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Phonographs Used to Train Birds to Talk (1903)

(This story was originally written and recorded for Retrocast #24, released on January 22, 2024.)

At the turn of the twentieth century, Jacob Hope owned a pet shop in Philadelphia. His specialty was birds, talking birds in particular. The responsibility of teaching these avian chatterboxes to speak fell to Mrs. Hope, Jacob’s wife, who came up with a unique way of training them.

As she explained in an article in the September 13, 1903, edition of the Pittsburgh Post, “A parrot that can’t talk sells for $10 or $15 and one that can talk sells for $100 or $150 (approximately $3,500 – $5,200 today) according to its proficiency. Why shouldn’t I take a half dozen untrained birds, worth say, $75, and then turn them out good talkers, worth $700 or $800?”

Her method was quite straightforward: she would select a half dozen young parrots, place them in a room by themselves, and then cover their cages with hoods. This was done because the birds learn faster when they aren’t distracted. She would then sit down beside the cages and repeat the phrase, “Polly wants a cracker” over and over.

After about ten or fifteen minutes of doing this, both Mrs. Hope and the birds would tire of the repetition, so she would change the situation up a bit. She would remove the covers from the cages and then hide behind a screen as she once again began the monotonous repetition of “Polly wants a cracker.”

Then, after weeks of training the birds, Mrs. Hope had a brainstorm. Maybe she could use her newfangled phonograph to train the birds. She sought out the help of a phonograph dealer who taught her how to make her own records.

And you know exactly what she did: she recorded herself repeating “Polly wants a cracker” onto the recording. Once that task was completed, the big question was whether or not her idea would work.

It did and the results were far beyond her expectations. The parrots were not only learning the phrases, but they were picking them up in far less time.

Mrs. Hope’s next step was to obtain several phonographs and proceeded to record other phrases. The net result was that all of the birds that she trained using this new method were sold at a premium price.

When other people learned that she was training the birds this way, they asked Mrs. Hope if she could train their birds. She agreed and set up a phonograph school to do so. The cost was $40 ($1,375 today) for a six-month term. At the time of her interview with the Pittsburgh Post, she had twenty students enrolled in her classes.

Her star pupil was able to say, “Yankee Doodle went to town A-riding on a pony.”

She explained, “This little bird is the best talker I have ever seen. His name is Dewey, and he can speak three languages, English, German, and French. His accomplishments are altogether due to the phonograph.” When asked if took long to teach a parrot, she replied, “Not with the machine. I use cylinders of extra large size, and, since I have a number of phonographs, I can, if I wish, keep one phrase dinning in a parrot’s ear all day long. I rarely do that though, for the reason that such a course makes a bird irritable and nervous, and takes its appetite away. As a rule, the lessons last 30 minutes a day, and a week is given to learning one phrase.”

A parrot and a vintage phonograph.
AI-generated image of a parrot and a vintage phonograph.
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