Material History of American Religion Project

Traveling organ

Photo of portable reed organ

This object was found during the renovation of the library at Columbia Theological Seminary. The library staff knows nothing about the history of this portable reed organ, but they speculate it was used by an itinerant evangelist either in the U.S. or overseas. It was manufactured by the Estey Organ Company of Brattleboro, Vermont. An expert dates the organ to c. 1939, but Estey built similar models up through the 1950s.

The organ case is solid oak. Folded up, the organ is twenty inches high, twelve inches deep, and thirty inches wide, and can be carried by one (strong) person. It has four octaves and two ranks of reeds, one at eight foot pitch and one at four foot. Each rank has forty-nine notes. The left knee pedal brings on the four foot reeds, while the right increases the volume. The organ is powered by two foot-operated bellows; our left bellow has a hole, but still manages to supply some wind. The right bellow functions well..

Whoever used the organ must have seen it as essential to Christian worship. In the early nineteenth century primitivist preachers decried the use of musical instruments in worship as unbiblical and worldly. By the middle of the century, however, more churches were using organs, and many Christians found that the sound of an organ turned any secular space into a church. The preacher or evangelist who carried this heavy object on his (or, less likely, her) rounds must have seen it as central for leading worship.

We are grateful to Paul Toelken, an Estey expert, who visited this page and filled in the gaps in our knowledge.

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