Minnie Emmett: When Bad Genealogy Happens to Good People

In a previous post, we noted that Dan W. Quinn made a few duets ca. 1895 with Minnie Emmett for the United States Phonograph Company. This seems to be a fact not widely appreciated. Has anybody out there got one?

The U.S. Phono. Co. catalog says the following:

We have here two well-blended voices, producing a charming effect on the Phonograph. The work is a new and an original departure, and the duets are well adapted for general purposes. Very musical and showy, brilliant and firm in tone. Sure to be popular, both from the nature of the subjects and the reputation of the artists.

Priced at $1.50 each, the titles were “Gobble Song” (from La Mascotte), “Reuben and Cynthia” (from A Trip to Chinatown), “He’ll Love You Bye and Bye,” and “The Spider and the Fly (with Buzzing of Flies, Mewing of Cats, and Cat Duet)” (from Isle of Champagne). Emmett also did a solo with Mr. Maxwell, “Back to Our Mountains” (from Il Trovatore).

There was quite a buzz about Minnie Emmett in the industry of the mid- to late-1890s. Before she came along, no really effective records of the female voice had been made allegedly. The same U.S. Phono. Co. catalog says this of Ms. Emmett:

SOPRANO SOLOS BY MISS EMMETT.

ONLY SUCCESSFUL RECORDS OF THE FEMALE VOICE EVER TAKEN.

After a series of experiments extending over several years of record making, we can now offer to the public what we believe to be the first true records of a high soprano voice. No squeak, no blast, but natural, clear and human. Miss Emmett has a round, sweet voice, sympathetic, and under perfect control. Her records would sell on their merits, even if they did not represent a new achievement in our art. They are made one at a time.

She made “Sweet Marie,” “Somebody Loves Me,” “Little Wooden Shoes,” and “They Are the Best Friends of All.” A supplement, also ca. 1895, listed these and four others: “When You Know the Girl You Love, Loves You,” “Pretty Maggie Mooney,” “I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard,” and “Rosie, Sweet Rosabel”—price, $2.00 each. Ouch.

Minnie Emmett

Minnie Emmett (The Courier, April 22, 1904)

If you like the sound of a serious singer doing popular songs, then you’ll definitely like Emmett. If, however, you prefer your comediennes to sing in a more rough-and-ready way, stick to Ada Jones or Elida Morris. But a web search for Minnie Emmett shows a good amount of interest in her, so it’s necessary to make a few observations.

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Edison’s Talking Dolls

If you’re in the New York City area, you may want to reserve a spot at the Edison National Historic Site (ENHS) for tomorrow’s talk on Edison’s talking dolls, which were made by an experimental division of his lab during the 1888-1890 period. Our friends, Robin and Joan Rolfs, owners of two of the preciously rare original dolls, will be giving the main presentation. The details can be found on the Thomas Edison National Historic Park’s Facebook page.

Woman recording a talking doll cylinder

(Scientific American, courtesy of ENHS)

Eight talking-doll cylinder recordings still exist in one form or another today, and Archeophone is proud to have provided audio restorations for the ENHS project. Two of the original specimens, the earliest ones of all, were made of metal! The other six are made of brown wax and probably all date to about 1890. Some of the records were transferred using standard contact technology (such as the Archeophone universal cylinder playback system—not associated with us), others had to be scanned optically (using the IRENE system), and some are older recordings of the dolls actually playing their internal treasures and being recorded with a microphone.

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The Big Sleuth

Aquestion mark few months back, a friend of ours returned from a cross-country trip. He had attended a phonograph and record show while away and was having his purchases shipped to his home. One of the lots he bought was a box of “shavers”: heavily molded cylinders, too damaged to be played or enjoyed, and generally so noisy you can’t even make out what is on them. Some collectors will pick these up and shave them down to pristine brown wax and use them for new recordings. You can usually get these for a few bucks apiece.

Well, the box was not packed very well, and when it arrived, most of the contents were smashed to bits. A couple survived. On close inspection, one of them looked to have a bit more modulation than David remembered. Hopeful, he transferred it and sent us the audio file and asked if we could make out what it is.

After some work, we got it, and it’s something we’ll be using on an upcoming project. Now, we’re asking you to join in the sleuthing fun. Here’s the first half of the record. Can you tell what this is?

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Dan Quinn Genealogy

Revised April 30, 2015 to include new information from the Quinn family.

We’re getting close to wrapping up our Anthology of Dan W. Quinn, and something occurs to us.

One of the challenges in telling the stories of the pioneer recording artists is trying to get a sense of what they were like as people. The stars were much more anonymous than today: They weren’t (for the most part) celebrities, each new record wasn’t accompanied by a media blitz, few got biographies or biopics, and TMZ wasn’t on hand to catch them out and about. To try and learn what their lives were like outside of the studio, we have to rely on the printed material that survives (industry publications and news items) and genealogical sources.

Dan Quinn advertises his services in The Phonoscope, December 1896.

Dan Quinn advertises his services in The Phonoscope, December 1896.

So, as far as the blog goes: there are plenty of fascinating things to share with you about the man and his life, but we should probably save some of the revelations for the final product! One item, however, that we won’t have room to explore fully is Quinn’s family. Here’s what we’ve found through our own research.

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