Dexter Avenue Methodist, Pilcher Organ

The Nineteenth Century
The United States of America

The Organ Business

After the Revolution, business and professional lives in the newly-formed United States of America returned to normal - - "normal" for a frontier society, that is. As the newly-formed nation began to develop and grow, the cities on its east coast lead the way into the new century in all areas of life. Throughout the nineteenth century, political, economic and cultural leadership moved across the continent in a westerly direction, and the "business" of building organs was no exception. In the early years of the nineteenth century, it continued as it had before the Revolution.
  • Most instruments were built according to English models.
  • Most builders worked in small shops, and the practice of learning the trade as an apprentice continued.
As you might expect, the Revolution stopped importation for a generation or two, but among most builders in this country the idea persisted that an organ should have a G compass, two Open Diapasons on the Great, a rudimentary Pedal, and a Mixture on the Great only after a Sesquialtera was put there first. In some ways changes in American organ-building during the nineteenth century continued to follow the English model, with perhaps the most obvious change being the move to C compass in the United States at about the same time it was adopted by English builders.

Even though the nature of the organ in the United States remained essentially English, the business of building the instruments certainly became independent. Of course, without the possibility of imports, local builders were able to concentrate on improving their own work and meeting the English standards, which they proceeded to do quite well. Additionally, the Industrial Age changed the way the business of organ building was conducted in the United States as it did in England, France and Germany. By the middle of the nineteenth century, you can safely talk about a builder as a "firm," or even a "factory." I don't mean to tell you that the independent builder working in a small shop with only one or two assistants completely disappeared. You will find people working like that even today. The important element here is the appearance of the new way of doing business - - in a large, centrally-controlled organization that could do ten, twenty, or thirty times the work of a single artisan working alone. The nineteenth century saw the birth of the "factory" organ both in the United States and abroad, and you will find pages of this tutorial that talk about specific organ-building firms as well as specific instruments. It's all part of the history of the organ in the United States in the nineteenth century.

The development of the organ factory brought with it the development of advertising for the industry, and many libraries and even church archives hold copies of various catalogs and brochures published by nineteenth-century organ firms. The photograph to the right is of the front cover of one such sales brochure, published in 1891.222 It lists various sizes of instruments the firm offers for sale, complete with drawings of façades and sample stoplists, and it even has excerpts of letters from "satisfied customers." Although such publications often provide us with a lot of helpful information, you shouldn't take everything you read in them at face value -- they're advertising after all, you know? Exaggeration is to be expected.

For example, on page 6 of this particular brochure, the description of an instrument built for the First Presbyterian Church, Shamokin, Pennsylvania says it has "1031 pipes, 22 Stops." The stoplist at the bottom of the same page, however, lists only 16 speaking stops. The other six stops -- numbered quite precisely on the list -- include the couplers, the bellows signal, the tremolo and a pedal check. Not what we would expect in a "II/22" organ, to use the modern shorthand description.

In this sort of advertising description, Möller was actually somewhat conservative in counting stops. They didn't count the composition pedals or the Balanced swell pedal, listed and numbered separately under the heading "Pedal Movements." Here's an example from a publication by Hook & Hastings, a catalog of medium-sized church organs, published around 1905.221

The instrument described on this page is their model 17D, described as an organ of three manuals and 43 registers. Move your mouse pointer over the image, and you'll see the most unusual "register" highlighted. Although numbering the bench seems particularly egregious, other companies as well routinely numbered each coupler and each combination pedal in lists of this type. Today we would refer to this as a "III/27" organ, because only the first twenty-seven items are its speaking stops.

Now don't worry about this kind of detail as you prepare for the next quiz. This information is here as an illustration, not so you can memorize it and be ready to repeat it on the next quiz. I simply want you to remember that not all you read in nineteenth-century publications is what you might think at first glance. It's important to read critically and think seriously about the information you run across, especially when that information is meant to help promote and sell a product.


It's important to think about changes in the ways organs were built in the nineteenth century, but it's more important to think about their product -- the organs themselves. The nature of the instruments also changed over the course of the first half of the nineteenth century, and, as you might expect, many of these gradual changes paralleled those in England and Europe. The nineteenth-century organ was both larger and louder than its eighteenth-century predecessor. Although its use did not change, there was an expansion in the concept of what an organ should do, and where one might be installed.

Following the English tradition, the early nineteenth-century organ in the United States was first and foremost an instrument used to accompany singing in church. The basic pattern of the English church organ was first expanded through the addition of pedal stops, then through the addition of new colors. In both these ways, as in the adoption of the C compass before the middle of the century, the organ in the United States and in England began to absorb characteristics of German instruments. By the middle of the century, as society became more stable, new public buildings -- concert halls, lodges, theaters -- included organs. By the end of the century, as business became even more profitable, the homes of the wealthy often included provisions for the installation of an organ.

As you study study the nineteenth-century American organ, then, you should consider each one from these standpoints.

  • Where was the organ placed? Even though all instruments by a particular builder at any given time have certain characteristics in common, you need to think about the particular room that houses any organ. Many churches have a resonant acoustic, but many others -- particularly in the nineteenth-century United States -- have very low reverberation times. Concert halls usually have good acoustics for listening to music, but theaters, built to allow the spoken word to be heard and easily understood, might have low reverberation times, and homes would be even "deader" in terms of their response to the sound an organ makes. Beyond characteristics of the rooms themselves, you need to consider the position of the instrument within the room. Look for information about placement and find out if the organ is in a rear gallery or in the chancel, if it speaks directly from within the main room or from a separate room or chamber, even from behind a curtain or screen. Ask yourself how the placement would affect the sound.
  • What is its disposition? How does it sound? A comparison of large organs built in Germany, England and the United States in the late nineteenth century shows great variety in the use of new colors of flute, string and reed stop names. By the end of the nineteenth century, the organ in the United States contained not only the traditional choruses (principal, flute and reed), but also a new collection of colorful stops that greatly expanded the range of its tonal palette. As you read the accompanying pages on individual organs and organ builders, keep an eye out for colorful stop names. Some of them may be familiar to you from instruments you have played, others may strike you as being fanciful or even exotic. Just remember that some of the stop names you see had but a short life span, while others joined more traditional stops as part of the "normal" American organ. Then ask yourself how the date of an organ's construction would affect the sound. A Diapason from 1830 is brighter than one from 1895, just as a Dulciana from the early part of the century is bolder than one from the end of the age.
  • How does the organ work? Another area of development in the nineteenth century can be seen in advances in technology, as you might expect from the Industrial Age. American builders certainly used pneumatic assists -- like the Barker lever -- in their instruments from the middle of the century on. Another development was the tubular pneumatic action, in which the pallet admitted wind to a small conduit -- a tube -- that could then open a larger pallet placed at some distance from the first one. Throughout the second half of the century, you can also find experimental uses of electricity in organ building. In what might seem a strange order of events, most of these experiments involved first applying electricity to the action of the instrument. It was not uncommon in the last quarter of the century to see an instrument that had a form of electrical action, but in which the wind was still generated by hand -- or maybe water power. As you read the accompanying pages, be sure to look for ways in which the technology of the times was used in a specific instrument.
  • How does the organ look? The appearance of organs changed dramatically in the United States during the nineteenth century. In a situation that paralleled changes in England, the organ case gradually disappeared, at first leaving some pipes standing up around the main chests, like a fence that kept the rest of the pipes in place. As the elaborate casework of the past disappeared, visual interest was retained by an increased use of stencilling on the pipes themselves -- something you can see in the photograph at the top of this page, a Pilcher from around 1900.223 This particular appearance was short-lived, however, for by the end of the century, builders began to place pipes in chambers, not in cases. The highly decorated pipes of the last quarter of the nineteenth century mark the end of an era, and you can look on them as the final bow of the visible organ before it became something "heard but not seen" in the early decades of the twentieth century.

As you read the descriptions of specific instruments on the accompanying pages, think about these questions. Ask yourself about the sound a given disposition would produce, or ask your self how the placement of the instrument in the room affects its sound. As you read descriptions of instruments, ask yourself how it would have been described by its builder, its purchaser, the organist, or the listener. Where it has been possible to do so, I've included comments of this type on the accompanying pages. For the first time in this class, you're studying instruments of the type you can find nearby -- not half the world away. With a little bit of effort, you can even study some of these instruments first-hand, not on paper or on line.


The first half of the nineteenth-century -- up to the beginning of the Civil War -- was a time of consolidation, growth and internal development throughout the United States. Many builders began work in the early years of the century, producing fine instruments that in some instances have survived to the present day. Although some of these people built instruments for only a short time, others established firms that continued to produce musical instruments throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. From both early and late in the century, there are names which should strike a note of recognition when you hear them.

Even though this tutorial is meant to be a survey -- a type of course that typically skims the surface and doesn't dive below it very often -- it doesn't include information on each and every builder from the nineteenth century. In fact, it doesn't even mention some of them. It concentrates on only one nineteenth-century builder (the Hook firm of Boston), at the almost total exclusion of others. But -- and this is a big "but" -- I don't want you to misunderstand. I think it's also important to look at instruments by other builders as well. So you'll find descriptions of organs by Henry Erben, by the Pilchers, by Jardine -- by any number of other builders. The "story" of the Hook firm is here as an example of one among many.

I hope you will continue to learn more about each of the other builders as you encounter their instruments, but for the purposes of this class, you have only to learn some details of the Hook firm and their instruments.