Aretino’s (and Busy Bee’s) Arthur J. O’Neill — From the August 1909 “Talking Machine World”

The Talking Machine World for August 1909 provided a rare look at Arthur J. O’Neill, a leader in the premium-scheme market. O’Neill offered free or deeply discounted phonographs to customers who purchased a specified number of records. His first phono-related venture was the Busy Bee line, marketed through his O’Neill-James Company; Aretino was launched after Busy Bee became entangled in two of its suppliers’ legal problems.

In a variation on the old “razor-and-blade” ploy, O’Neill had his machines equipped with various impediments to thwart the use of ordinary discs, creating a captive audience for the matching records. For the Aretino line O’Neill patented a massive three-inch “spindle,” leaving the record label little more than a thin ribbon around the gaping hole. In the August 1909 TMW, O’Neill hinted that a more conventional line of records might be in the offing:

The idea never came to fruition. Aretino faded away following O’Neill’s death in 1915, and in 1916 it was merged with O’Neill-James and the Johns brothers’ Standard-Harmony-United operation to form the Consolidated Talking Machine (Chicago). Some leftover Aretino discs found their way into the hands of the obscure Duplex Record Company, which filled the holes  and covered up the patch with a new label that was cut away at the bottom to reveal the original text (photos courtesy of Kurt Nauck):

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For more on O’Neill, the Johns brothers, and the Chicago premium-scheme labels, check out A Phonograph in Every Home: The Evolution of the American Recording Industry, 1900-1919, available from Mainspring Press and many major libraries.

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