MONMOUTH, Ill. — Having been an active researcher of local history for more than three decades, I am regularly amazed at how often an important piece of Monmouth lore emerges that was totally unknown to me. Such was the case last week when Monmouth College professor and antique buff Mike Connell sent me some photos of an item he found on Craigslist.
At first glance, the object appeared to be an ordinary gramophone in an oak cabinet — a once-popular household appliance that was produced in the hundreds of thousands between the turn of the century and the 1920s. Closer inspection, however, revealed an interesting logo decal under the lid — a gold crown surrounded by the words “QUEENOLA TALKING MACHINE CO. — MONMOUTH, ILLINOIS. U.S.A.”
Connell wanted to know if the phonograph — now located in Iowa City — was made or sold in Monmouth and the answer is “both.”
Research determined that the device was originally produced in Galesburg by an inventor named Permil N. “Nathan” Nelson, who established the Humanola Talking Machine Co. around 1917. The son of Swedish immigrants, Nelson would later establish Galesburg’s first radio station — WKBS — in 1926.
The Humanola had several distinctive features that made it stand out among console phonographs — most notably that it could play all types of records without changing the position of the reproducer. It also employed three individual vibrating plates for clarifying the tones from the time they left the diaphragm until it reached the horn, and a large violin sound chamber. Nelson, who started out his career as a painting contractor, manufactured all components of the machine, from tone arm to wooden cabinet.
Humanolas were marketed entirely through jobbers, and Nelson’s aim was to set up exclusive geographic dealerships throughout the United States.
Not long after founding the company, Nelson met the Stevenson brothers — James R. and William E., of Monmouth. James was the manager of the Monmouth Public Service Co., which provided gas and electric power to the Maple City. After attending Monmouth College and getting an engineering degree from the University of Illinois, James had gone to work for General Electric in Massachusetts and was knowledgeable about manufacturing and patents. William was the former Warren County treasurer.
A deal was struck and the Stevensons moved the business to Monmouth in the summer of 1917. James, who seems to have the driving force behind the venture, installed William as general manager and Nelson as sales manager. He also discovered that the name Humanola had been trademarked by the Humanola Talking Machine Co. of Meyersville, Pa., so he changed the name to Queenola. The home office and showroom was established in the Odd Fellows building at 94 Public Square.
The company continued to operate on a jobber basis, and Nelson would go on the road, exhibiting the Queenola to potential dealers from hotel rooms around the country. He adopted the advertising slogan, “Every Home Should Have a Queen.” Ads were placed in farming magazines, encouraging individuals to become dealers for their township in exchange for a free Queenola.
It was announced that the Queenola would be manufactured locally by the Monmouth Plow Co. Joseph A. Scott, the plow plant manager, was a close acquaintance of James Stevenson, as the power plant stood across the railroad tracks from the factory, and Scott was always looking for additional work for his carpenters and metal workers during the slow seasons. Scott also likely offered marketing advice to Stevenson, as the plow company was diversifying into a national catalog mail-order company for farm families.
The Queenola Model 120 was marketed as a high-quality phonograph at a discount price. While competitors’ units were retailing for $150, the Queenola sold for $75. Occasionally, it would be advertised at $50, direct from factory. Model 150 was a higher-end machine selling for $90, which featured a mahogany cabinet and storage drawers that held 100 records.
Partnerships were also struck with local merchants. Grocer F.A. Cooper offered a $65 Queenola for $35 to customers who would begin trading with him. A less-orthodox partnership occurred when general manager (and former county treasurer) William Stevenson announced that arrangements had been made for all county property tax bills to be paid at the Queenola showroom. No doubt the alluring sounds of a demonstration model were playing as taxpayers and potential customers wrote out their checks.
Yet the company folded almost as suddenly as it appeared. Could it have been because of a glut in the phonograph market by dozens of competitors? Or chief salesman Nathan Nelson leaving for Iowa in 1918 to become a salesman for the high-end Puritan talking machine?
In November 1920 it was announced that a wholesale grocer had moved into the former Queenola building. James Stevenson continued to manage the power company, but what happened to general manager William Stevenson? He is not mentioned as a survivor in his father’s 1921 obituary, nor is he mentioned in his brother’s lengthy biography in the 1922 Warren County history. It’s as if he either was disgraced or vanished.
Details about the history of the Queenola company are sketchy. At this point, the only remaining piece of physical evidence seems to be the Craigslist talking machine in Iowa City. And it’s not talking.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking on Western Illinois history for more than 35 years.