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The Playtape


The playtape was a format that looked like a small 8-track cartridge.   Like the 8-track, the playtape played in a continuous loop.  The article below gives a very good overview of the history of the playtape format.  The format seemed to be primarily targeted to older children, but there were some tapes that were for young children and the fact that there were players for cars indicated a broader audience.

The playtape was apparently a playback-only format.  I am not aware of any consumer playtape recorders being made (or any blank playtapes being made available in the retail market).

There were several different models of playtape players produced.  At the bottom of this page is a list of some of those units.

Click here and here for pictures of one of the more common playtape players.

I've got some pictures of playtapes that are still sealed in their original packaging:

And here is a picture of a couple of tapes in a condition you are more likely to find them in today:

by Lynn Fuller

[Reprinted with permission of the author]

In early 1967 the four-track cartridge was controlling the industry with Bill Lear and his 8-track format waiting in the wings to become the "format of choice" for the next decade of pre-recorded taped music. Enter Frank Stanton, innovator of the 2-track PlayTape system. Stanton conceived the compact 2-track system in the 1940's war years when he served in the Navy. Sears and MGM records bought the first working model. The machine was unveiled to the general public at an MGM Records distributor meeting in New York in mid-1966. It was almost instantly a success. PlayTape was touted as a replacement to the transistor radio with the disc jockey removed. It was a light little machine, playing whatever music you wanted to hear . The self-winding tapes played from eight to 24 minutes, and they played anywhere. Quite an accomplishment in 1967!

Stanton felt that Playtape was a "standard system-not competitive with anybody. We have our own niche - from $1.00 - $3.00 retail cartridges, from mono to stereo, from the Beatles and Sinatra to Shakespeare and poetry." He would be proven wrong.

The first two PlayTape units offered were a $19.95 unit sold by Sears exclusively and an MGM model (retailing at $29.95) that had tone controls and a better speaker. Stanton had in mind over 15 different models to be available in 1967 -- home tabletop models featuring hi-fi speakers, an auto hang-on unit, a wide variety of portable units and special stereo models. units were cheaply made, sounded like you would expect a 3" speaker to sound and were troubled with the same crosstalk, azimuth problems of the 8-track.

In addition to musical entertainment, Stanton had the business market in mind for the PlayTape system as well. He introduced a special dictating device for the business market which he envisioned as a replacement for written memos and letters. His idea was marketed to the Smith Corona Corporation and called the Mail Call Letter Pack. The units that recorded the messages were advertised at "less than $70.00 a pair." Letter Pack cartridges were offered in 3, 6, or 10 minute lengths and were reusable. Even though the idea was a forerunner of the IBM dictating machine and to some extent the Internet and E-mail, the concept did not take off and music is still the medium for which PlayTape is remembered.

In September of 1967, PlayTapes were distributed in five distinctive color cartridges in the following categories:

  • Red cartridge - equivalent to the 45 r.p.m. "single" - $1.00
  • Black cartridge - equivalent to a 4-song EP - $1.49
  • Blue cartridge - children's albums - $1.00 - $1.50
  • White cartridge - 8 songs like an LP - $2.98
  • Gray cartridge - talk and educational - $1.00 - $1.50

In its heyday of 1967 and 1968, the personalities in the PlayTape inventory reads like a "Who's Who" in the entertainment world. In the popular music category were such greats as Frank and Nancy Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Connie Stevens, Peggy Lee, Nat King Cole, Wayne Newton, Judy Garland, Nancy Wilson, Petula Clark, Connie Francis, Ella Fitzgerald, Eddie Gorme, Steve Lawrence and hundreds others.

The rock n roll category includes such names as the Beatles, the Animals, the Supremes, the Lovin' Spoonful, the Grateful Dead, the Mamas and Papas, the Righteous Brothers, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder.

Also in the PlayTape inventory were the standards - Herb Alpert, Sergio Mendes and an assortment of current Country music hit artist. The total number of artists available on PlayTape at the beginning of 1968 was over 3,000!

A big boost to the PlayTape format was a contract in April of 1967 to license the entire Motown catalog. Previously, Motown had only once licensed their entire catalog to Ampex in the open-reel format. Another boost was a contact with Pepsi to promote the youth market. Pepsi offered a PlayTape unit for $12.95 plus 6 cork liners from Pepsi cans. Pepsi promotion increased the sale of PlayTape cartridges almost twofold.

The PlayTape format targeted two distinct markets - the youth music market and the business market. For whatever reasons the business market never took hold. The music market enjoyed a limited success. The PlayTape was limited to two tracks, and even though there were several car units they never really targeted the car audio market as did Mr. Muntz and Mr. Lear. Both of these factors helped lead to Playtape's demise. PlayTape leveraged its company in the direction of educational and business fields rather than entertainment. LearJet and Muntz both introduced portable players for their formats in the late 1960's, which stripped PlayTape of its unique portability selling point. Consumers had to commit to a uniform format and PlayTape was not to be the choice. PlayTape did however enjoy several more years in the limelight in Europe, most notably Germany.

Collectors of the PlayTape format should look for the following:

  • Most PlayTape entertainment cartridges were marketed in sealed "bubble paks" that could be hung on a rack in the store. Original sealed paks are very collectable.
  • Any car PlayTape unit is very collectable.
  • PlayTape carts or players in the business field and children's tapes are very rare.
  • As with other formats, Beatles, Stones and other big name groups are the most desirable.
  • Discarton Limited released a portable unit in 1968 which played both 45 records and PlayTapes. This unit is considered the most collectable PlayTape unit.

PlayTapes are an important part in the history of cartridge tape formats. Although short lived in their existence, PlayTapes offer the collector a challenge in preserving this unique format.

Here is a listing of some of the playtape units produced:

Playtape 1100 - As far as I know, this was a special model sold by Disney with a Disneyland logo on it.  It took 4 D batteries.  Here is a picture of the unit, and here is picture of the box.

Playtape 1200 - This is probably the most common unit.  Click here and here for pictures of the Playtape 1200.

Playtape 1310 - The Playtape 1310 is a small portable unit that looks quite similar to the 1200.  Here is a picture of the 1310, along with the original box in which it came.

Playtape 1320 - This unit was bigger than most of the other portable units.  It measures about 9" wide and 8" tall and 3" deep.  It has a volume control knob and a second knob for manually changing tracks.  It takes 4 D batteries, and has an AC adapter.  This unit apparently came with a carrying case which also holds extra tapes in the back.  Here is a picture of the front of the unit, and here is one of the side (where the tape is inserted).

Playtape 1400

Playtape 1441 - This was one of the smaller players.  It is wider than it is tall, and has a flexible strap instead of a handle.  The tape inserts into the top of the unit.

Playtape 1442

Playtape 1443 - This unit was one of the bigger Playtape players, about 6 inches tall and 9.5 inches across.  It included an AM radio and a built-in shoulder strap.

Playtape 1601 - This unit was a larger tabletop model and had an AM / FM radio.

Playtape 1604  - A larger unit without a handle or strap.  It runs on both AC and DC power, and has a brown fabric speaker cover and brown trim.  Thus, it looks more like a home speaker or old wooden radio that would be used in a stationary location, as opposed to the players that clearly look like they were designed for portability.

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