Women in American Organbuilding in the 19th Century: A Brief Survey

By Friesen, Michael D. | The Tracker, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

Women in American Organbuilding in the 19th Century: A Brief Survey


Friesen, Michael D., The Tracker


CERTAIN STATISTICS about American manufacturers are available from the non-population schedules of the federal census for the years 1850, i860, 1870, and 1880. These data, while somewhat variable in what was captured from decade to decade, give general information for each manufacturing establishment that was enumerated, which included numerous organbuilders. Such statistics included the value of annual output, the number and gender of employees, wages paid, raw materials used and their cost, how the machinery was powered, and working capital.1 The 1870 Products of Industry census in particular contains one rather astonishing item of information-New York City organbuilder Alexander Mills (1828-1912) is listed as having had four employees in the past year (the "average number of hands" column); three males and one female.

The fact that Mills employed a female worker is sufficiently notable that it deserves extended commentary, since the topic of female organbuilders has never been addressed to any extent in organ history literature. Mills has the distinction of being the only American organbuilder known to have officially employed a woman in his shop in the 19th century-an era in which such a practice was highly unconventional. The key word here for this discussion, however, is "official," i.e., meaning something that is documented in a reliable source. In fact, most craft/artisan traditions were entirely male-dominated.2 It would be extremely interesting if the circumstances behind Mills' situation could be learned. There is a small amount of other evidence about females in organbuilding available, but nothing as specific. (No other Products of Industry or Manufactures Census entries have been found for an organbuilder that lists female employees.)

The role of women in male-proprietary enterprises of that era is seldom discussed in contemporary sources, and if so, certainly not in detail. Women are almost never brought up in descriptions of organbuilding in particular. This is not to say that there were no females who did organ work in traditional shops in the 19th century (or earlier), but the issues at hand are, first, whether or not such employment was acknowledged, and, second, if their labors in the shop could be rationalized as having some relationship to the domestic sphere that women traditionally occupied.

Some indication of the latter arises in an interesting, albeit obscure, 1863 survey about female employment conducted around the time that Mills became an organbuilder in 1861. The writer, a woman, interviewed many kinds of manufacturers, and wrote this account in her "Organs" section:

I was told by a manufacturer that in Germany some women assist their husbands in making the action, but there is lighter work and more of it in piano actions. J., another organ builder, told me that in England, in some organ factories, women are employed to gild the pipes. In making the organs turned by a crank, used in some churches in England, women, he said, are employed in putting the pins in the cylinders. They are made on the same principle as the music box. J. seldom makes more than one of these organs in a year, and I think he is the only one in the United States that does make them. Mrs. Dali says "there are women, who strain silk in fluting, across the old-fashioned workbag, or parlor organ front."3

Since the author mentions interviews with New York manufacturers in her chapter on musical instruments, the context here makes it clear that the "J." she had talked to was New York City organbuilder George Jardine (1800-1882), originally from England, who is known to have made barrel organs in the United States. ("Mrs. Dali" is otherwise unidentified.)

The common thread among the three skills she listed- gilding, pinning, and cloth-fluting-is the unspoken understanding of the artistic and domestic sewing capabilities of ladies, although there were certainly also male gilders and painters. Gathered cloth facades for chamber pipe organs, which is what the author meant, especially in "sunburst" patterns or variants thereof, were a common element of the Empire Style that was then in vogue for such organs, as well as for upright pianos and some reed organs. …

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