Monday, August 6, 2012

The All-American Music Box

QUESTION: I have a Gem Roller Organ that has been in my family for some time.  It spent the last few years in a closet high up on a shelf.  The bellows are in working order and the keys respond to the pins but it has stopped playing.  What can you tell me about it? Also, can it be repaired?

ANSWER: You’ve got one of the original Gem Roller Organs produced by the Autophone Company of Ithaca, New York.  Since it’s intact and in relatively good condition, it most likely needs cleaning, which you should have done by a professional who works on music boxes and gramophones.

In the late 1880's, the Autophone Company began making hand-cranked roller reed organs which operated by forcing air out through the reeds under pressure with exposed bellows. They named their most common and least expensive one “The Gem Roller Organ,” producing tens of thousands in a single year. Some time later, the company began producing a a more efficient vacuum-operated model, calling it simply the "Gem Roller Organ."

Earlier models, like the one pictured above, were pressure operated which forced air out through the reeds. This was changed early on in production to the more efficient vacuum system which became the standard for the majority of American made organette's.

Because of its relative simplicity, the company was able to keep the cost of its roller organ affordable. Sears & Roebuck, in their 1902 Catalog, offered the Gem Roller Organ for as low as $3.25, including three rollers. Contracting with Autophone to produce large quantities of these devices enabled Sears to sell in volume and keep its price low.

The Gem Roller Organ, available in either a painted black or walnut-like finish with gold stenciled applied designs, used teeth or pins embedded into a 20-note wooden roller, similar to the cylinders used in Swiss music boxes. Pins operated on valve keys while a gear turned the roller. The mass-produced 20-note rollers, priced as low as 18 cents each—and according to the Sears Catalog, less than the price of a traditional sheet of music—played a wide range of tunes, from classical to sacred to ethnic and popular tunes. The 1902 Sears Catalog listed 220 different rollers of the over 1,200 different titles then available.

The tone of a roller organ was similar to a cabinet parlor organ of the time. At 16 inches long, 14 inches wide and 9 inches high, the Gem Roller Organ was small and light enough to place on a parlor table.
The Autophone Co. used native woods for their construction, and the wood finishes on their early machines may be quite beautiful.

Since Autofphone usually printed the manufacturing date on the bottom of the case, it’s relatively easy to date the device, itself. All rollers show a copyright date of July 14, 1885, even though the Autophone sold them from the late 1880's through the late 1920's—an amazing lifespan for a single basic design. Their success may be attributed to the full, rich sound and pleasing music arrangements offered on the rollers.

Unfortunately, roller organs quickly fell out of favor after the introduction of the phonograph around the turn of the 20th century even though they cost much less than disk or cylinder music boxes manufactured during the same period. Considered the common-mans form of entertainment since music boxes and other instruments were much more expensive, roller organs could be found in many middle class homes..Most eventually ended up in the attic, in the barn, or simply thrown away, but thanks to their nostalgic music, collectors are once again interested in them.

Today, roller organs sell for anywhere from $120 to over $800, depending on the condition and the number of rollers included.

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