It can be argued that the history of the children’s phonograph record begins with the history of recorded sound itself, since the oft-repeated “creation story” of the phonograph has Thomas Edison reciting the nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb” into his tinfoil recording device. Phonograph historian Patrick Feaster has suggested that this heart-warming anecdote is quite probably a re-write of history: given Edison’s penchant for salty humor, the first test was likely to have been quite different. Nonetheless, from the very beginning, the phonograph was cast as a device with a certain affinity for children’s entertainment. In fact, one of Edison’s earliest intended uses for recorded sound was to make children’s dolls that could speak. In 1890, Edison outfitted his West Orange, New Jersey laboratory as a production line for dolls containing tiny phonograph players. The dolls did not sell well, and the company folded in 1891, by which time the market for entertainment phonograph cylinders had begun to take off. Though the phonograph would not speak to American children through dolls, the major phonograph companies actively marketed their wares to children as early as the 1890s and 1900s.
“Juvenile records” were made by performers such as pioneer recording artist Len Spencer. On his Columbia 1899 recording of “Cinderella,” we hear Spencer say, “Now children, draw your little chairs near the Graphophone Grand, and Uncle John will tell you the story of Cinderella and the glass slipper.” At the end of the tale, Spencer says, “there now, wasn’t that a nice story? Run off to bed now little ones, kiss Uncle John ‘good night.’”
Gilbert Girard was the premiere vocal mimic of the early phonograph industry, and frequently applied his talents to making records for children. On titles such as “A Trip to the Circus” (Victor 1901) and “Auction Sale of a Bird and Animal Store” (Edison 1902), Girard and Len Spencer presented animal mimicry, auctioneer performance, and broad jokes: a range of offerings that could appeal to both children and adults. “A Trip to the Circus” (Victor 1901) is introduced as a “descriptive selection for the little folks,” and then we hear Spencer announce, “Now children, hold tight to my hand, and don’t get too near to the animals.” “Oh, see the elephants,” Spencer declares, and Girard provides a loud trumpeting sound.
We tend to think of the widespread introduction of television as the turning point in the marketing of media products to children because of the way in which it allowed advertisers a more direct link to children. But these records indicate, along with other recent scholarship on the history of children’s consumer culture, that children were seen as an important part of home media consumption decades before Disney, television, and even radio.