victorian age, hurdy gurdy, automatic musical instruments, violin, music box, organ grinder, orchestrion, pipe organ
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VICTORIANA - Enjoy articles relating to the Victorian Era. A regular column in each issue of The Tea House Times. Written by Patrice LePera - Authority, Victorian Era, Historical Writing -

December 2009 Posts


Blog Entry

N/D09 - Hurdy Gurdies and the Victorian Age of Automatic Musical Instruments

posted by TeaHouseTimes Admin, ADMINThursday, December 10th 2009 @ 6:48 PM

From The Tea House Times NovDec09 issue.

Hurdy Gurdies and the Victorian Age of
Automatic Musical Instruments by Patrice LePera

Hurdy Gurdies come in two hotly debated types; any confusion is generally blamed on the English.  The name “Hurdy Gurdy” is appropriately applied to the first type; an automatic Violin with 3 to 6 strings.  A crank turns a rosined wheel over the Violin Strings.  They were beautifully crafted, and sound like a lovely string instrument plus a drone sound similar to a bagpipe.

The Second, fascinating type is descended from early music boxes, that used pinned cylinders and a wheel with slots.  Paper rolls or folding cards were invented; the first punch-cards.  Air is forced through the punch cards or paper rolls, and through a set of pipes, or an organ, turned with a crank.  These were snidely referred to as Organ Grinders, though I’m sure the bit about the monkey was highly exaggerated.  Earlier models had a set of pipes, or a violin, but in true Victorian style, soon, a fascinating array of instruments was added; a player piano, organ pipes, tin whistles, slide whistles, cymbals, horns, drums and bells.  These punched cards were known as the Perforated Music Roll, The Player Piano Roll, The Orchestrion, and blossoming into the Nickelodeon Orchestrions carrying a full and gorgeous Orchestra, all contained in a beautiful cabinet, operated by a nickel in the early 1900s.   The hand cranks largely vanished, along with the monkey.

This teeny-tiny slice of fascination is a delightful time beginning in 1832 when the first Welte Orchestrion was built.  By 1849, Michael Welte was exhibiting his immense automatic pipe organ, which drew immense crowds. 

J.D. Philipps & Sons were founded in 1877, making barrel operated pianos and orchestrions. They began producing paper music roll operated instruments in
1900 utilizing a wide paper music roll.  In 1902-03, Philipps introduced the trade name “Pianella” for his piano/orchestras, featuring a distinctive narrow music roll.  One of the descriptions lists 30 pipes, 12 Piccolos 18 Flutes, 42 pipes, 30 Violins and 12 Violoncellos, 42 pipes, 30 Violas and 12 Violoncellos, Xylophone, Chimes, Snare drum, Bass drum, Cymbal, Kettle drum, Triangle, Tambourine, and Castanets!  About as near as one can get to Twelve Drummers Drumming, Eleven Pipers Piping!

The mighty Wurlitzers began in America when Rudoph Wurlitzer Company imported the Phillips Pianellas, re-fitted them with their own drums and decorated them with coloured electrical lights, naming them the PianOrchestra until 1914, when World War I prevented imports from Germany.  The term “Ragtime” came into use.  

More coloured lights, brilliantly painted statues, and stained glass fronts were added, with windows to see the instruments, and they became a delightful and thrilling event for fairgrounds, amusement parks and carousels. 

A great site to hear these marvels is - search under “Orchestrion.” Many marvelous recordings are there for you to play for the Holidays.

Thanks to Michel Saga, the Hurdy Gurdy Man – who was photographed at a Street Fair performance (Punch-card type; photo shown on cover of The Tea House Times NovDec09 issue). gives a list of performances.

Thanks also are due to Ann & Mel Dorries of and for their gorgeous Hurdy Gurdies of the authentic stringed variety.


©2009 by Patrice LePera ~ Authority, Victorian Era, Historical Writing ~

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