How to Identify Antique Reed Organs

By Tonya Yirka
old piano keys image by Annika from Fotolia.com

The first reed organ, also called a pump organ, was a Harmonium made by Alexandre Debain in 1840 in France. Although many dealers aver that true antiques must be 100 years old or older, many consider the pump organ in the same category as an automobile and include them as antiques if built before the Great Depression. Since most reed organs were manufactured between 1895 and 1910 they have, recently, become true antiques. The sound of these musical instruments emanates from air from two foot-operated pumps. These pumps force the air through a series of gradated brass reeds.

Examine the key tops. Practically all instruments built before 1960 had ivory key tops. Look for the hairline between the two pieces on a white key. One piece called the "tail" is the skinny piece at the back of the white key between the black keys. The "head" of the key is the flat, wide part of the white key that is out in front of the black key. Since celluloid and plastic keys have been around since the 1880s, there is a slight possibility that some antique reed organs may have original plastic key tops.

Identify the wood. Antique organs, which were sold cheaply when compared to antique pianos, were comprised of solid wood usually walnut or oak. Veneer was too expensive to be used on typical reed organs during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The exceptions are the melodeons built in the 1800s, most of which were rosewood veneer.

Locate the brand name. Look inside the cabinet, use the flashlight if necessary, to find the brand name of the antique reed organ. Sometimes these names were hand written on tags or stickers. Beware of the name on the area above the keyboard because it may be the name of a retailer or distributor and not the manufacturer. Do not be surprised if the name on the area above the keyboard is either missing or not the same name as the brand name on the inside of the cabinet.

Find the serial number. Look for the serial number inside the cabinet as you did for the brand name.

Take pictures of the interior and exterior of the reed organ, especially if you cannot find the serial number or the brand name. Information in these photos enables the professional organ restorer to positively identify the piece and easily find the manufacturer and the date the organ was built.

Contact the organ restoration professional who has a historical publication that cross references the brand name with the serial number to target the manufacturing dates. Many reed organ restoration professionals can be found online. Send him or her the serial number, brand name of your organ, and pictures and the manufacturer's name if you can find it. The professional will check his or her references and verify the age of the organ.

About the Author

Tonya Yirka is an Indiana-based writer who has focused on writing for online publications since 2009. She contributes many articles about Chinese culture and traditions to various websites. Yirka, a retired teacher, has a Bachelor of Science in education from Indiana University and attended classes toward a Master of Science in educational studies.