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The ‘Little Men’


Edward W. Cole arrived in Victoria in 1852, seeking gold. Although unsuccessful he remained undaunted, and attempted many different ventures before turning to bookselling. In 1883, he opened his successful Coles Book Arcade, located in Bourke Street between Swanston and Elizabeth streets.

Selling new and second-hand books, Cole encouraged his customers to spend time in his shop by introducing a variety of attractions, including a band, a confectionery department, caged monkeys and parrots, a fernery, redeemable medals, a clockwork symphonion, clockwork hens and ‘Little Men’—sometimes known as ‘Little Sailors’.

The symphonion, in its ornately carved wooden case, was an early form of mechanical music box. To play a tune, customers inserted a coin or token, causing the steel disc to rotate. Small hooks on the back of the disc plucked the teeth of a metal comb. Discs providing different tunes were stored in the lower cupboard.

An advertisement for a mechanical hen was enclosed with the symphonion when it arrived from Germany. Cole subsequently purchased five or six hens and numerous eggs. On insertion of the appropriate coin, the hen would cackle and lay a tin egg containing a sweet or small toy. The eggs were re-used.

The ‘Little Men’ were manufactured in Melbourne for one of Cole’s earlier bookshops. They sat in the front window and turned a double crank handle powered by water pressure. The handle turned tin advertising signs promoting books and departments, and slogans reflecting Cole’s attitude to religion and morality.

‘Little Men’ in glass case (1883)
 ‘Little Men’ in glass case (1883)

 ‘Little Men’ in glass case (1883)

 Detail of ‘Little Men’ in glass case (1883)

 Symphonion (c. 1889)
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‘Little Men’ in glass case (1883), F. Ziegler & Sons
Dimensions H 187 x W 94 x D 94 cm
Registration No. MV 28991
Image source: Museum Victoria

© Museum Victoria Australia