If you have memories of elementary school music days, there’s a chance that one of the first instruments you were introduced to was either the Recorder or Tonette.
The main difference between these two instruments is the materials they are made from.
The Tonette is a plastic instrument and usually made on the cheaper side. Recorders are a bit better quality when it comes to make because they come from the woodwind instrument family. The Tonette is limited to one octave while a recorder can play two octaves. There are raised finger holes on the tonette where the recorders were flat.
The tonette was invented in the late 1930s by Ziegner Swanson. A variety of companies manufactured them including The Tonette Company, Chicago Musical Instrument Co., Swanson, Gibson, and Dimestore Dreams/Binary Arts Corp. On each instrument, a stamped imprint just below the mouthpiece identifies it as a tonette by the words “Tonette”, “Swanson”, or “Gibson”.
The Tonette Company was located in Chicago IL at 30 East Adams Street.
These little black flutes quickly become familiar to a generation of schoolchildren in their primary music education. The U.S. government even produced tonettes for military personnel during World War II.
Frank Aman, who would go on to make plastic bugles for the US Army, produced a plastic recorder that was marketed by the Tonette Company. Aman used raised finger holes on his recorders and may have been behind the Tonettes.
In 1936 the Tonette Company made a small four-note whistle, composed of a black plastic body with yellow plastic bell and mouthpiece fused into position. The instrument is 5 inches long. The instrument was able to play 4 of the standard 5 bugle call notes. It was called the “Bugle Boy”
The company also produced the “Bugle Boy” with a plastic loop to make it look like a bugle.
In the 1940s Hires Root Beer Company used the “Bugle Boy” as an advertising campaign. The instrument was produced (presumably by the Tonette company judging by the design) with the words “Drink Hires” on the side and “Toot for Hires” on the inside of the bell. The instrument is 5 inches long but lacks the plastic loop.
In 1940 a larger version of the tonette that added a plastic tube to make it look like a small regulation bugle. It was called the “Cadet Bugler” and advertised as the “Big Brother” of the “Bugle Boy” This instrument was 8 ¾ inches in length and came with a red silk cord. The instruments sounds one octave lower than the “Bugle Boy.”
Along with the instructions included with the instrument, Tonette published a 24-page book that included 30 Bugle calls and bugle marches.
The instrument is pitched in the key of G (the idea was to be able to play along with regulation bugles) and the musical notation is done in the G instead of the traditional bugle/natural trumpet system where the music is written in the key of C. The music was arranged by Forrest Buchtel (1899-1996) a prominent arranger of music for education. Buchtel was a well-known cornetist, composer, and arranger who taught at the VanderCook College of Music in Chicago from 1931 to 1985. Early in his career he taught at Emporia Teachers College in Salina, Kansas.
Butchel also arranged Melody Fun For Singing and playing with the Tonette in 1963