Meet the newest addition to the Beall-Dawson House, and your curator’s new favorite artifact: the Walker family’s melodeon.


This is a four-octave, lyre-leg rosewood melodeon, almost certainly made by Mason & Hamlin in the late 1850s. When upright, it measures 30” tall, 31” wide, and 17” deep. This style includes a single lamp stand (the red velvet circle at right), an engraved brass latch to hold the lid open at an angle (it’s rather loose now; the lid should be standing taller), and other decorative yet functional features, though it lacks the carved music stand that other manufacturers employed. It appears to have all original parts, and it’s almost complete, but unfortunately the missing bits – a board inside, and a broken-off foot – mean it neither plays nor stands on its own. Happily, a convenient wall helps with the latter issue, and it doesn’t need to be playable to be a lovely addition to our Parlor.

top view

The manufacturer’s label has been removed from the bellows, but it is an extremely close match – using both the catalog image and known examples in modern collections – to Melodeon No. 9, made by Mason & Hamlin in the mid 19th century. Ours is marked 605 on the case and 629 on the works, which would place it in the late 1850s in the maker’s number sequence, as noted here.


From the 1863 Mason & Hamlin catalog. Our example matches, in octaves and size, “No. 9 Four Octave, Portable,” for $60.

A melodeon – also known as a portable or collapsible organ – is a small reed organ, an American invention that uses vacuum or suction of air over reeds to create sound . (Note that it’s the opposite, then, of the English harmonium, which uses air pressure over the reeds.) The vacuum bellows mechanism was invented in the 1830s, patented in 1846, and used by a number of organ manufacturers in the mid to late 19th century.  Melodeons have what one collector describes as “a bright reedy tone with little voicing” – see the bottom of this post for links to examples.  To this non-musician, they sound like what they are: tiny organs.

melodeon, insides

Larger reed organs, known as parlor organs, were common in middle- to upper-class U.S. homes in the Victorian era. In contrast, melodeons were small and compact, lacking the decorative tops so often found on parlor organs; as such, they were both easier to place, and cheaper to buy. Some were made in “piano style,” with fixed legs, and others were designed to be portable (relatively speaking), with a detachable stretcher and folding legs – perfect for teachers, itinerant musicians, families moving out west, or anyone who wanted organ music on the go. Here’s ours in traveling mode, with the legs folded underneath on iron hinges:

melodeon, folded

Melodeons were popular in the 1840s-60s. Two mildly famous examples: John Brown gave one to his daughter in 1857; the Alcott family had one at Orchard House. By the 1870s, manufacturers were turning their focus to parlor organs and pianos, and sales of new melodeons dropped – but that doesn’t mean the old ones weren’t still played, even into the 20th century. (Check out this website’s photo series for some lyre-leg examples in use over the decades, as well as lots of parlor organs in situ.)

Our instrument is an example of just that: use long after its manufacture. It was donated earlier this year by Joe Snyder, who knew that his grandmother, Fidelia “Della” Seward Walker Snyder (1871-1960) of Browningsville, owned and played the melodeon around the turn of the last century. The local newspaper noted several occasions when Miss Della Walker plied her talents; for example, she sang the opening hymn at Edward Watkins’ 1900 funeral, and at the 1904 wedding of Emory Purdum and Alma Molesworth, she “accompan[ied] with a popular march suitable to a home wedding.”


The story goes, Miss Walker brought her melodeon with her to churches and events around the area – but even folded up and ready to go, the thing weighs at least 50 pounds. Thus, she had a driver, a young man from the neighborhood named Preston Snyder (1885-1967), who conveyed musician and instrument when necessary . . . and in November 1908, Della and Preston were married. After a few years in D.C., they moved to a farm in Travilah; the melodeon went with them, eventually inherited by their daughter Carol.

As if that fantastic little story weren’t enough, there’s more! Della’s father was George Washington Wesley Walker (1837-1915) of Browningsville, a well-regarded music teacher, organist, and choir director. Professor Walker was a self-taught musician, who later studied formally with William Mason*. He played the organ at Bethesda Methodist Church [which is in Browningsville, not Bethesda] for over fifty years, and his home Mendelsohn Terrace was the center of all things musical in the Browningsville/Damascus area.  Late in his life, Professor Walker summarized his career as having “taught the people to sing in 49 different churches and 69 halls during fifty years of his life.” Several of Walker’s children carried on the tradition; in addition to Della’s performances, we know that Alice Walker gave piano lessons [edited to add: She was also head of the music department at the Shenandoah Normal School], and in 1884 William Walker started the Browningsville Cornet Band, the longest-running band in Montgomery County.  (For some Walker photos (including Prof. Walker, though not Della herself), visit this family website about Della’s nephew, Wesley Day.)


One thing that intrigued me as I researched the melodeon’s history was the fact that, as it was made in the late 1850s, it was so much older than Della Walker herself. A few sources indicate that in the early 20th century, Professor Walker had a sideline in piano and organ sales; perhaps he purchased a used instrument for his daughter? Then I found this tidbit: In a 1938 article, written by Walker’s granddaughter Mary Browning Scanlon, the author noted that “Young George decided that the hymn singing [at Bethesda Methodist] could be improved upon, so he bought a melodeon and began studying for himself. In 1858, at the age of 21, he organized his own singing class.” Aha! The timing fits! Now, it’s entirely possible that by the time Della was a young woman her home was filled with stray keyboards, and she chose one from the family stash that had the nicest sound or was the easiest to carry . . . but it would be pretty great if her little melodeon was also her father’s first major instrument.


As noted above, Della’s melodeon is not currently playable. But thanks to the internet you are not left hanging, wondering what it sounded like. Here’s a Mason & Hamlin melodeon in use, and as a bonus here’s one by Waters, another melodeon manufacturer.  (The first-linked gentleman has lots of vintage instrument videos; you can while away many an hour if you’re so inclined.)   The piano restorers of the world have you covered if you want more mechanical information – enjoy a video tour of a restored Mason & Hamlin, or a video explanation of organ mechanics (look for “Play Video” under the heading “Organs and Melodeons”).


* William Mason, son of famous hymn writer Lowell Mason, taught music at the Normal School in Florida, NY, which Prof. Walker attended in 1870.  Lowell Mason’s work was important to Walker, who kept a photo of him on display at Mendelsohn Terrace, along with one of the 1870 Normal School class. Perhaps coincidentally, our melodeon’s maker, Mason & Hamlin, was founded by Henry Mason – another of Lowell Mason’s sons.


The concept of a high chair – a tall, small chair that makes it easier to feed, tend, and occasionally restrain a baby – has been around for a long time.  The Metropolitan Museum has a 17th century high chair in its collections, and the Museum of Fine Arts has an early 18th century example. Just like adult-sized furniture, children’s pieces follow fashions and trends: some are expensive and elaborate, others are throwbacks to an earlier era, and some are more about function than looks.  Here are two infant high chairs in our collections, used around the same time but of very different styles.

two highchairs
On the left is a late 19th century wooden high chair, 37″ tall, owned by the Jacobs family of Browningsville.  It is handmade, and may have been built by Jonathan Jacobs (1845-1919) himself; he was a coach-maker, but an 1867 tax record identifies him as a cabinet-maker as well.  Jonathan and his wife, Mary Manzella Brandenburg Jacobs, had four sons (Willard, Norman, Wriley, and Merle) born between 1875 and 1890.  The chair descended through the family of the youngest son, Merle Jacobs, to Merle’s son Charles, who donated it to MCHS in 1996.

It’s a good old-fashioned Windsor style, often seen in 18th century high chairs, with nicely turned legs, rails, and stretchers, and a shaped seat.  There’s no tray, which is not unusual for early (that is, before the 1950s or so) high chairs, but there is a little footrest, and a small metal eye centered under the seat indicates that there may have been a strap or other restraint to keep any Baby Jacobses from pitching themselves out of the chair headfirst.

DSC07529Though in pretty good shape, it does show evidence of years of use; there are a few old stains on the seat, the finish on the seat and arms is worn down, and several of the peg joints have been repaired and glued.


DSC07513The 37″ tall walnut high chair on the right (and in the detail shot, above) was used around the same time as the Jacobs family’s, but is an example of a popular commercially-made chair.  (If you do an internet image search for “Victorian high chair,” you’ll see what I mean.)  “Convertible” highchairs were made throughout the 19th and 20th centuries (examples here); some turned into chair-and-table combos, and others into rocking chairs or, like this one, wheeled walkers:



A number of manufacturers used this distinctive Eastlake-style chair-back design; ours, unfortunately, does not have a maker or store label.  However, family history tells us that it was used by Nourse family of Washington, DC and Darnestown.  (It was thought to have been used a generation earlier, by the Darbys of Seneca, but the design of the chair is too late for an 1850s date.)  Mary Alice Darby (1845-1942) of Seneca married druggist/physician Charles H. Nourse; the 1880 census shows the family in a well-to-do household on New York Avenue, DC, with their children Upton Darby, four years old, and Mary Helen, five months old.  They moved to Darnestown, near Mary Alice’s family, soon thereafter.

The highchair descended through the family of son Upton Darby Nourse to his daughter Rebecca Nourse Chinn and then to her daughter (the donor), Jane Chinn Sween.  Like the Jacobs’ chair, it shows evidence of hard use – the woven back and stamped-leather seat bottom (below) are both replacements – and was probably used for more than one generation.  The Nourse high chair can be seen, usually, in the dining room of the Beall-Dawson house (as a baby’s dining chair, not as a walker).


And now a bonus, to thank my readers for being so patient with today’s at-the-end-of-the-day posting! We have no photos of the above chairs in use … in fact, though we have many pictures of infants and children sitting in baby carriages, on ponies, on the laps and shoulders of family members, and even in a wheelbarrow, we have very few high chair photos.  Happily, we do have this fantastic photo of infant James E. Mason (b. 1896) of Sugarland, posed for a photo in his chair.

Donated by Gwen Hebron Reese.

Donated by Gwen Hebron Reese.

This past weekend I was lucky enough to attend a taping of Maryland Public Television’s “Chesapeake Collectibles.”  MPT invited local historical societies to meet-n-greet with the people bringing in artifacts for appraisal; we got to see many a fabulous object stroll by on its way to potential televised fame. In a few instances, one of us was moved to run over to the owner and ask questions. Partway through the day I spotted a familiar set of not-quite-tennis-racket-shaped blades in the crowd, and I dashed over to ask excitedly, “Is that a fly fan?”

Fortunately the owner knew what it was – and also fortunately, I was right – otherwise an awkward conversation might have ensued. Instead I got to see a friend of one of our more seemingly idiosyncratic artifacts, the [New and] Improved 20th Century Fly Fan.

This mechanical device was intended to sit on a table, gently rotating its blades and thus deterring flies. The height of the blades is adjustable, and they can be set parallel to the table or, as our photos show, at an angle “when space is limited” (this is “an important advantage peculiar to this Fan only”). The stamped-tin-covered iron base is sturdy, but has a nice small footprint for sitting amidst the dishes on the dining table. When fully extended, the fan’s ‘wingspan’ is a full four feet. It works like a clock; the example I spotted at MPT had a separate winding key, although ours advertises itself as “Complete In Itself” (the key is built into the gear shaft). Wind it up, and the fabric-covered blades spin slowly in the opposite direction.

Our fly fan still has most of its paper label on the bottom (see photo above). It was made by the National Enameling and Stamping Company of Baltimore, sometime after 1893 (the most recent patent date). Donated by Charles Jacobs, it probably came from either his or his wife’s family, used in Gaithersburg, Browningsville, Germantown or similar.

I haven’t been able to ascertain how common these devices were. A few examples pop up on internet auction sites, once you know what to look for, but the fly fan isn’t one of those ‘iconic’ pieces that you can find in any antique shop. If you hadn’t seen one in action when growing up, you might never understand its purpose (if it weren’t for the handy paper label, of course). Ours seemed pleased to be brought out for photography this morning. I gave the winding key a few tentative turns (curator’s privilege); nothing happened, so I gave it a bit of a nudge and, well, “sprang to life” might be pushing it, but it went into (slow) action and then kept right on going for rather a long time, as if determined to be of use once more.

Video Alert!  To watch the fan do its stuff, go to our Facebook page. I crave your pardon for the poor videography, but at least the first 30 seconds show our fly fan in action. And indeed, there were no flies.


Your illustrated cliche of the day: Sometimes things are not what they seem. This miniature table (it stands 9 ½ inches high), thought to be a piece of doll furniture or perhaps a salesman’s sample, actually began life as a kaleidoscope stand, designed and patented by Charles G. Bush in 1874.

This artifact was donated by Charles T. Jacobs, and it probably comes from either his own or his wife’s family, i.e. from upper Montgomery County. It’s a finely made piece, polished and shiny, and looks like it was meant for a well-bred family of dolls. The back of one leg is marked, “C.G. Bush, Patented Nov 17, 1874.” Now comes my weekly refrain of Thank Goodness for the Internet. Of all the possible origins for this table, “stand for a parlor kaleidoscope” was almost certainly not going to cross my mind as I looked through books on furniture or doll accessories. Yet a few searches on the Web revealed not only the history of Mr. Bush (an American designer of parlor kaleidoscopes, who helped create the fad for them in the late 19th century), but also several examples of kaleidoscopes on identical stands, and even the patent for the stand itself. (It’s number 156,875, if you want to do a Google Patents search.) Bush’s design improved “the mode of constructing the stand and its legs, used for supporting a parlor-kaleidoscope and for similar purposes, the object being to facilitate the packing them in a small compact compass for transportation or storing away, and yet to readily put the same together firmly for use without the use of glue, nails, rivets or any fastening devices.”

As for the table top, that is not conveniently marked and we can only guess as to its maker. It seems likely that the actual kaleidoscope was broken or lost, but the little stand was too fine to be disposed of. It does make a very nice doll table! The donor’s grandfather, Jonathan Jacobs (1845-1919) of Browningsville, was a cabinetmaker; maybe he was the one who constructed the neat little top and attached it to the base, repurposing it for future generations.

It’s a two-for-one Back to School Special today!

Jacobs' pencil caseFirst up we have a pencil box from the late 1890s, used by Merle T. Jacobs (1890-1984) as a student in the one-room public school at Browningsville.  (Browningsville is, to many people, one of those “uh, where’s that?” towns, but yes it is in Montgomery County – up near Damascus.)   It is a wood box with a chromolithograph top, made in Germany (clearly for the American market, what with the eagles and shields).  Mr. Jacobs added his name in pencil on the bottom, twice for emphasis.  He grew up to run a truck repair shop in Gaithersburg, as well as serving as the first Chief of the Gaithersburg-Washington Grove Volunteer Fire Department.  The box was donated by his son, Charles Jacobs.

Thomas Bowie's protractorNext we have a brass protractor used by Thomas Johns Davis Bowie (1834-1921) of Olney, while studying at Benjamin Hallowell’s school for young men in Alexandria, Virginia, probably in the late 1840s.  Hallowell’s was affectionately nicknamed “Brimstone Castle” or “Brimstone Academy” because of the color of the brick building.   (If you happen to live on Brimstone Academy Drive in the Hallowell neighborhood near Olney, don’t worry, it’s not some developer’s devilish joke!)  Mr. Bowie spent his early married life (his first wife was Elizabeth Chew Beatty, whom I mention because Beatty is my middle name) in his hometown of Olney, but moved to Baltimore in the 1870s.  The protractor was donated by Lucy Leigh Bowie, his daughter.