However, with the coming of the portable talking machine, the ukulele and other small musical instruments the retail dealer now has some incentive for refusing to become downhearted."

In 1922, the July and June issues of TMW often refer to portables being introduced to the trade and selling well to the public. Some portables had been announced a few months earlier, but the summer months witnessed the announcement of several new makes and models, most with double-spring motors and universal tone arms capable of playing all brands of records.

In the March 1922 issue, an article announcing the new Sonora portable is accompanied by a photograph of silent film actress Ruth Roland listening to "her Sonora Portable." Also in the March issue is an ad for the Portable Valuphone, made by the Anton Cummings' Wizard Phonograph Company of Chicago. Advertisements declared that the portable featured double-spring motors and tonearms made by Otto Heineman's General Phonograph Corporation.

Victrola Portables--The Best!

By mid-1921 Victor introduced its VV-50 but did not heavily promote it that year in TMW. The May 1922 issue features a full page ad for the VV-50 placed not by the Victor company but by C. Bruno & Son, a Victor wholesaler: "This instrument, while an all-year-round money producer, is a particularly ideal model for the spring and summer months."

Portable Above is Victor's portable known as the "2-55," with automatic brake. It features the No. 5 Sound-Box, better known as the Orthophonic Sound-Box. From the April 1928 issue of The Voice of the Victor.

Victor's suitcase-like portables, which weigh from 13 to 24 pounds, are well-designed and easy to restore. The built-in horn is small but adequate for a disc featuring a small jazz band and is very good for reproducing the sound of a crooner accompanied by guitar. If you take a portable to a picnic, you should include in your stack of discs a Nick Lucas record such as "Tip Toe Thru' The Tulips."

Victor portables came in eight models: the 35, 50, 1-5, 1-6, 2-30, 2-35, 2-55, and 2-60. On the market from 1921 to 1925 was the 50, prized by collectors due to its exquisite wood exterior--mahogany or oak. It was followed by the short-lived and lower-priced 35, available in 1924 and 1925. The name 35 reflects its original price, $35 (the 50 originally sold for $50). The 35 has a fabric exterior as do Victor's six later models. The 1-5, introduced in 1926, sold for $35. The smaller 1-6 from 1926 sold for $25. These were not named after their prices. Why the small 1-6, which replaced the acoustic-era model 35, was called a "1-6" is unknown. The 2-30 of 1927-1928 sold for $25. The 2-35 of 1929 sold for $25, too. The 2-55 of 1929 sold for $35 and was Victor's best-selling portable.

Victor's 2-60 (1927-1928) sold at a higher price than the 2-55 ($40 as opposed to $35) though it did not deliver a superior sound. The 2-60 was equipped with the No. 4 Sound-Box designed to play acoustic and electric records (it is Victor's least-impressive Sound-Box). The 1-5, 1-6 and 2-30 were also equipped with this all-purpose reproducer. The 2-35 and 2-55 were equipped with Orthophonic Sound-Boxes, the ones made entirely of brass being highly collectible today.

Other Portable Machines

Columbia introduced its first portable in May 1922. Advertisements for it appeared in the issue of TMW that also featured an article indicating Columbia's financial troubles. Titled "Columbia Credit Plan Announced," the article describes the plan of a creditors' committee to freeze the company's indebtedness from April 1, 1922, to August 1, 1925: "The debt is about $20,000,000 and interest and principal, if due, will be deferred for three years." Meanwhile, Columbia boldly pushed its new portable (22 pounds) in two full-page advertisements, one of which claims that Columbia's portable "embodies the identical method of sound reproduction found in the large, cabinetted Columbia Grafonola, and this feature now places all other portables on the defensive..." This portable was covered with a heavy fabric, "Fabrikoid."

One of the Columbia advertisements establishes that manufacturers viewed portables as ideal for summer business and even lists where music lovers were inclined to take portables: "Think of what a wonderful selling proposition this Portable Grafonola offers you for summer business! Just the thing for vacation use, for week-end trips, for summer bungalows, picnics, lawn parties, day trips, porch dancing, beach parties, to take aboard the motor boat, automobile or canoe."

Columbia's later Viva-tonal portables deliver a rich sound--a little bass shy but with a great upper and mid range response. Is it possible that Viva-tonal recordings were made bass heavy to compensate for this characteristic in many Columbia machines?

Dealers clearly viewed the portable as a summer commodity though manufacturers were eager for the selling season to be expanded. In the December 1922 issue of TMW is the article "The Portable Talking Machine Can Be Sold Throughout The Entire Year," which reminds dealers of those "who have little or no room and very little funds. These people need talking machines worse than others, as they must stay at home for their entertainment in the majority of instances. What an opportunity there is to sell portables to these people!"

Announced in the May 1922 issue, the Spraytone portable had a universal tone arm. Advertisements announce that its folding amplifying horns "act as tone modifiers." The finish was mahogany and the machine weighed 14 pounds. It was made by the Spraytone Phonograph Co., Inc. of Ridgewood, New Jersey, and sold for $25 beginning in June 1922. The Portophone--also first announced in the May 1922 issue--was made by The Consolidated Talking Machine Company, located at 229 West Washington Street, Chicago. Advertisements stated that the Portophone market consisted of "tourists, campers, autoists and people with money to buy."

The Oro-Tone portable, introduced in 1922, was made by the Oro-Tone Company located at 1000-1010 George St., Chicago. It retailed at $35 and could be bought in leatherette, mahogany, golden oak or French gray. Advertisements make this curious assertion: "We don't say it is as loud as some large machines or that the tone is quite as deep as some large machines, but--well, you try it for yourself." The Oro-Tone Portable Junior, weighing 15 pounds (leatherette only), was introduced in April, 1924, and featured a single spring motor.

The Lakeside Supply Company announced its Chorister (19 pounds) in TMW's June 1922 issue. The Plaza Music Company announced its Portable Pal Phonograph in June--"a $50 portable to retail at $35." It was sold to dealers for $20, with cowhide case machines available to dealers at $25 (suggested retail price $40). Some finishes are walnut, others mahogany.

The Modernolette, advertised as "a real talking machine in portable form," was made by the Modernola Company of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Models with a wax finish case retailed at $35 while leatherette covered cases sold for $40. The Swanson Portable was sold by the Swanson Sales Company. TMW's July 1922 issue states that it "is not a newcomer in the industry, as it has been manufactured in Chicago for the past few years." An article in the July 1923 issue calls the Swanson portable "one of the oldest instruments of its kind in the trade." Its weighed 15 pounds and had a double-spring motor made by Otto Heineman's company. Its unusual features included a hollow wooden tone arm into which was inserted the reproducer. Also, the lid itself functions as an amplifier.

Low-priced portables in the early 1920s were the Stewart ($15 retail) and the Spraytone ($25). The Strand and the Orpheus were priced at $30. The Outing and the Plymouth were $35.

A Brunswick portable, the 101, was formally introduced to the trade in January 1923 though advertisements in TMW in late 1922 showing all of Brunswick's models include drawings of the 101, probably not yet widely available. It sold for $50 in natural finish, $45 in black leatherette.

In April 1923, the Health Builders of New York City, owned by Robert B. Wheelan, introduced its "Camp-Fone," which weighed 15 pounds, retailed at $25, and was marketed to exploit a physical fitness craze. A fitness enthusiast, one Walter Camp, had recorded for Health Builders a "Daily Dozen" set of discs and sold these by mail-order. Listeners would do "building exercises" while playing discs. But the Wallace Institute, which had issued fitness discs in 1922, filed a bill of complaint against Wheelan, alleging infringement of patents covering physical education discs. The complaint filed in early 1923 was against Wheelan personally, not the Camp-Fone. Ads state, "The Camp-Fone appeals both to the Walter-Camp 'fans,' and to all outdoor camp enthusiasts, as well. Present owners of large phonographs require the Camp-Fone so that their daily exercises will not be interrupted when they go to the country. Camp-Fone is popular in the small apartment."

In June 1923 the newly organized Pathe Phonograph & Radio Corp. of Brooklyn brought out its first portable. It was available in mahogany, golden oak, fumed oak and "fabrickoid leather."

Two manufacturers that did not introduce a portable in the early 1920s were Thomas A. Edison, Inc., and the Aeolian Company. Diamond Disc technology did not lend itself to the portable format. Edison's company would not introduce portables (two models) until July 1929 when the company finally introduced a line of lateral-cut discs. The double-spring Edison portable Model P-1 was originally priced at $35, the single-spring P-2 at $25. The company abandoned the commercial recording industry within a few months, so not many P-1 or P-2 models were sold.

The March 1924 issue of TMW announced that the Cameraphone, which originated in England, was "about to be introduced on the American market." An article states, "A real gramophone and remarkably cheap, it has truly won much favor throughout the British trade." In April 1924, the Vitanola Talking Machine Co. introduced its portable. It weighed 13 pounds and the motor was guaranteed against spring breakage for one year. In April 1924, The Madison Music Company, at 141-143 West 24th St. in New York City, introduced its model. Ads indicated that dealers could sample a Madison portable for $8.50.

TMW's July 1922 issue includes a letter from one T. Sansone of Englewood, New Jersey. He is ostensibly a TMW reader, perhaps a Victor dealer--his letter implies that Victor products are best. He desires volume: "I have a portable machine and cannot seem to get any volume of sound from it, even with an extra loud needle. This machine has a horn on the left side of the cabinet extending to the front. Do you think, if I rebuilt this cabinet with a horn constructed in the style of the Victor portable, that I would get better results? If so, what wood would you suggest using for the horn part?"

TMW's resident repair expert Andrew H. Dodin answers this way: "Nearly all the portable machines on the market that are constructed with a side horn lack both volume and quality of tone...there is hardly any semblance of a horn in the machine.  A piece of thin board is merely curved around the motor, and a small block of wood, cut at an angle, is glued just underneath the tone arm opening (on the bottom of the cabinet), presumably for the sound to strike and be forced to the front of the cabinet. The material that these makeshift horns are made of, combined with their shape and size, naturally prevents good results."

Dodin continues his answer in a manner that suggests he is a Victor dealer: "If you have carefully examined the Victor portable you will find that the idea of the cast-iron horn elbow and wood bell used in all Victrolas is carried out on a smaller scale in this model. The top lid of the machine also adds to the volume of tone, for the sound, after leaving the horn, is reflected by the lid and its fine varnished surface is no doubt a factor in the surprisingly good results obtained. If you could reconstruct your machine in such a way as to make use of the lid as a reflector--first lining it with oak or spruce, well varnished and rubbed smooth--I am sure that you would get good results."

The first machine I owned was a portable. At a flea market in 1985, I paid $100 for a British machine, an Academy made around 1929. The sound was bad, and when a pot-metal device broke, I could not replace the part. Months later I sold the broken machine for $8. I now buy only Victor machines when buying portables. I have a dozen. If you see Victor portables in sad condition but reasonably priced, make an investment. Glue the broken seams, rub shoe polish into the vinyl exteriors, oil a few dry motor parts. The machines deserve a second life.