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Unloved Antiques: 19th-Century Pump Organs

by Mike Wilcox (10/31/11).

This Estey Eastlake-style organ was made circa 1890 and is of a type generic to the North Eastern U.S. and Canada. While why may be loved, and this isn’t even taking its sound into account, they don’t sell for more than $200.

The next item in this series of Unloved Antiques is the 19th-century “pump” or “reed” organ, or the Estey “Eastlake-style”* organ, to be more precise. The reed organ was once an important domestic instrument, offering a cheap alternative to the ever-popular family piano while, at the same time, providing a suitable instrument for accompanying family hymns on a Sunday. It was the product of a world-wide industry that turned out hundreds of thousands of organs a year at its peak.

According to old catalogs produced by the Estey company, it was founded in 1846—located in Brattleboro, Vt.—and was one of the best-known and longest-lasting of these organ companies, remaining in production until 1960. It was also one of the most prodigious, as in its 114-year existence, Estey produced some 520,000 reed organs. Like piano makers of the time, Estey numbered its products with serial numbers—either stamped on the back of the organ or on an internal sticker—so if you have one of these Esteys, you can get a rough idea about when it was made. For example, an organ from 1850 was stamped “400,” and by 1870, the numbers were up to 24,000. In 1880 it produced its 100,000th organ and in 1890 it turned out No. 221,000.

Demand for reed or pump organs dropped off after the First World War, and most ended up stored in back rooms and barns. Demand for them for is still very modest, and many were often converted into desks or bars by antique dealers looking to make them a more marketable item.

In the current market, values for them in “as is” condition at auction is still very modest and depends on who wants one and how bad. Of the 55 Estey Eastlake organs I’ve seen come up for auction over the last couple of years, 17 failed to even meet their modest reserves, while the remaining 35 sold for less than $200. Only three sold for more than $200.

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*Charles Eastlake was an English Designer who wrote a design book entitled “Hints on Household Taste” in 1868. In this influential book, he rejected the ornate decorations favored in earlier Victorian furniture and espoused a more simple design featuring incised rectangular lines sparingly accented with machined forms and varying wood types for decoration.

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Previous “Unloved Antiques” articles:

Unloved Antiques: ‘Limited Edition’ Collectors Plates
Unloved Antiques: Singer Sewing Machines
Unloved Antiques: Decorator Prints
Unloved Antiques: Commemorative Whiskey Decanters
Unloved Antiques: ‘Bronze’ Flatware
Unloved Antiques: 1847 Rogers Brothers Flatware
Unloved Antiques: Hummel Knockoffs
Unloved Antiques: National Geographic Magazines
Unloved Antiques: Dragonware
Unloved Antiques: 19th Century Religious Prints
Unloved Antiques: Depression Glass
Unloved Antiques: Stradivarius-Style Violins

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.

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8 Responses to “Unloved Antiques: 19th-Century Pump Organs”

  1. If you want a look at an inventive approach of what to do with these old unwanted organs… look no further than to our own Pianobuster site.

    go to pianobuster.com for a quick review.
    Those vital organs (pieces) should NOT go to waste, ever.

    We accept them as donations…. in South Western Ontario.
    And I’m hoping others start to do the same elsewhere soon.

    A lot of heritage valued woodworking expertise went into building them… I’m hoping we apply as much thought and effort into reusing them now.

    cheers.
    Vince.

  2. Mike Wilcox says:

    I often used to convert these pump organs into desks and bars for clients. In some cases badly damaged ones would be disassembled, the walnut mahogany or oak from them used for restoration of other pieces. Not much goes to waste in a Antique restoration business ;~)

  3. Great article and I agree with comments above. Ours was up a huge flight of stairs and I didn’t want to haul it down, so I took it apart. The best find, was a part that I now use to hang jewellery on. I could not have set out to make one that would serve better. The bigger pieces have beautiful woodwork, and the flat pieces are lovely in finish and make great display shelves. I felt bad about taking it apart, so you have relieved my guilt:D

  4. Donald Johnson says:

    I went to an auction held by a dealer and their family. One of the sons had a new wife and the parents put up the old pump organ. When there were no bids, she popped up and bid $500 for it while her new husband had left to get a drink. Needlessly to say she won it and was so proud of herself, and her husband was sick, going to have to move it from his parents to his house. Never saw one go for more than $100 other than that.

    • Mike Wilcox says:

      I’ve often seen husbands and wives separated by the crowd bidding against one another without knowing it. One will go for coffee and rush back to see the bidding has started and don’t see their spouse bidding. It’s quite comical to see their expressions when they realize what’s happened.

  5. Brenda Marinace says:

    I became the default owner of an old parlor organ. We disassembled it and saved parts as it did not work anymore. One of the most valuable I found were the organ stops. I sold the set for several hundred dollars. These stops are lovely and very decorative, usually have elegant writing on them.

    • Mike Wilcox says:

      Dealers have done this for years with pieces that were difficult to move, or too damaged to restore. We routinely turned these organs into desks, bars, or just took them apart and sold the interesting bits as individual items. What ever was not used became kindling ;~)

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