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Keys, Hammers, & Pipes

Bringing an organized piano back to life

June 2, 2014

Another Organized Piano?

By John Watson

Overall photo

The Rolfe-Sellers organized square piano. The organ occupies the space below the piano and is surrounded by panels of cloth and gilded pipes.

Our good friend and colleague in South Carolina, Tom Strange, recently sent an email with a startling offer.

An organized square piano had turned up in an estate sale in California. It was from the same historical period as the “Tucker” organized upright grand piano. Tom proposed to purchase the instrument and give it to our collection. This was a stunning and generous offer considering how rare such instruments are. It presented the prospect that we would have a second example to shed more light on the monumental upright grand version we already had.

Top view of pipes.

Top view of the Sellers organ with piano removed to show the pipes and on the left, the bellows.

As an organized square piano—actually rectangular but so named because the corners are square—the new instrument offers important context to the “Tucker” organized upright grand piano. The great majority of organized pianos popular around the turn of the 19th century were of this smaller square type. Our very large organized upright grand piano was, by contrast, quite exceptional and is the only surviving example. The organized square piano will show the more typical organized piano of around 1800.

So let’s take a closer look at the new instrument, and see what it tells us about its origins. As always, the closer we look at an artifact, the more it says about itself.

William Rolfe inscription.

The piano nameboard inscription by William Rolfe of London.

The new square piano was signed by William Rolfe, a well-known London piano maker. Thirty-nine pianos by him survive today. It appears likely that the instrument was a conventional square piano when it arrived in Pennsylvania, but was soon “organized” (that is, augmented with two stops of organ pipes). The organ section was signed “John Sellers, Musical Instrument Maker, Germantown, 1803.” 

John Sellers advertised pianos, both organized and plain, but is survived by just three pianos and the organ portion of this instrument. Very soon after he made this one, he relocated from Germantown near Philadelphia to Alexandria in northern Virginia, though at that time Alexandria was part of the District of Columbia.

John Sellers label

The organ bears the inscription of John Sellers of Germantown, Pennsylvania.

Most of the pipes are wood, but Sellers relied on a specialist organ builder to supply him with the metal pipes. There are two bits of evidence for this interpretation. The first is that the wooden pipes are labeled in the usual manner, while the metal pipes are labeled in the German way, with b-flat labeled “b” and b-natural labeled “h.” The metal pipes were almost certainly made by John Krauss, a Pennsylvania German organ builder who kept a diary in which he recorded selling pipes to John Sellers in 1801 and 1802.

Side view of organ interior.

The Sellers organ with piano and screens removed. The bellows is in the foreground.

As a musical instrument, the Rolfe-Sellers organized square piano is far from playable and would require much work to musically restore.

As a historical “document”, however, its condition is excellent: It still has most of its original strings, mechanical action parts, organ bellows leather and all but a few of the pipes. We have chosen to stabilize the instrument in its present state, rather than restore it to playing condition. Restoration would require replacing strings, leather cloth, and some other elements that are the only surviving remnant of John Seller’s own work as an organ builder. In this case, stabilizing the present state is the best form of preservation.

In the next post, we will begin restorative conservation of the mangled metal pipes of the Tucker organized upright grand piano.

Conservation of the Tucker organized piano is made possible by a gift in memory of N. Beverley Tucker, Jr.


Leave a Reply

  1. Dear Mr. Strange,
    Thank you so very much for your generosity. Without people like you, CW would not be the educational treasure trove is.
    Thank you again,

    • Thanks for your comment, Chris! You are so right. Colonial Williamsburg collections and all the visitors who enjoy them owe a great deal to donors like Tom Strange. Tom saw an educational and preservation opportunity by placing this spectacular piece of musical history in a museum where it would be studied and seen by thousands of visitors for decades to come.
      – John Watson

  2. Delighted to find and share this organized piano with the world Chris. It will provide many years of reference material, and with its restored big brother allow audiances an insight into a lost musical sound.

    • Dear Mr. Strange,
      Again thank you for your generosity. I hope to hear the wonderful sound in the future. You placed this treasure into excellent hands.

      Have a great Summer,

  3. Is there a connection between the organized piano using pipes for the organ, and the later square pianos with reed organs ?

    • Hi Ken,
      There was a connection indeed. The latest surviving piano/pipe organ combination made in America was made in 1828. After that, melodians (small “free reed” pump organs) had become popular. Piano makers thereafter found it much cheaper and it required less space to provide organ sounds by adding these free reed stops.

      John W.