The mechanical organette (or "orguinette") is a small table-top reed organ for indoor use. The sound is produced by a set of vibrating reeds, activated by air pressure or suction from a hand-cranked bellows system. The music is recorded on paper sheets or rolls, cardboard disks, or pinned wooden cylinders.
Mechanical organettes have an important place in history as the first affordable instruments for the mass distribution of recorded music. They were made in enormous quantities and in a great variety of styles, beginning in the late 1870s and continuing until superseded by the gramophone in the early 1900s.
The smaller instruments had rather limited musical scales, with some having only 12, 14, or 16 notes. The "American Organette" uses a standard 14-note scale extending from A to F# (MIDI notes 57 to 78): A B C# D E F# G G# A B C# D E F#
The musical arrangements were often surprisingly effective, in spite of the very restricted scale. Listen to "Bonnie Louise" (MIDI file, 3kb), scanned and re-mastered from an original 14-note tune sheet from the early 1880's.
The "American Orguinette"
The illustration shows a typical 14-note "American Orguinette". These and similar instruments were produced in great quantity by the Munroe Organ Reed Company of Worcester, Massachusetts, and were re-sold around the world under a variety of brand names.
The instrument measures 15" wide x 12" deep x 8" high, and weighs 7 pounds. The lower section of the case contains the suction bellows, reservoir, and cranking mechanism. The upper section is held in place by two large spring clips on the sides, so that it can be removed to fit the paper roll or "tune sheet". The tune sheet is drawn through the instrument by rubber rollers on the crankshaft. The reeds are located in the slotted wooden block which is visible in the front of the upper section. The holes in the paper tune sheet acts as valves, allowing air to be drawn through the reeds to sound the notes. The hinged cover can be opened or closed to vary the volume.
Instruments such as this sold for around $5.00 in the 1880s, equivalent to almost a week's wages for the average worker, or several hundred dollars in today's money.
"American Orguinette" case decoration
The sides of the instruments were generally decorated with gold linework in a variety of geometrical patterns.
"National Mechanical Orguinette" label
The illustration shows a typical distributor's label from inside the hinged lid of a 14-note organette. This instrument was sold by The National Fine Art Association of London, England.
The 14-note "Royal Orguinette"
The "Royal Orguinette" is a variation on the standard American organette (above).
The instrument measures 9" wide x 12" deep x 9" high, and weighs 7-1/2 pounds. It uses many of the same components as the model above, and plays the same tune sheets, but has a more compact arrangement of the bellows and reservoir. A decorative pattern is cut into the sides of the mahogany-finished case.
The top cover is labelled "Royal Orguinette - by Her Majesty's Royal Letters Patent". The British patent number is unknown, but the same instrument is described in detail in US Patent 266914, issued to the Munroe Organ Reed Company in 1882.
A 14-note tune sheet.
This illustration shows the beginning of an original 14-note tune sheet. The sheet is 7-3/4 inches wide, and is made from heavy paper (or thin cardboard) about 0.008" thick. The note slots are 9/32" wide on 17/32" centres, with a margin of 9/32" at each side. The sheets were produced on automatic perforators which advanced the paper in fixed steps of 1/8". The punches were made slightly wider (5/32"), so that punching on consecutive steps would cut continuous slots for the longer notes. The music arrangers used from 4 to 8 steps per quarter note, depending on the tempo and timing requirements of the particular tune.
A typical tune sheet is about 10 feet long and plays for about one minute. This hymn tune was joined head-to-tail to form a continuous loop, so that several verses could be sung without a break.
There were several major manufacturers of tune sheets, and a thriving industry in "pirate" copies of dubious quality.
The Mechanical Orguinette Company.
The tune sheet above carries the stamp of The Mechanical Orguinette Company of 831 Broadway, New York. This company was formed in 1878 to sell organettes manufactured by the Munroe Organ Reed Company. The Broadway address was in use from 1880. The company acquired the Munroe operation in 1891, and was re-named as The Aeolian Organ and Music Company. Aeolian later developed the Orchestrelle self-playing reed organ and the Pianola piano-playing mechanism, and went on to become one of the world's largest music companies. Like many others, it collapsed during the 1930s depression.