Door Chime History - NuTone Chimes

3rd & Eggleston Avenue, later Madison & Redbank Roads
Cincinnati, Ohio

Founded in 1936 by J. Ralph Corbett (1897-1988) and Patricia Corbett (1912- )

Many references to the history of NuTone can be found in a cursory web search. That is undoubtedly because of the Corbett Foundation, a major philanthropic organization that has funneled in excess of 50 million dollars into arts related projects in Cincinnati. The details of the company’s history however are overshadowed and presented in sketchy and often misleading form. I have stitched together various reports into what is probably mostly factual as far as it goes:

Born in December 1896 in Flushing, N.Y., Corbett was the son of a wine merchant. He attended Dwight Preparatory School, where he sang in the choir, and later was a scholarship student at New York Law School, working as an advertising agency mail clerk during the day while taking classes at night.

His first job as a lawyer was as private secretary to an attorney who assisted Clarence Darrow in the Scopes trial. To supplement his income, he began writing radio scripts, and by the mid-1920s had his own marketing and radio production agency. One of his clients, from 1932-37, was Cincinnati's WLW. While working here, Corbett and his wife decided to make Cincinnati their home.

At WLW, Corbett produced a number of radio series, including ''Famous Jury Trials'' and ''Life of Mary Southern,'' which ran for 10 years.

During the Depression, WLW founder Powel Crosley suggested that Corbett produce a show to ''buoy up courage.'' The result was ''Notes on Business,'' a show hosted by Corbett that dramatized business opportunities, inventions and other upbeat business news recited against a musical background. After one broadcast, a Dayton man approached Corbett with his idea for a musical chime to replace then-popular doorbell buzzers. Corbett loaned him $5,000, but the inventor went bust. In 1936 Corbett took over what was left of the operation and moved it to Cincinnati. He continued to operate his consulting agency but also founded, in partnership with wife, Patricia, a new company called NuTone Chimes Inc. The company employed only four people and operated in a one-room building downtown.

As his investment soared over $50,000, Corbett realized that he had to narrow the wide price gap separating the chimes - which, under the Dayton man's plans, cost from $16.50 to $125 - and conventional door buzzers, which cost only about 25 cents. With help from an acoustics expert from the University of Cincinnati, a new line of chimes costing $1 to $19.50 was produced by a workforce of four at a 600-square-foot factory. It did not move formally to a more extensive facility until 1940, when it opened manufacturing operations at Third Street and Eggleston Avenue.

By Pearl Harbor, NuTone had grown to more than 400 workers - one-fifth its size when Corbett sold the firm a quarter century later - and its sales had surpassed $1 million. But the wartime conversion of his factory to anti-aircraft fuse production presented several problems: losing about one-fourth of his workers to military service, and searching for a product that could be made from non-essential materials to keep his sales staff occupied.

He solved the latter problem by manufacturing about 1.5 million hardboard mailboxes, and addressed the former by writing 50 letters weekly to NuTone workers in uniform in the hope that they would return after the war. More than three-quarters did.

NuTone would eventually become one of the nation's most recognizable product names, with its doorbells chiming in more than 50 million U.S. homes. The company also expanded into a wide range of other consumer products such as chiming Westminster clocks, intercoms, built-in stereos, electric ranges, kitchen exhaust fans and bathroom ceiling heaters - an idea inspired by the time Corbett bumped into his wall heater while shaving, burning two holes in his robe.

Through savvy marketing, NuTone products that started out as luxuries came to be seen by many Americans as household necessities - particularly in new homes. After initially selling his products in department stores, Corbett later concentrated on wholesalers who dealt with builders and contractors.

By 1967, when Nutone's annual sales had reached $60 million, with 14 plants in the U.S. and Canada, Corbett sold the company for $30 million to Scovill Manufacturing Co. of Connecticut.

The company changed hands again in 1998, as it was absorbed by Broan, and again by Nortek in 2000

I wonder... are any of those early pre-Nutone chimes still around? What was the brand name? What was so different about them that made them so expensive? Anybody know? See my speculation on this question at the Telechime topic.

The fact is that the "the Dayton Man" already had a company, probably founded in 1929 and had been making a line of fancy chimes for years when he met Corbett in 1934 or 1935. What is not at all clear is why he contacted Corbett. Possibly for financial support of his flagging company, or maybe for marketing help. Still seeking to uncover that story. In any case "the Dayton Man's" company continued on through 1939 regardless of how the NuTone story is told.

As for the suggestion of "invention" of musical chimes, given the solid evidence of patent records, neither NuTone, Corbett nor the “Dayton Man” were the original inventor of musical door chimes.

J.Ralph Corbett

Earliest known logo used on products. Screen printed. 1938

Logo decal used on fancier models. Probably 1940



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