Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Restoring a Reed Organ - Part 2: Identification

Restoring a Reed Organ – Part 2: Identifying the Instrument
As I mentioned in Part 1, when Bill Bartram showed me the Mason and Hamlin reed organ now in our possession, and offered it to me, I knew less than next to nothing about reed organs.  I didn’t even know enough to photograph it properly to begin to research it.  I took a couple of photographs with my blackberry, with its less than adequate camera, and began to do some research.  As the instrument is now at my dad’s, and I won’t be there until this weekend, these are the only photos I have at present.  I have since learned that it is imperative to photograph every step of the restoration, making note of where every part of the action, every screw, and every little part goes.  Many of the amateur restorers whose websites can easily be found have excellent photo-journals of their efforts. 

So, the first step was to find out something about the instrument and I set about that task with the few photos that I had. Now I may not know much about mechanical things, and I may only be a mediocre musician, but I am a professionally trained historian.  While I have not been able to date the instrument as of yet, as I don’t have the complete information in front of me for that, I began to use the information I had, went to the music library at the University of Toronto, consulted several handbooks (including the two very useful books by Gellerman), and looked at inventories, registries and vintage catalogues, online.  I have also received a bit of help from the friendly online community of reed organ restorers and enthusiasts. 

Mason and Hamlin name, with Mason Risch & Newcombe, below
From the information at hand, here is what I have gleaned.  The easy part: It is a Mason and Hamlin reed organ, the lettering above the stops identifies it as such.  Mason and Hamlin were one of the premier manufacturers of reed organs from the mid-nineteenth century onward.  They continue to manufacture very fine quality pianos.  The firm was founded in 1854 by Henry Mason and Emmons Hamlin. Henry Mason was the son of the great Lowell Mason, the esteemed nineteenth century American musical educator and church musician.  Lowell Mason arranged and harmonized many of the familiar traditional tunes used still used in modern hymnbooks.  The Canadian Anglican hymnal Common Praise has 8 tunes arranged by him (look them up!).  The interesting thing about this Mason and Hamlin organ, though, is that there is an additional name below the stops and above the keyboard: “Mason, Risch, and Newcombe, Toronto”  -presumably, a Canadian agent or distributor.  Indeed, a browse at the Canadian Encyclopedia entry for this firm reveals that they began business as an importer of instruments in 1871, which they seem to have done exclusively for the first six years until they began building pianos in 1877.  The third partner, Newcombe, left around that time.  As his name is on the imprint on this instrument, we might therefore postulate a possible date of 1871-1877.  It is of course possible, that instruments still carried his name after that date until stock was exhausted. 

Vienna Medal; note keyboard begins on "C"
Mason and Hamlin was known for showing off their accomplishments and many of their organs feature replicas of the medals won in international fairs.  Some of the later models have what seems like at least a dozen above or to the sides of the stops.  An Estey catalogue that can be viewed online seems to take a stab at other manufactures (like Mason and Hamlin) who proudly display such honours.  This particular organ has two medallions, one on the bass end reading Vienna 1873, the other at the treble end which reads Paris 1867.  Thus, the instrument can be no earlier than 1873 and must be dated to 1873 or later.  Combined with the information about Mason, Risch and Newcombe, this suggests a possible dating of c. 1873-1877.  The other factor in dating is that most of these organs have serial numbers.  According to Gellerman’s reed organ atlas, though, dating Mason and Hamlin organs from serial numbers can be a tricky business as they were often not assigned sequentially and are thus unreliable as the only evidence for a date.  I am not as yet familiar enough as to how numbering was assigned and where the numbers are to be found.  The inside of the back of the case has the number 5696 stamped in black, and the action has 9107 stamped in black.  There is a label on the inside bass side of the case that I was not able to get a good look at, but will examine more closely this weekend. I suspect a serial number might be found there.  Some restorers have noted that they have found dates and signatures on the keys after disassembly.  So we will keep our eyes open for such clues.

The one Mason and Hamlin catalogue I have seen online gives model numbers.  I am not sure whether these apply to the case alone or a combination of case and action features.  The Reed Organ Societydatabase has nearly 350 Mason and Hamlin reed organs registered in their directory and I have scrolled through them all. Although not all have photos attached to them, I have not seen this exact case amongst them. 

Other interesting features on first glance:

The Keyboard – the keyboard is a C to C keyboard.  Many reed organs are F to F.  I wondered why the difference.  I posted the question on one of the Reed Organ internet forums, and Casey Pratt, a very kind and knowledgeable expert shared that F – F keyboards were typically marketed for personal, parlour use. C – C keyboards were marketed to professional organists (and presumably institutions). The European harmoniums were C – C instruments whereas the earlier M&H melodiums were C-C. Perhaps they were trying to draw some kind of connection with these European instruments (for the sake of prestige?).   

Stops, some out of order, I think, and some missing.
The Stops - The first think I noticed was that the Vox Humana stop (which works a fan-like mechanism that creates a vibrato sound) had smaller “on” and “off” stops on each side.  Looking at many photos in books and online I found a few that were similar, but the majority of reed organs out there simply operate using a single Vox Humana stop.  I couldn’t find any explanation of this.  Once again the folks on the reed organ forum were helpful. The Vox stop on this organ is simply a “front” with no mechanism of its own.  The Vox Humana is actually operated by these “on” and “off” mini-stops.  I note that this seems to be a feature on several other Mason and Hamlin reed organs.  I wonder why this particular method to control the Vox Humana was used in some cases but not in others.  Another question for the experts, I suppose.

I am not sure how one is supposed to count the stops and whether the Vox Humana with on/off counts as 1 or 2 or 3.  In addition to the Vox Humana, there are 8 other stops, for on each side.  Many are completely disconnected and a few of the knobs are lost.  I think the existing ones may have just been set haphazardly into the holes just to keep them in place.  A wooden “plug” of some kind has been put in one of the stop holes.  These are the existing stop knob labels:

I Forte
II Forte
Sub bass
Octave Coupler

Knee levers and pedals.  Note the ornate keyhole.
Knee Levers and Pedals:  Looking at the pedals, the carpet is worn and clearly needs replacing.  There are two knee levers.  My understanding is that the lever on the left is used to open the stops to a “full organ” setting without having to manually pull stops.  The lever on the right is the swell.

The case itself has some lovely simple ornamentation on the side, and I very much like the placement of the candle platforms.  Dad tells me that the case is actually in pretty good shape although the finish is peeling quite badly in many places.  The only significant damage he sees is around the hinges that connect the top and back of the case.

Well, until I get to see in person this Sunday, that’s about all I can say.  More (and better!) photos to come. 

Next:  A list of the resources we will be using so that we can at least attempt to make a decent job of it and not butcher this lovely instrument!

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