The Children’s Organs of Estey Organ Company

by Valerie Abrahamsen, ThD

The Estey Organ Museum currently owns several organs made for children. The manufacture of these instruments came about in conjunction with Victorian mores concerning women, families and children and meshed well with the company’s and its principals’ longstanding concern for the well-being of its employees and their families.

It was toward the end of the nineteenth century that Estey managers began using children in its advertising. According to Dennis Waring in Manufacturing the muse: Estey organs and consumer culture in Victorian America, company officials, like other promoters, used a number of images of children in their trade cards. Children were viewed as innocent, sincere, spontaneous and emotional as opposed to adults’ rationality and pretentiousness.

Ironically, most of the children on the Estey trade cards, both boys and girls, play harps, horns, banjos, drums, and generic viols – almost everything but reed organs. At this point in the organ’s evolution, children could not play organs themselves, being too short to reach both the keyboard and the pedals at the same time. In reality, the child sat in the lap of her mother or another female relative who pumped the pedals while showing the child the notes.

It was almost inevitable, then, that Estey began developing organs for children starting in the early twentieth century. According to Robert Whiting, Estey manufactured a small Children’s Organ and a somewhat larger Junior Organ around the 1920s. Both could be had either pedal or motor operated. There was also a so-called Student Organ with two sets of reeds on each manual and on the pedal; the pedal board could be folded up under the keyboards when not in use. In the 1930s and 1940s, Estey developed a line of pint-sized, foot-pumped, miniature “children’s organs” for small players. They were marketed through large department stores as toy organs, yet they were truly musical instruments. According to Whiting, the organs, “[s]maller than the folding organ type and not collapsible . . . with their three-octave keyboards, were advertised as promising hours of self-absorbed entertainment for children ages five to twelve, who would be begging each other for turns to play.” They weighed just thirty-one pounds so could be easily moved around the house. The somewhat larger four-octave Junior Organ was targeted toward older children.

Late in the 1930s, the electrically blown Estey Spinet featured eight-foot reeds, standard key size, matching bench, a “double guarantee,” and “a gay collection of 10 Top Tunes” written especially for novice players. Without the need to pump pedals, the feet were free to use the swell pedal for louder and softer. The advertising literature promoted it “as easy as accelerating a car!”

In the late 1940s and 1950s, the Estey Organ Company produced the Estey Symphonic Organ for homes, chapels and schools, with five octaves and, in 1950, the Miniature (Children’s) Organ, Folding Organs, the Junior Organ, Symphonic Organ, Cathedral Organ, and the Two Manual Practice Organ. A price list from 1941 showed that a Children’s Organ cost $25; a Children’s Organ with motorized blower cost $40; the Junior Organ listed for $65; and the Junior Organ with motor was $85. Imitation walnut or maple stained and finished to look real was the standard. There was a wide range of painted finishes as well: black with silver trim, black with gold trim, green with buff trim, buff with green trim, and buff with blue trim.

Several children’s organs built between 1936 and 1959 have been donated to the Museum and bring a smile to the visitor’s faces. Two – a Miniature Organ and a Miniature Two Octave Organ, “The Tiniest Estey,” – both date to around 1936. The former, Estey No. 449663, boasts three octaves, 37 keys, 37 reeds, and maple case. It was made for use by children in the home, school, or church, but with standard size keys and the same mechanism as a full size instrument. The second, Estey No. 447448, has two octaves, 25 keys, 25 reeds, and the original black and gold paint. A gift of South Hero, Vermont, resident, it was restored by former Estey employee John Wessel in 2005.

Also featured in the Engine House is a “Little Estey” from 1959 (No. 515664). It has three octaves, 37 keys, 37 reeds, and an electric suction unit. The case and bench are made of wood, plywood, and masonite.

Perhaps the most poignant exhibit is the little red Child’s Organ, built in 1955 and given to the museum by Doris Stephens. Estey No. 504469 has three octaves, 37 reeds, an electric suction unit and a painted plywood case. The card reads, “For Christmas of 1955, when I was a senior in high school, my father, Lotin Newcomb, who worked at Estey Organ Co. surprised me with this little red organ. He paid $100 for the parts & painted it in our cellar. In 1956 I sold it for $50, which broke my father’s heart (isn’t a heart a little red organ?). Forty years later, in 1995, I saw it at the annual Winston Prouty [School] tag sale, and joyfully reclaimed it for $10.”

Brattleboro, Vermont and the surrounding area owe much to Jacob Estey, his descendants, and the company’s many dedicated employees. The company was a leader and pioneer not only in organs for adults and institutions but also for children.

Sources Cited

Waring, Dennis G. Manufacturing the muse: Estey organs and consumer culture in Victorian America. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2002.

Whiting, Robert B. Estey Reed Organs on Parade, second edition, revised and expanded. Vestal, New York: Emprise Publishing, Inc., 1996.