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(Video) Dulciphone: The Musical Sewing Machine Attachment

With so many entertainment possibilities in our modern lives, it's easy to lose sight of how welcome even the simplest musical amusement might have been in a modest American home of the late 1800s. When inventors Garvie and Wood patented the Dulciphone in 1882 to create music from treadling, it must have surely seemed like an ideal stroke of genius.

Unexpected Sewing Machine Attachments

As the sewing machine spread like wildfire throughout the country, the manufacturing industry cleverly introduced more and more attachments to add value and function to the machines. Obvious products enhanced sewing capabilities, or winded multiple bobbins, for example, but others were as unexpected as the "Fanning Attachment," shown below. The operator's treadling powered the fan's motion. This attachment was offered by multiple manufacturers in the 1870s for as little as one dollar.

The Fanning Attachment from the 1870s.
The Fanning Attachment may have offered some comfort to the operator while she sewed, but Garvie and Wood were clever enough to realize that the mechanical power generated by the treadle could be applied to an entirely different task, powering an "automatic musical instrument" as such devices were termed. Mother, or the maid, might employ the sewing machine during the day for its original purpose, but in the evening the treadle could serve to generate music. Suddenly the investment that had been made in the sewing machine could now be leveraged further toward the luxury of entertainment.

A Unique Organette

Automatic musical instruments included devices called organettes, which were typically handcrank reed organs that would rest on a tabletop. Not only would a treadle provide cranking power, but with the sewing machine lowered, the cabinet itself provided a base for the Musical Sewing Machine Cover, or the Dulciphone.

"As we have no treadle or cabinet work to make (sewing machines have these)," read the marketing literature, "it will be readily understood why we can sell such a good instrument so cheap. Organ manufacturers, having to supply all these, must charge more without giving a better musical instrument."

There were various types of organettes, and they were produced in considerable volume from the 1870s through the 1920s, but they peaked in usefulness just in time for the ingenuity of the Dulciphone in the early 1880s. Organettes were still relatively new to many and still quite modern and exciting.

The Dulciphone with its perforated paper roll.
In 1882 Garvie and Wood claimed, "This is the only small automatic instrument that will render slow or sacred music with a powerful and sustaining organ tone. It has quick and powerful utterance for dance music, and will carry with distinction throughout the extent of the largest dancing hall."

"Do not presuppose this instrument to be an Organette, as it is not," the marketing literature said. "It is infinitely superior and very unlike anything of that kind or name."

These claims are likely exaggerated for customers who would make no challenge to them. Anyone able to own or lease "the largest dancing hall" would hardly have relied upon an organette for the musical entertainment, so it was likely a safe exaggeration to make. At $12, the product was designed for more modest settings. However, that price was equivalent to about $300 today.

The Dulciphone, constructed with walnut, is a 14-note instrument which uses perforated paper rolls to trigger the notes in that they allow air to pass to the reeds. In this video, the operator is using a power tool to drive the Dulciphone, rather than a treadle, but we can nonetheless see and hear the instrument's operation:

Organettes were the only type of automatic musical appliance of the time with so many available songs, but it was a short-lived distinction. With so many treadle sewing machines in the wild from the same period, one might expect to find collectible Dulciphones more frequently, but they are rather rare items to purchase, though not terribly expensive when located - usually a few hundred dollars.

By the 1890s the phonograph signaled the beginning of the end for organettes. As sensible as it seemed to give one's treadle irons a second purpose with the Dulciphone, it could not compete with the convenience, economy, and variety of records.

The Last of Garvie & Wood

Little seems to be recorded about the inventors of the Dulciphone. We do know that they were a New York operation, and Garvie's own efforts as an instrument maker spanned only a few short years, probably less than five. By 1885, he was listed in trade publications as a clerk and machinest, and his partner Wood seems to have disappeared from notable publications that tracked the careers of such professionals in New York.


nutmeg said...

There is a working dulciphone at the Vintage Sewing Center and Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Cheryl's Teapots2Quilting said...

Great article. I'd not heard of these before.

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