Since November 2019, I have a “new” pump organ: a portable melodeon, circa 1860. It is in rough shape and doesn’t work, but it seems to have all its reeds and keys (many of which are sticky–one of which was missing its pallet and pitman). It also lacks pedals and a wind chest — someone seems to have cut it off, given the ragged edge hanging below the keyboard and bellows. These rather rare old instruments are often sold as tables.

But it is fun to see how it should work–even if I fail to ever make it work again. I learned a lot from some websites and videos, which I studied and kept pausing to examine closely. Here are my favourites by Berg Pianos and by Rodney Jantzl. This treatise posted at the Reed Organ Society by Jim Tyler is also very helpful.

Here is my melodeon set up with its lid closed standing on two lyre-shaped legs. The lower bar between the legs has pins on the ends that slip into little holes in the legs. By pulling the legs apart slightly, it comes off, and the legs fold in under the wooden case. Portable!

It is 31.5 inches tall, 19 inches deep and 36 inches wide and weighs about 50 pounds. There are 61 keys — five full octaves F to F.

Here is my melodeon with the lid folded back half way. You can see the five octaves of keys. The two green circles are for candles. Moveable pieces of wood–possibly called key slips–have been removed so that the mutes and reeds can be seen. 

Because the melodeon was found in an antique shop about 50 kilometres northeast of Toronto, I was hoping that it might have been made by RS Williams of Toronto. Note the similarity in cabinet.

R.S. Williams catalogue, 1864. University of Toronto Library.

But no. It was made in USA.

This label is in the centre of the lid in the photo above: S.D. and H.W. Smith of Boston. The men were cousins, both born in 1830 in Enfield, Mass. (Spillane, The History of the American Pianoforte, 1890. 304-5).
Looking into the opening under the treble keys, you see a mute, which is hinged at the bottom. It’s hard to see but there is a stamp on the wood upper right of the mute above the nails (close up below).
The stamp says “Patented July 3 1860.” So now we have the earliest possible date for the construction of this organ.

The S.D.& H.W. Smith Organ company was founded by S.D. Smith in 1852, his cousin H.W. joined in 1853, and by 1883 they had changed the company name to Smith American Organ Company. So this organ was made between 1860 and 1883– likely closer to 1860.

A similar organ by the same company is here; another almost identical is here (go to pages 9-12); and yet another by Mason and Hamlin is here. They are all in better shape than mine, and you can see that they each have two pedals. The one on the right operates the bellows; the pedal on the left operates a mute or “shade” to increase the sound.

One of the keys was permanently down. When I looked under the keyboard I saw that its pallet had vanished, although the springs were still there. Here below is the view. Every key has a flat wooden pallet below held in place by two wire springs. The brass reeds lie between the key and the pallet. You can just make them out in the photo below. Under normal circumstances, pressure down on the key opens the pallet and allows air to flow through the reed to make a sound. When pressure on the key is removed the spring pushes it and the pallet back up, silencing the reed. (These are not normal circumstances, no pedals, no reservoir to hold a vacuum, and no idea how well the bellows work–more about the bellows later)

The underside of the keyboard. Two pallets removed — the one on the right was missing; I took off the other to be able to examine it. Front of the organ is at bottom of photo.
Close up. Through each hole, you can see a brass reed and make out its thin tongue. Also you can see behind the reed (above in the photo) a wooden plate with holes for the 1/8″ diameter pitmans to pass through. The pitmans (also called stickers) are not fixed at either end, so when the pallet is removed, they drop out. Easy to lose! You can also see the guide pins at each end of every pallet.

After trying to carve one myself and nearly removing my finger, I took a pallet to Da Costa Millworks and the lovely guys there replicated it for me and even gave me an extra.

Here you see old on left, new on right. Their pitmans (stickers) are lying beside them. Made of 1/8″ wooden dowels, they connect the pallet to the action of the keys.

Note how each pallet has slits front and back to ride over guide pins. The thickness is tapered at each end.

Here are the pallets each held in place by two finger-like springs. The new one is obvious with its pale wood.
Another view of the same. The missing pallet was under the last key in the treble range: F above middle C. Note how the bass range of reeds is set further back from the front of the organ (which is at the bottom of the photo). I do not yet know why. There is usually a reason.

Now what about the bellows?

With the lid folded all the way back, you can see the bellows. The top of it is a thick board (approx. 1/2″) with seven large holes. A large metal bar or arm, hinged at the right wall, is lying on top of it.
Close up of heavy metal arm, which was once connected to thinner metal bar embedded in a little well in the bellows board (visible just below). Note the number 3902. Note also the rounded corner or elbow of the metal arm at the back of the organ. Underneath, it has a hollow to receive a rod coming up from the pedal. See two photos down.
Here is a connector in a screen shot from the Berg Pianos video (at 1m 10sec). Where do we find one of those? They replaced it by joining the two with a piece of belt leather screwed to the top of the bellows board. Jantzl uses thick string.
View from bass side. I have raised the metal arm so you can see the distance it would travel, normally bringing the top of the bellows with it. You can see its vertical corner piece at the back of the organ, the bottom of which is hollow.
Looking up from beneath the back of the melodeon at the hollow of the metal bar. This hollow should receive a vertical rod from the pedal. Note also the torn edge of the fabric that once made the wind chest.

I wanted to see if I could make a mock-up pedal arrangement to test the action–a proof of concept. In all the online images of similar organs, the pedals appear to be thin metal objects joined to another vertical metal (or wooden) rod that fits in the hollow of that big metal arm on top of the bellows. They had to be removable; otherwise the legs could not be folded. This is likely how mine became lost. I decided to try to do it all in wood first — to see if it would work, and to get the right measurements.

On the back of the removable cross piece or stretcher was the remains of a solid metal hinge with holes for a thin pin around which the pedals would pivot. I tried using a 1/8″ wooden dowel as the pin but it kept breaking, so I cut a 7-inch piece of a 1/8″ metal rod to be the hinge pin. I worry that it might slide out of its holes with action. Does it need something to hold it at each end? If so, what?
Front view of the hinge on the stretcher. Note the arches to accommodate the upward movement of the pedals.
With David’s help, we made a “pedal” by drilling a 9/16″ hole horizontally right through a piece of wood, and another hole 5/8″ part-way through vertically at the exact horizontal distance from the hinge to the hollow under the metal bar. The hinge pin slipped through easily. A 5/8″ wooden dowel fit neatly into the hole on the top of the pedal below and its top end went into the hollow of the metal bar above the bellows.
The front part of the pedal is shorter than the back part so that the rod (and hence bellows) will travel a greater distance than the foot operating the pedal–a Class 1 lever with short effort arm. In other words, each foot movement in the front results in a greater movement at the back.

It worked! Well, sort of. The pedal had to be narrow enough to pass under the arches in the stretcher. But that meant it could wobble side to side on the hinge pin. To avoid that, I tried adding the little blocks on either side of the pedal at the hinge. I need to add more–perhaps beads of some sort.

Also the the rod connecting the pedal to the bellows falls out at the top with anything more than mild, slow action. How to avoid that? On the Berg Pianos video it appears that the rod is screwed into the pedal with a screw coming up from below (at 15 seconds); the vertical rod might be hollow with a thread on the inside. On Jantzl’s the wooden rod fits into a little well or hole in the pedal with a pin embedded in it. There is no thread on the hollow of my metal arm–so the connecting rod must have been fixed somehow on the missing pedal–both removed when the organ was folded up for transport.

The other proof of concept was to try to reconstruct a wind chest or reservoir to see if, with pumping, I could make the reeds sound. It seems in all the images and videos that the reservoir hangs below and is wedge shaped, covered in fabric, and perhaps accordioned, so that it can collapse closed under the legs when they are folded. It would have been narrow at the front and deep at the back.

The ragged edge around the foundation board of my organ shows that the reservoir was once made of (or covered in) rubberized blue cloth — but the rubber is flaking off and knobbly. It probably did not hold air at all for a long time before someone tore it off, maybe aiming to reconstruct it. It also probably had a thin, flat plywood, or cardboard base hinged at the front, and perhaps cardboard shapes inside to guide its folding.

The state of the rubberized fabric that once made up the wind chest.

So using cardboard and heavy black plastic and lots and lots of very sticky tape, I tried to create a temporary — “proof-of-concept”–reservoir around the foundation board. It was interesting but ugly and, alas, it didn’t work. Either the seals that I made are leaking, or the mock-up pedal could not generate enough vacuum, or “bellows” is leaking, or the reeds are dirty and blocked–or all four.

Front view of makeshift reservoir, flat cardboard hinged at front.
Back view, plastic with cardboard shapes inside hanging below foundation board.

Next steps? Take it all apart– clean and sand the keys, clean the reeds, replace felt, check the inside and side walls of the bellows. Also find out what special arrangement has caused the lower range of reeds (bass) to be set back, expose the edges of the foundation board so a proper reservoir can be created, and see if the guys at DaCosta Millworks can make me a pedal (probably not; they like wood, but they might know a blacksmith).

Stay tuned!