Treasures from the Vault: Concert Roller Organ

Elizabeth Goings, Exhibitions Content Manager

This week’s treasure is a peculiar curiosity. Instead of a painting or print, this week I present to you a Concert Roller Organ. What is a Concert Roller Organ, you ask? Well, it was only the most fashionable form of entertainment for working class Victorian Era Americans.

concert roller organ
The Concert Roller Organ on display at FWMoA. To watch and listen, scroll down to the bottom of this post!

Roller organs are essentially music boxes, but they’ve been jazzed up a bit. Made up of a wooden box (sometimes with a glass lid if it was fancy, like ours) roller organs produced music by cranking long cylindrical tubes with raised brass teeth. When the teeth are plucked, music is produced. The tubes containing various songs were known as “cobs” because they resembled corncobs that have been eaten and picked clean. The resulting music was full and melodious, bearing a strong resemblance to the piano you might hear in saloons in old western movies. Want to see it in action? Scroll down to the end of the post for a video!

These ingenious devices became popular in the late 19th century as working and middle-class Victorians looked for more “cultural” ways to fill their new free time. Due to industrialization and its advancements in industry and farming, the American middle-class were experiencing what was once a luxury for the upper-class—extra time in the day without tasks to fill it. They were living the high life! However, many of these families were still unable to afford tickets to concert halls to listen to music. Roller organs to the rescue! Roller organs were not only a curiosity that could be shown off to visitors (and thus show how cultural and successful you’d become) they were small enough to fit on a table and also portable, so they could easily move without being damaged and taken to parties.

It’s unknown who actually invented them, but roller organs were sold by the thousands by Sears & Roebuck as a result of their convenience and cheap prices. The most basic and popular model, the Gem Roller Organ, sold for an affordable $3.25. Our treasure is what’s known as a Concert Roller Organ and is a little bit bigger with a glass cover protecting its cobs—it sold for $7.60. Both the Gem and Concert models utilized the same 20-note cobs and produced full, melodious music for a mere 18 cents—less than ordinary sheet music. There were over 1,200 songs available, and titles ranged from hymns to popular contemporary tunes.

Our organ was donated by FWMoA Director of Facilities Scott Tarr and belonged to his great-great grandparents. This organ holds a special place in his heart because it reminds him of days spent at his grandmother’s home. All of the children loved the organ and funny, old-timey tunes it produced, and they would all take turns cranking its handle.

Want to hear an old-timey tune? Watch and listen to the Concert Roller Organ in action below:

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