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.
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.
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.
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:
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.