By Paul Holley

A Racine letter carrier’s interest in woodworking became a lifelong career that played a role in the early days of the auto industry and what is now home entertainment.

Frederick Blandin (1862-1927) started a part-time venture in 1889 making wood toys and household goods from a workshop behind his home at 1612 Winslow Street. In the 1890s, he left his job with the U.S. Post Office to devote full time to the business called the Racine Novelty Co.

By 1902, Blandin had joined with outside investors and the Racine Novelty Co. was producing wooden automobile bodies for several automakers, including Auburn, Case, Kissel, Mitchell and Nash. The young company survived a fire and opened a new plant near Sixth and Mead streets. In 1907, Racine Novelty employed 295 workers at two locations.

The company reorganized in 1909 and changed its name to the Racine Manufacturing Co. Citing “ill health from overwork”, Blandin retired as company president in 1912. He re-emerged less than a year later with a new woodworking enterprise – the Racine Piano Bench Co.

Working examples of Blandin Phonographs can be seen at the Spirit of the Racine Entrepreneur exhibit at the Racine Arts & Business Center, 1405 16th St.

In 1918, Blandin dropped the piano bench business and started producing wooden phonograph cabinets for the Racine Phonograph Co. That business was located in the Racine Industrial Plant on 16th Street (now the Racine Arts & Business Center).

Blandin took over Racine Phonograph in 1921 and renamed it the Blandin Phonograph Co. Buyers could choose from models with a hand-cranked turntable or a turntable powered by a small electric motor. The Blandin Phonographs were priced from $100 to $1,000 (approximately $1,255 to $12,550 in 2018 dollars).

Blandin’s products hit the market at a time when home entertainment was booming. The first third of the 20th century saw wide popularity in household musical instruments (i.e. pianos and organs), phonographs and, later, radios. His timing appears to be inspired by the expiration of basic phonograph patents held by Victor, Columbia and Edison during the 1910s.
But this boom soon turned into a bust. By the early 1920s, more than 400 companies were competing for phonograph buyers. The market became over saturated.

Frederick Blandin died in January 1927 at age 64. His grave is in Racine’s Mound Cemetery. The Blandin Phonograph Co. soon disappeared. Working examples of the Blandin Phonographs can still be seen – and heard – at the Spirit of the Racine Entrepreneur exhibit at the Racine Arts & Business Center, 1405 16th St.

(Material for this story came from the Spirit of the Racine Entrepreneur exhibit at the Racine Arts & Business Center; CoachBuilt.com, an American auto body website, and Wikipedia. Special thanks to Jim Mercier and Emily Montgomery.)

(Gadgets and Geeks is an ongoing series of stories that highlight inventions from Racine County. Pay close attention, because on Wednesday, June 26, from 6 to 8 p.m., the Racine County Eye will hold Gadgets and Geeks Trivia Night at The Brickhouse, 316 Main St. Trivia answers will be gleaned from these stories.)

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Paul Holley is retired from careers in journalism, public relations and marketing but not from life. These days, he pretty much writes about what he feels like writing. You may contact him directly at:...