Creepy dolls are big on the internet. Seriously, type “creepy dolls” into your search engine and prepare to be fascinated and/or creeped out. Some modern dolls are created specifically to give you the shivers, but some older dolls are creepy either because of the way they were photographed or the way they’ve aged. And this isn’t a modern view that we’ve gotten from movies like the Child’s Play series or the more recent Annabelle. Apparently there has always been something disturbing about things that are life-like, but not alive.
Surprisingly, there is a connection between creepy dolls and Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931), the American inventor credited with inventing the light bulb. No, I’m not going to get into a debate about Edison vs. Tesla. I’ll just say that almost all inventions are built on work done in the past by others, even if it’s the last person who ultimately gets all the credit.
In 1877, building upon work done by others, Edison created the phonograph, the first method of recording and playing back sound. An early record player. He used this new technology to create a line of dolls that recited bits of nursery rhymes. The dolls sold for about $267 in today’s money, but the fact that they were expensive is not the reason they were only available for about six weeks before being pulled from the shelves.
The idea of a talking doll was good, but the execution is where it all went wrong. The wax and metal cylinders on which the voices were recorded wore out easily, distorting the sound. The dolls were about 18-22 inches tall and had a metal torso to house and protect those cylinders, so it was not a very cuddly doll. And then there were the voices…
Edison hired young women to record the dolls’ voices, but the equipment did not allow for the sound clarity we expect today. I played the recording of “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” for my daughter without telling her what it was, and she thought it was cats. That’s not a reflection on either Edison or his recording artists, as I’m sure they did the best they could with the tools they had available.
Please take a moment to click on this link from the National Park Service site for Edison and listen to at least one of the recordings. You’ll understand that the creepiness factor is not always about the way a doll looks.
These recordings were essentially lost until recently. Because the cylinders were so fragile, no one dared play them. We now have the technology to make these recordings available, and while listening to them is not a pleasant experience, they are a valuable historical resource and a glimpse into the past.
These dolls were only available for about six weeks. A complete failure at the time, they are now a collectors’ item. I’m sure there’s some sort of lesson in that.
How about you? Did you have a favorite doll? Do you see them as cuddly companions or the stuff of nightmares?