How to Identify Antique Reed Organs

Written by tonya yirka
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How to Identify Antique Reed Organs
Ivory keys may indicate an antique reed organ. (old piano keys image by Annika from

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.

Skill level:

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Things you need

  • Flashlight
  • E-mail/address of a pump organ restoration professional
  • Camera - optional

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  1. 1

    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.

  2. 2

    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.

  3. 3

    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.

  4. 4

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

  5. 5

    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.

  6. 6

    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.

Tips and warnings

  • Do not pay attention to all the other numbers, dates such as patent dates, and years in which the companies were established that you will find while hunting for the serial number and the brand name or manufacturer's name. These are not manufacturing dates.
  • Look for the reference books concerning the dates and manufacturer names online yourself. Check the antique reed organ restoration sites.
  • Cracks in sounding boards are not a major problem and can be fixed successfully by a trained professional.
  • The value in a reed organ is more sentimental than material.
  • A stool, not a bench, accompanies the true antique reed organ.
  • Do not expect great monetary returns. Although small cabinet organs and melodeons made from 1850 to 1870 are beginning to rise in value, the reed organ is generally not in demand and therefore does not usually command large amounts of money. The exception is the buyer who is looking for a specific model.

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