Often purchased for their beautiful Eastlake and Victorian styled cabinetry, collectors soon find that a reed organ offers more than just furniture.
For some, the ideal vacation is lying on a beach soaking up rays while enjoying a good book. For others, nothing beats wading into a mountain stream with a rod and reel. For members of the Reed Organ Society, the ideal vacation is touring reed organ displays at museums and universities from Nova Scotia to California. Vacationers can find dedicated reed organ displays in the US, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, Japan, Finland, Sweden, Germany and a dozen other countries.
Enthusiasts of reed organs (a.k.a. pump organ, parlor organ, cabinet organ and—in Europe—harmonium) are passionate about their hobby. Often purchased for their beautiful Eastlake and Victorian styled cabinetry, collectors soon find that a reed organ offers more than just furniture. For many, restoring reed organs becomes a satisfying hobby. For others, the lovely sound of a reed organ prompts one to pursue music lessons (or at least visit museums for reed organ concerts). Others prefer to act in the role of a “picker,” learning enough about collectible reed organs to buy them cheaply and re-sell them to collectors and hobbyist-restorers.
As evidenced by the numerous societies listed above and the 10,000-plus monthly Google searches for the keyword “reed organ,” there is ongoing interest in antique reed organs. Hundreds of thousands of reed organs were manufactured between 1865 and 1957 and many of them are still around. Some, but not all, are worth collecting. Reed organs are valued mainly by collectors of Victorian and Eastlake furniture, history buffs and fans of 19th-century machinery. Of particular interest are organs that are rare, unusual or ornate. As with other mass-produced 19th-century goods, collectors of reed organs must be able to separate the rare and unusual from the commonplace. Rarity and condition will impact a reed organs collectability and value. It is with that in mind that I offer the following insights into the collectability of particular styles of reed organ.
History and Usage
Invented in 1840, reed organs became the rage in America after the Civil War. By the end of the First World War, more than 600 reed organ manufacturers had come and gone. Initially, reed organs were purchased as an inexpensive alternative to a piano. In the early 20th century, however, advances in piano technology made pianos more affordable, and growth of the railroads made pianos available to a larger segment of the population. As player pianos, radio, Victrolas and other home entertainment options became available, sales of parlor (reed) organs for home use lagged.
There was a bright spot in the sales of reed organs that kept the business (barely) viable until the mid-20th century: organs continued to be the preferred musical instrument for churches. Community churches that could not afford a pipe organ opted for less expensive reed organs. Missionaries, camp meeting revival groups, and even the U.S. military used portable reed organs for their worship services. In fact, the U.S. Armed Forces used portable reed organs until the end of the Second World War aboard ships and in tropical climates. Reed organs were lightweight and easy to transport; they were not subject to the effects of humidity, poor roads or rough handling. The tuning stayed relatively stable and the instrument required no electricity because it was foot-powered.
When a key is depressed a valve opens and air entering the action chamber is drawn across a reed causing the reed to vibrate and produce a sound.
How a Reed Organ Works
American reed organs produce sound by first creating a vacuum within the action of the organ itself by pumping the pedals. When a key is depressed a valve opens and air entering the action chamber is drawn across a reed causing the reed to vibrate and produce a sound. Unlike other reeded instruments (like a clarinet), in which the reed creates sound by vibrating against a mouthpiece, the reeds in an organ vibrate freely; hence they are called “free reeds.” Organ reeds are installed in sets, which produce various tones. An organ’s tone can be varied by re-directing the airflow to differing reed chambers. Changing the airflow is done through the use of pull-knobs called “stops.”
Changing the airflow is done through the use of pull-knobs called stops.
Organists are able to create multiple pitches and tones by depressing just one key and manipulating the stops. Stops are marked to correspond with the numbering and tonal system used on pipe organs. In a pipe (and reed) organ, the foundational pitch is marked 8’ (eight foot). This number corresponds to a pipe 8 feet tall on a pipe organ. In an 8’ pipe, playing middle C will give you the note middle C (C=261.626 Hz, middle C is designated C4). When the pipe size is halved, the pitch goes up: playing the middle C key will sound the note C an octave above middle C. If both the 8’ and the 4’ stops are used, two notes will sound when the middle C key is depressed.
Foundational organ reeds are made to approximate the sound of a flute, a reed (like an oboe or clarinet) and strings (violin or cello). Often, stops are named to match the stops on a pipe organ so that church organists will know what to expect when they pull a stop. When the combinations of multiple size and tone stops are used and an organist plays full-chord style, a reed organ assumes an almost orchestral sound.
Big reed organs that have a lot of tonal resources (5 or more octave keyboard, multiple keyboards, stops with 4’, 8’, 16’ sizes, multiple tones, and Vox Humana) are very desirable.
Top Five Collectible Reed Organ Styles
Here are the organs you should keep an eye out for:
1. Big reed organs that have a lot of tonal resources (five or more octave keyboard, multiple keyboards, stops with 4’, 8’, 16’ sizes, multiple tones, and Vox Humana) are very desirable. Vox Humana is a knee-operated lever that adds vibrato to the sound, after the fashion of a human voice;
2. Portable reed organs used for worship services;
3. Desk-type four legged organs;
4. Upright piano case organs;
5. Ornate case organs.
A box containing a portable reed organ used for worship services.
When removed from its box, the organ stands on its own collapsible legs.
Identification and Dating
Organs typically have the name of the manufacturer embossed right on the front of the instrument above the keyboard. Top brands include W. Bell & Co., J. Estey & Co, Farrand & Votey, Hamilton Organ Co., W. W. Kimball Co., Mason & Hamlin, Packard Bros, Story & Clark Organ Co., and Weaver Organ Co. This list is by no means complete. Many of the 600-plus manufacturers made quality instruments, and some were piano manufacturers as well, including Steinway and Baldwin.
You may have to fish around to find the organ’s serial number. Most makes will have the serial number painted or stamped onto the back (you’ll have to remove the back panel to see it). Some, like Estey, will paste a label onto the back. Serial numbers will be five or six digits; anything less than four numbers probably relates to the manufacturing process.
Most makes will have the serial number painted or stamped onto the back (you’ll have to remove the back panel to see it). Some, like Estey, will paste a label onto the back.
Once you have the name and serial number, you can look up the manufacturing details in Gellerman’s International Reed Organ Atlas. The Atlas lists U.S. and International reed organ manufacturers. You won’t find information regarding price or rarity, but you will find basic information regarding serial numbers and corresponding dates of manufacture. It’s a fun book for reed organ enthusiasts, as it includes brief biographies of those involved in making reed organs and many photos of early organ advertisements.
There are three primary considerations when pricing an antique reed organ. They are: the type of organ; the organ’s condition; and how unusual or rare the organ is.
Let’s begin with condition. If the organ is not playable, don’t pay any more for it than you would for a similar piece of furniture (similar in age, size and material). Likewise, if the wood is missing pieces and the finish is worn or watermarked, you will likely invest more in getting it refinished and repaired than it is worth. In other words, stay away from instruments that are ugly and don’t play. Unless the item is very rare, no one will want it. Even if it is rare, it won’t be worth very much.
A desk-type four-legged organ.
An upright piano case organ.
Assuming the organ looks good and has been restored to playing condition within the past 25 years, here are some price guidelines for the top five collectible reed organ styles listed above. Don’t pay more than $200 for any type of organ if it doesn’t play. Prices are approximate retail value. If you are buying for resale, adjust prices according to your expected markup.
1. Big reed organs with a lot of tonal resources: $1,500-$3,000;
2. Portable reed organs used for worship services: $400-$1200;
3. Desk-type four legged organs: $800-$2,000;
4. Upright piano case organs: $1200-$2,500;
5. Ornate case organs: $1200-$2,500.
Rarity and demand is fairly easy to check; simply do the following:
• Search WorthPoint or eBay for the type of organ you are considering and see how many come up. You’ll find that there are lots of ornate-case parlor organs and plain-case church organs, but very few upright piano, four-legged desk and portable styles.
• Go to the Google Keyword Tool, enter the type of organ into the keyword search bar, and see how many searches were done in the past 30 days for the keyword. This won’t tell you how rare the organ is, but it will tell you how many others are searching for information on the organ. Follow the keyword links to see if the “searchers” are interested in either buying or selling the organ, and the price they are seeking.
An ornate parlor case organ.
Reed organs bring lovely furniture and 19th-century ingenuity into the sleek, plastic, high-tech world of the 21st century. Collectors enjoy the feel and look of the wood, the sound of the music and—sometimes—new vacation venues.
Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo, and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions.
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