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Treasures: Pump organs not popular in U.S. market

This pump organ is in the Victorian Eastlake style circa 1885.
This pump organ is in the Victorian Eastlake style circa 1885. TNS

Q: I am curious about the history and value of the Needham pump organ, which is in good condition and playing strongly.

T. F., South Africa

A: We have never had to address the value of an object on the South African market, and in our opinion, are not really qualified to do so. Therefore, we will limit our comments to the history of this piece and its current value on the American market, which may be quite different from the South African market.

These impressive looking musical instruments are known as pump, parlor or reed organs, and as T. F. knows, they are operated by pumping foot pedals that force air across a bank of reeds. First made in the early 1800s, their designs and musical abilities reached their zenith in Victorian times when various mechanical devices made their sound quality better.

The designs and musical abilities of the pump organ reached their zenith in Victorian times when various mechanical devices made their sound quality better.

Styles for these instruments mirrored those of the various Victorian styles that were in vogue when the organs were produced. Most pump organs that are found today, however, are in the Eastlake style. And the piece in today’s question is an excellent example of this particular Victorian substyle named after the English architect and furniture designer Charles Eastlake.

The example belonging to T. F. appears to be walnut, and this suggests it was made before 1895, probably circa 1885. After that date, walnut trees had been largely cut from American forests and furniture was being made predominately from oak.

Eastlake was characterized by heavy rectangular forms, shallow line carvings, turned spindles, panels, ornate shelves and inset mirrors. As a general rule, Victorian furniture is out of fashion at the moment, but of all the Victorian substyles (rococo revival, Gothic revival, Renaissance revival and so forth), Eastlake is probably one that is least desired by present-day collectors and homeowners.

In 1846, Elias Parkham Needham and Jeremiah Carhart started a firm in Worcester, Massachusetts, that manufactured parlor organs and melodeons. In 1848, they moved their operation to New York and became quite successful.

It is said that Needham invented the upright pump organ and during his lifetime, he secured a number of patents for this type of musical instrument. In addition to producing organs for the parlor, the company also made organs for churches all over the world. (Chapel organs have lower backs in order to allow the organist to see the congregation, and the backs of the organs are finished to give the audience an attractive view.)

In the late 1880s, Needham sold his patents and mostly retired, but the company did continue — only to have the growing popularity of the piano and the advent of the Great Depression put them out of business. Today, pump organs are not popular and sales at auction in the U.S. tend to range in the $250 to $450 range — if they sell at all.

Write to Joe Rosson, 2504 Seymour Ave., Knoxville, TN 37917, or email treasures@knology.net. Include a high-resolution, in-focus photo of the subject.

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