Conn's Wonder Portable Folding Reed Organ
by Margaret Downie Banks


Reprinted from Vol. XVI, No. 2, Summer 1997 of the *ROS Bulletin*, journal of the Reed Organ Society, Inc., and used with permission of the editor. COPYRIGHTED with ALL OTHER RIGHTS RESERVED.

To most people, the mention of Conn organs brings to mind the company's popular electronic organs produced between 1946 and the early 1980s. Few people are aware that Conn actually introduced its first organ the Wonder[1] model portable folding reed organ in the fall of 1900.

Company founder, Charles Gerard Conn (1844-1931), personally announced the debut of the diminutive reed organ in an interview published in the April 7, 1900, issue of the Music Trade Review.

"One of our new features for this season is a small portable organ, perfect in every detail and well suited for use where space is a consideration. This instrument is only 22 inches high and weighs but 25 pounds. I have seen other organs of small size, intended for traveling and other purposes, but none that I like so well as this new instrument of ours. I have faith in its success, and it will be brought prominently to notice."[2]

 

Conn's folding reed organ was invented by William V. Pezzoni, a Brooklyn, New York violin maker who Conn had previously hired to set up a violin manufacturing department at the company's Elkhart, Indiana plant in 1897. [3] A patent application was filed on May 5, 1900, and awarded to Pezzoni, as assignor to C. G. Conn, on January 29, 1901 - C.G. Conn's 57th, birthday! The text of this U.S. patent (#667,065) describes the invention as
follows:

"The subject of our invention is an organ in which the entire action, bellows, and pedal mechanism of effective size and construction may be folded and inclosed [sic] within a case of small dimensions when not in use, so that it may be conveniently carried by hand. To this end we construct the entire action or keyboard and its accessories in two independent parts, each with its own bellows mechanism, hinged together in a supporting case in such manner that the two parts of the keyboard may be folded down in vertical position within the open sides of the case, which are then closed by doors.

When the parts of the keyboard are elevated into horizontal position for use, the open doors being nearly in line with the back of the case, to which they are hinged, form supports for the parts of the keyboard in their horizontal position. The case is further constructed with a folding base, hinged to the lower rear corner of the body of the case in such a manner that when the instrument is to be used the said base being turned down supports the case at the necessary height, and when not in use the said base is folded up upon and about the case. The pedals are mounted in the folding base and do not interfere with its folding capacity. The folding of the hinged keyboard within the case and the folding of the supporting base upon the lower part of the case bring the entire structure within convenient dimensions for carrying in hand when not in use."

Conn aggressively marketed the folding organ in his house periodical, C. G. Conn's Truth, for the next decade, asserting that it was "better adapted than any other for missionaries, evangelists, Sunday School service, prayer meetings, the Gospel wagon, pic-nics [sic] and outings, trolley parties, students of harmony, vaudeville artists, and the village opera house. Vocalists and musicians connected with opera, dramatic, minstrel or concert, companies will find the Wonder organ indispensable in their work. It can be checked on trains like ordinary baggage and can be carried like a grip and set up ready for use in an instant at the hotel or theatre. [It is] not a burden, nor too heavy for a lady to carry."
The price was locked in at $28.50, cash, or $30.00 on the installment plan, throughout the instrument's entire ten year production run. Orders were filled anywhere in the United States with the privilege of a six day trial.
Full page advertisements in C. G. Conn's Truth proclaimed the usefulness of the organ as a tuning aid for bands:

"No band room is complete without one of the Wonder Portable Folding Reed Organs. It is indispensable as a standard for the pitch and perfect tune of the band, and much valuable time could be saved at rehearsal if one of these instruments formed part of the furniture of the band room, and each member of the band would tune up and put his instrument in pitch with the organ before the hour for ensemble practice."

A particularly advantageous feature of the organ for band use was its availability in either high or low pitch. [4]

Hoping to compete with the many contemporary lines of full-size parlor reed organs, Conn's ads noted that "...the tone of the Wonder portable organ has sufficient volume to lead the ordinary congregation and is an available substitute for the regular parlor reed organ that is sold for from $50.00 to $150.00. Many satisfied customers willingly provided endorsements, including one C. L. Francis, Musical Director of the Gibson Comedy Co., who noted that the organ is a little beauty, the tone being better than the average parlor cabinet organ. [5] The musical comedians, Cook & Hall, of Swampscott, Massachusetts, noted that the organ was the hit of their act. Their characterization of the compact instrument as a box of condensed harmonies was reprinted in Conn's advertising for several years.[6]
A detailed physical description of the organ also accompanied Conn's advertising for a number of years.


"The case of the Wonder Portable Organ is made of three ply veneers, 5/16 of an inch in thickness, insuring a combination of greatest strength with minimum weight; the corners are protected with nickel-plated bumpers. The hinges, hooks and other hardware is substantial as well as ornamental, being of brass heavily nickel plated and ornate in design, giving the instrument when closed the appearance of a fine commercial sample case. The bottom of the organ is provided with rubber bumpers which not only protect the instrument from contact with the dampness of the ground when used in the open air, but insures a firm foundation on floor or carpet and prevents slipping while in use. All the wood work is well fitted and finished with the best body varnish rubbed and polished. Material employed in the action and bellows is the very best obtainable, being the same as used in the finest class of cabinet organs. The width of the keys is of the regulation size. The pedals adjust themselves in position by the act of opening and closing the instrument. They are covered with Kerotal, the best known substitute for leather. The bellows are provided with a safety valve to avoid any danger of injury by overflowing. The organ is by no means complicated or difficult to open or close.


"The compass of the Wonder Portable Organ is four and three quarters octaves [C-a2], the same as the manual of the regular pipe organ. It possesses as much volume as the better class organs and is as easy to operate. The keyboard is in two sections, under each of which is a pumping and a reservoir bellows, insuring a steady and full supply of air. Notwithstanding the folding devices and the limited weight [advertised as 28 pounds] of the instrument, there is nothing light and flimsy about its construction. When opened for use it is as firm and solid as if built in one piece and when folded for carrying it will stand the hard bumps incidental to travel without injury to the musical or mechanical parts. The Wonder
Portable Organs are made for service, not for ornament, although they are handsome in appearance as well as serviceable and neat. The Conn Organ should not be confounded with the portable folding organs on the market which are fragile in construction, unreliable in mechanism and crude in musical quality. It is not a toy, but a practical instrument both musically and mechanically and is so substantially and compactly made that with ordinary care it will last as long as the better class of cabinet organs."

According to advertisements appearing before December 1906, the dimensions of the organ, when folded, were: height, 20 inches; width, 14-1/2 inches; and depth, 11-1/2 inches. Commencing with the December 1906 issue of C.G. Conn Co.Truth, the published measurements were as follows: when folded, height, 20-3/4 inches; width, 14 inches; and depth, 12 inches; when opened for use, the instrument had a total overall length of 36 inches; the height from the base to the keyboard was 34 inches; and the height from the base to the top of the music desk was 41 inches. Whether or not this slight change in the dimensions of the folded instrument indicates an actual change in the size of the instrument or merely a change in advertising copy, awaits confirmation through the examination of surviving examples.


The Conn folding reed organ, like a number of other Conn products, was dropped from production after the company resumed operations three months after a devastating fire completely demolished the Elkhart factory on May 22, 1910. [7] Unfortunately, all production records were destroyed in that fire as well, so it will never be possible to know exactly how many reed organ units were produced. Although an advertisement for the organ appeared in the first post-fire issue of C. G. Conn's Truth (September 1910), it is apparent, upon comparison with the June 1910 issue, which was published just before the fire, that the September issue was actually a reprint of the June issue, with an additional four pages devoted to announcing the rebuilding and opening of the new Elkhart facility. Unlike the mythical phoenix, the Wonder portable folding reed organ apparently was not destined to rise again from the ashes.


Notes:

1. Wonder was the trade name for all of Conn's products from 1885 through the early 1920s.

2. A Chat with the Wonder Maker, Music Trade Review, Vol. 3, No. 14 (April 7, 1900): 43.

3. For further information about Pezzoni and the Conn violin, see Margaret Downie Banks, Violin Making by the Conn Company of Indiana, Journal of the Violin Society of America, Vol. 11, No. 3 (1992): 32-76.

4. American bands of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries played primarily at high pitch, which could range anywhere from A=453 vibrations per second (VPS) to A=464 VPS. Despite attempts to establish an international low pitch (A=435 VPS) early in the century, town and military bands continued to play at high pitch until the end of World War I. In an attempt to cope with two conflicting pitch standards, American manufacturers provided brass instruments with additional crooks, tuning slides, and other mechanical devices to enable instruments to be played at either high or low pitch. Customers purchasing woodwinds and fixed pitch instruments, such as reed organs and mallet percussion, usually had to designate whether they wished to purchase an instrument built in either high or low pitch.

5. Supplement to C. G. Conn Truth, Vol. 5, No. 1 (February 1902): no page numbers.

6. Cook & Hall endorsement, originally dated August 23, 1903, consistently appeared in C. G. Conn Truth, Vol. 5, No. 7 (November 1903) through Vol. 8, No. 9 (February 1908).

7. For further information about the history of the Conn company, see Margaret Downie Banks, Elkhart Brass Roots, (Vermillion: University of South Dakota, 1994) and Margaret Downie Banks and James W. Jordan, C. G. Conn: The Man (1844-1931) and His Company (1874-1915), Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society, Vol. 14
(1988): 61-113.

---
About the Author:
Dr. Margaret Downie Banks is Curator of Musical Instruments at The Shrine to Music Museum and Center for Study of the History of Musical Instruments at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, where she also holds the rank of Professor of Museum Science. Dr. Banks holds degrees from Skidmore College (Saratoga Springs, New York), the State University of New York at Binghamton, and West Virginia University (Morgantown), where she received her Ph.D. in musicology. Dr. Banks, whose research specialties range from the nineteenth and twentieth century American musical instrument industry to early bowed stringed instruments such as the rebec, pochette, and violino piccolo, has lectured extensively throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. She has authored numerous articles and books about musical instruments and has recently published an extensive World Wide Website for America's Shrine to Music Museum (http://www.usd.edu/smm). Currently, she is writing a comprehensive history of the C. G. Conn Musical Instrument Manufacturing Company of Elkhart, Indiana (1874 - present), under the auspices of The Shrine to Music Museum and the Indiana Historical Society. Dr. Banks accepts inquiries about Conn and is pleased to receive specific information from owners and collectors about all types of Conn instruments, for inclusion in a Conn product database. She may be contacted at The Shrine to Music Museum, 414 East Clark Street, Vermillion, SD 57069; fax 605-677-5073; or by E-mail at mbanks@sunflowr.usd.edu.