While it seems an unlikely product to have once been manufactured in Vincennes, for a several years in the 1920s a popular line of phonographs was made in the city. Phonographs were first produced here in early 1923.
Production of the phonographs evolved gradually. In 1919, what was called the Juvenile Manufacturing Co. was established in a factory building on the northeast corner of 11th and Nicholas streets. That building had originally housed a stove works and later other industries. As the name indicates, this business made wooden toys and furniture for children. It later segued into home furnishings, most notably different kinds of cabinets, such as medicine and bathroom cabinets.
The Juvenile Manufacturing Co. went into bankruptcy in 1922 and Claude Gregg (future mayor of Vincennes), purchased the property and formed the Gregg-Willmore Co., with William Willmore and other stockholders. Both Gregg and Willmore had been directors of the Juvenile Manufacturing Co. The new business made wood and metal furniture, but soon transitioned to producing only cabinet phonographs under the trade name Rivoli. In April 1923, the name of the business was changed to the Vincennes Phonograph Co.
The biggest challenge the company faced in the beginning was attracting skilled workman to fashion the phonograph cabinets. Men were brought in from other areas, but often didn’t stay long, since they and their families, accustomed to life in larger cities, didn’t want to relocate to Vincennes. The company finally had to undertake the training of local men, which proved successful.
By the fall of 1923, the Vincennes Phonograph Company had 65 employees, with a weekly payroll of $1,600. They were making from 38 to 40 phonographs a day, in five different styles. The cabinets came in walnut or mahogany. The actual phonograph motors were not made locally but were installed at the Vincennes factory. There was only a single woman employee at that time, whose job was to apply each cabinet’s inlaid decorations.
In those days, it was only the most affluent households that could afford a phonograph. That Christmas the Schneider Music Co. at 17 N. Second St., advertised one of the large model Rivoli phonographs, valued at $225, for a sale price of $126 (which still comes to just over $1,800 in today’s money).
It was in the early 1920s that radio made its way into American homes, and, in 1924, the company began manufacturing a combination phonograph and radio. William S. Vowels, proprietor of the store The Music Shop at 429 Main St., became the local agent for the phonographs. Vowels had seven different models on display at his store.
By the start of 1925, the number of employees at the factory had increased to 105, with a weekly payroll of approximately $2,500. They were said to be nearly overwhelmed with orders. Sales that year were predicted to be in the range of $400,000. John Watters was then serving as company president, a position he would hold for several years.
Later that same year, the Vincennes Phonograph Company merged with Radio Industries Corporation of New York and the local name was changed to Radio Industries Corporation of Indiana. The radio mechanisms were made in New York and shipped to Vincennes. They continued making Rivoli phonographs and radio cabinets. Their slogan was “Always Good Company.”
By the start of the year 1926, the number of employees had increased to 165.
A colorful 1927 magazine ad for the company’s phonographs boasted: “Vincennes … unknown yesterday … today without peer … has glorified the phonograph. Given wings to recorded music.”
In late 1928, the Vincennes Phonograph Company (which had gone back to that name) went into receivership and by the following year all of the machinery had been sold. The slowing economy following the boom years of the mid-1920s, with its enormous demand for consumer goods, led, in part, to the company’s demise. A contributing factor was competition from major brands. By the fall of 1928, Schneider’s Music Co. was the authorized dealer for Majestic, Atwater Kent, Sparton, Kellogg, and Crosley radios.
Just two years later, in December 1930, a large section of the former phonograph factory building was destroyed by fire.
Today, phonographs that were manufactured in Vincennes are prized by collectors.
Brian Spangle can be reached at email@example.com.