Everything that floods into your head upon reading the word “minstrel” probably has decent proximity to the truth of reality at the time. In reading about Christy’s Minstrels, you get a sense of the crass vulgarity and mockery associated with the show - caricatures of people that were not that far off from traveling Human Zoos, but with slapstick and catchy music. It’s easy to understand why so many racial tropes had such a long-lasting negative effect when they were repetitively presented as entertainment… “all in good fun...” over many decades to a nationwide audience of the working class and poor people. What effect that this experience had on a young William is not readily known. What is known is that within a short period, he became tired of the situation. Upon making it to San Francisco, he could stand no more and his tolerance had reached a point where returning home to face his disapproving father became a better option than remaining with Christy's Minstrels.
How that went, in William’s words:
I arrived at the house early in the morning and was admitted by the servant, and went into the sitting-room where my father was reading a paper. The old gentleman was a very dignified and undemonstrative person; he looked up from his paper and said: "Hello, you've got back, have you?" I took a seat and waited for the rest of the family, who soon arrived, and made up for my father's taciturnity in embraces and kisses.
It’s interesting, then, that in 1861, when the American Civil War broke out in April of 1861, William was first to volunteer, joining the 13th Regiment of the New York State Militia in June. He served until the regiment was mustered out in August, and then moved to the 14th Regiment New York State Militia (also called 14th Brooklyn Chasseurs or “Red Legged Devils” courtesy of Stonewall Jackson) as a drummer boy. A year after joining the war, William married Emeline Cordelia Dodge (b. 1842). When the war was over in 1865, William began work with Burdett Organ Company (Chicago), and he and Emeline had a child named Harry Barnes Tremaine in 1866.
This is the point where most people in the music industry start the tale of William Burton Tremaine. It is a well-documented story of a vocalist and musician who opened a piano business with his brothers in 1868 called the “Tremaine Brothers.” This lead to his creative work with engineers to fabricate mechanical instruments like the "orguinette." By 1883 he and his engineers had created the well-known Aeolian organ (ad inset in the pic below) and the beginning of William’s legacy.
It was July of 1887 in Meriden, Connecticut when William Tremaine, the entrepreneur, created Aeolian Organ & Music Company by combining the sources of several acquisitions starting with Mechanical Orguinette Company of New York and the Automatic Music Paper Company of Boston. Soon after he introduced the “Aeriola,” the self-playing piano/organ hybrid. The success of the company only went up from there.
William and Emeline's son, Harry, now rejoins the story at 32 years old. In 1898, he took over the company, simplifying the name to “Aeolian Company.” Harry started the new century by acquiring piano and organ companies George Steck and Weber Piano to create the largest piano and instrument company in the country.
I will leave it to you whether or not to discuss with the piano or phonograph enthusiast in your life how - or IF - the invention of the phonograph (1877) lead to the loss in popularity of player pianos. But at the time, Harry Tremaine ventured into phonographs (gramophones) in the mid-1910s - each case was lacquered just like the pianos - finding it an alternative method to create beautiful music in the home without the necessity of training in playing a musical instrument. So in 1915, Aeolian started making Vocalion phonographs like this Aeolian-Vocation, “Style J,” with Graduola found on pages 36 and 37 of their 1915 catalog presented above a postcard from the same year and a "Style I" Vocalion.
Imagine our surprise, then, in finding this very phonograph advertised on the side of a filing cabine fitted with a wooded advertising piece for the Aeolian-Vocation, “Style J,” with Graduola. It creates this extremely unique piece of furniture that's hard not to notice.
You can click HERE to find out more information or click on the picture below.
If you want to know what the Graduola is and how it worked, there is a great video about its function HERE and another about the inner workings HERE. It's invention was meant as a gimmick and ended up launching the concept of remote volume control.
Post Script Fun Fact:
Besides opening a piano business in 1868, William and his brother Alonzo performed with a burlesque troupe. This went on for some years and apparently suited William much better than his previous experience on stage.