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The newest trend in music—The Reed Organ

The newest trend in music today is one of the oldest trends. I refer to the lowly reed organ. Some folks call them pump organs or Granny organs, preacher organs, melodeons, or harmoniums. Today there are more and more people using these instruments in rock bands in their homes, churches, and solo artist videos and CD’s . Just check out youtube and search reed organ and those other names above and you will come up with over 12,000 videos containing these instruments.

You may be able to pick one up for the cost of moving if you are lucky…or find them in antique shops, second hand stores, thrift shops. They cost from $50 or less up to thousands. Most reed organs operate on suction generated by the foot pedals and have one keyboard. A few of the larger ones may have two or three keyboards and a full pedal keyboard and they may have a lever or crank for a second person to furnish the wind or suction to the instrument while the organist plays.

There are several kinds of reed organ. The tiny melodeon is usually a single rank of reeds and some have legs that fold up for easy trasnport. They are short and unfortunately many of them have been gutted out to make a uselessly tiny writing desk. That was something that Better Homes and Gardens magazine suggested in the fifties and many people decided to gut their Grandma’s melodeon. Their kids are really disappointed in them today. The later version folded up into a suitcase called a preacher organ for military chaplains and evangelists to carry with them and those were built into the 1950’s or 60’s. Most of the others ceased production in the twenties or thirties some earlier than that as the popularity and quality went up in the American piano industry.

A step up from the Melodeon, there is also the larger version or the full sized reed organ with 2 or more sets of reeds playable with drawknobs similar to a pipe organ console. This is the most common. They often have very opulent cases with fine woodwork, often a decorative top with mirrors, gingerbread, latticework, and sometimes music and book storage cabinets. If the back wall of the organ has plain dyed or black back boards, it was built as a parlor organ. If it has a back that is fine finished wood , it will likely also be short enough for the organist to see over and possibly direct a choir over it while facing the choristers. This would be called a chapel model. This will often have a decorative grill in the back board so that sound can be heard to the back of the organ directed at the choir or the full church.

Newman Brothers Reed organ

Some instruments are quite different. These are mostly built in Europe and they run on pressure. These are the true harmoniums. Many people in America call these reed organs, but many in Europe call reed organs harmoniums. These both seem to have become generic terms for the other as well.

The Reed organ was first coming out in the mid 1800’s. The first man building these seems to have been George P. Bent who built several models of organ in his long run as a major builder. He built the King Organ, the Queen Organ, the Prince Melodeon. The most prolific reed organ builder would be Estey in Brattleboro VT. Musically the finest was often found bearing the Mason Hamlin label. Story and Clark and Ann Arbor, and Chicago Cottage organ were good names as well. Beckwith was the brand sold by Sears Roebuck while the Windsor reed organ was sold by Montgomery Ward.

Too often these organs are found missing their tops. These often highly decorated tops had to be removed when moving the organ and they seem to have not survived some moves. Also in the quest for modernity the old Victorian tops would be burned as firewood when Victorian went out of style leaving a rather plain organ case below that would better blend in with later styles of furniture. You can tell if there was a missing top by looking at the top back corner where the back wall of the organ meets the top board of the cabinet. If there is a stairstep here from right to left, then there is definitely a missing top that should go there. If the back top is square then it may not have had a top originally. Also if there are screw holes in the top boards of the organ then likely there were brackets missing that were part of the top.

The condition of these reed organs after more than 100 years, surprisingly, is sometimes good enough to be playable. The bellows are the most susceptible to the ravages of time. The pedals had canvas webbing straps going to the feeder bellows and these straps are usually rotted and broken and replaced by previous owners by now. The leather flap valves found on the outside of these movable feeder boards are usually not usable by now. In some rare cases replacing these flap valves and straps will allow the organ to play once again for a short time. Take note: after 100 years every reed organ MUST be restored at some point very very soon. While just recovering the bellows system with new cloth will make it functional in some cases, don’t think you can get away with never finishing the job. The whole organ action is full of felt and leather, both of which oxidize over the years and turn into powder. Usually moths have eaten holes out of all the felt and in some cases all felt throughout the whole organ Is nothing more than powdered moth poo left by marauding moths. Mice have often left signs of nests and in a few cases have wrought such damage as to make the organ unrestorable. In several decades of restoring several hundred of these instruments I have only found two instruments that were too badly damaged to restore and those just weren’t worth the money it would take to go ahead and restore them.

So what does a total restoration do? It should make the instrument totally functional and musical. It must include tuning as reeds do go out of tune. However these instruments were not tuned to modern standard A-440 in most cases. They are usually higher in pitch. A normal tuning will tune it to itself at the pitch at which it is found. In rare cases the customer will pay the extra hourly fee to get the organ tuned to modern standard A-440.

A restoration should recover the bellows system complete with replacing the hinges, bellows cloth and all flap valves and gaskets. If the reservoir was originally glued to the foundation board or bellows table, this joint should be gasketed and screwed together when reassembled. All wood should be sealed with shellac as 100 year old wood is now porous. All pallet valves under the keys should have new felt and leather and spring tension should be checked for evenness of touch. All stops or mutes over the reed cells should have new leather and should be regulated to be completely off when the stop knob is in the off position. All keys should be rebushed, and regulated for dip and leveled so the keyboard is totally even across its length. The name board should be restored and the name itself should be saved or if not in good enough shape, it should be scanned and replaced to look exactly like the original. The couplers should be regulated to push the key down completely but not push up any keys when activated. Stop knobs should be repaired or replaced and the correct stop names put in place. Sometimes that takes some research to find out what goes on a knob that originally had a blank missing label.

The end result in a restored reed organ is to be a fully functional, MUSICAL piece of history that will continue to play for many decades. While we restore to make our instruments last 30 years before any major work is needed they may very well last far longer just as they did originally. I seriously doubt that those American artisans who built these wonderful reed organs ever thought they would be around 30-50 years later. They would be amazed to know that their organs lasted over 100 years and then some yutz like me goes in and restores it to last possibly another 100 years.

I mentioned that these organs are a new trend. I have restored these for decades now but in the last two years my shop has had a backlog of reed organs waiting to be restored reaching perhaps 8 patiently waiting in line. Perhaps it is the economy…people want to fix what they have and enjoy it at home. Or perhaps they see more reed organs in music videos and they just like the music. With the resurgence in popularity of the reed organ’s little cousin, the accordion the reed organ now enjoys a resurgence of its own popularity. Luckily even complete restoration is so inexpensive compared to piano restoration, that the restoration of Granny’s organ is well within the means of most Americans with an interest in their own family’s musical history.

To see more of these reed organs check out the pages of organs that I sold or offer for sale over the last 2 years.

Or listen to several reed organs played on my youtube channel http://www.youtube.com/user/pianoworldenterprise

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Piano world enterprises

1126 Milton Rd,

Alton, IL 62002

Phone. 314-772-6676

Email. doug.l.bullock@gmail.com