W. Bell & Co — Reed Organ — Built in 1886


In July, I stumbled upon a very small reed (pump) organ in a 2nd hand shop. (It was technically a 'harmonium' I later learned). So, I read up about these instruments, as they are free reeds and essentially cousins of the accordion, and I learned that thousands were built in Ontario between 1860 and1910.

I began to look at the small number of organs that were being sold on the internet. Virtually all of these were in rural settings scattered all over Ontario and so transportation seemed a real issue and condition varied widely. I settled on one that was small enough to come up the narrow stairs in our Toronto 'semi' to my music room.

This particular instrument had been ‘played recently’ (he said) and the delivery arrangements were suitable. It was heavier than I imagined and so it resides on the main floor for the moment while I clean it up and arrange for two bigger, stronger, younger men to get it upstairs.

The Bell Brothers began to build these organs in Guelph in 1864 and used the name “W. Bell & Co.” from (at least) 1871, when they built a new factory, until 1888. They produced 80/year in 1867, and about 1200 per year by 1881. Dating the organ was an interesting exercise in deduction. A paper ‘certificate’ lives with the number 5785 in treble front of keyboard. Penciled initials A K/H/R? Can’t decipher the other word – followed by 2(?) But this is a number attached to the keyboard, not the organ, sez Rodney Jantzi (who knows all and he is right).

It took me weeks (of looking and giving up) to accidentally find the (real) serial number, which is stamped vertically into the rear of the treble end wall. The organ is #33675, which puts (by deduction) the date of construction around 1886. Of course, sitting right beside the paper decal is written in pencil on the wood: “H. Clarke 12/17/86”— how definitive is that!

The organ is made of mahogany and would have had a 'top piece' and side candle holders — all now missing. The fabric behind the decorative openings is completely ripped and disintegrated. Dominique has some lovely green silk fabric that she will replace it with. Despite the assurances of the seller, several reeds were not sounding, so once we returned to Toronto, I ordered an ultrasonic cleaner as I was assured by my sources that cleaning the reeds would do the trick.

And — 15 minutes of sonic vibrations in apple cider vinegar with a dash of detergent— it does! Not only are they now very shiny but they sound ever so much better.  (You can see and their beds in the 7th photo — these are in the back set  and the first eight have been cleaned. Photo # 5 is a before and after shot that shows the difference cleaning makes).

The set of reeds that are accessed from the front of the organ were soon done and sounding great! The second set of reeds are accessed through the back of the instrument and I began pulling and cleaning them — but — in returning one of them, two of the playing keys got stuck open — playing all the time. In order to get at the keys to see what was the matter, I had to dismantle thing further and revealed the true condition of the interior of the organ: grotty, to say the least.

I found that a small piece of felt (from somewhere) was messing up the key action but it was clear that I would have to remove and clean all of the keys and vacuum the dirty mess underneath them. The good news is that the keys came up beautifully with some careful sanding — and I hope that cleaning them and the area beneath them will be as far as I have to go.

Back to cleaning reeds but as I have the mechanism apart, I can’t hear the reeds once they are back in place, because, although they are stamped with their ‘note’ — the stamping is often light and variable and one can't always tell what they are (‘is that a C or a G? is that a # sign or not?). Oh, and at least one clearly stamped ‘pair’ were each tuned to the ‘other’ note!

So, I’ve waited until I finished the keys and remembered the order of the pieces that hold the keys in place and linked the ‘stop pulls’ (register keys in accordion terms) to the various dampers. At this point I have cleaned and replaced the last quarter of the reeds —some of which seemed to be welded in place by dirt and tarnish and were often very difficult to remove and replace — lashings of beeswax were needed here. And, the length of felt under the keys was rather trashed, so I replaced it.

Now I will need to take the upper assembly apart again because at least one ‘black key’ seems to be in the wrong place and is contacting its white neighbour in an unfortunate way. I’ve begun to spread Clapham’s Beeswax Finish on some of the wood and it loves this! I only had a small jar and had to order more — the mahogany is glowing under it.

Belle’ has now moved up to the music room with the help of son-in-law Rob and his brother Pete. She awaits final assembly of her ‘vox humana’ and heavy back covers. Soon we’ll move to installing the new fabric under the latticework and she will be 134 years young!