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A Really Old Piano Accordion: How Old? Good Question.

September 27, 2013

Antique Piano Accordion - 068b[Addendum Aug 2018: As Paul Groff and Stephen Chambers point out in the comments below, what we have here is a relatively affordable German Meinel & Herold accordion from the 1920s. Whew. Now if only there was a way to share this much homework on every fancy old accordion we run across.]

Grey G. from the Vancouver Squeezebox Circle turned up an old accordion on Craigslist.  As is often the case it was listed as “playable but could use work,” which usually means there’s a good chance  the instrument would cost more to fix than to buy a new one.  But then there’s ones where playability is trumped by historical curiosity.  I’m quite happy to have picked it up for $175.

Old accordion case, with worn leather straps.

I love the “this end up” studded arrow.

Looking at it, I guessed that it was a pretty early piano accordion, which is interesting because before dominating North America they were a rarity.  There were experiments with piano keyboards on accordions as early as 1850 or so, but they didn’t really take off until they hit the vaudeville stage in the US in the early 1900s as the Deiro Brothers played them to international stardom.

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They were promoted with wild success in the North America as a modern replacement for the many different European systems of button accordion.  But all that had to start somewhere, probably with instruments similar to this.

It is a pretty simple model.  One set of reeds, no registers to change voices.  Minimal decoration, as if it may have been a low-range instrument below fancier more expensive ones.

Hohner piano-akkordeon 1914 from History Unfolds, 100 Years of Hohner Accordions in Pictures, 2007 (pg 122).

I found a remarkably similar, though fancier, example in my History Unfolds book about the German Hohner company.  They list theirs as from about 1914, so it seems reasonable to think this might be from about then, and possibly from Germany as well.  There’s no company name to give us a hint though.

Have you seen geeks post photo-essays while opening the packaging of the latest consumer-products?  What’s up with that?  Well this one’s been waiting for such treatment for more than a century.

Antique Piano Accordion - The Lonely Rein-stones!After looking at it for a minute I noticed something about the decoration and laughed.  Along with the metal grill and a bit of inlay-trim, there are three lowly rhinestones on the front.  Is this the seed that sprouted a generation of glitter encrusted accordions to dazzle generations of theatre-goers?  Three rhinestones!  Eventually they would grow into hundreds.  I like them a lot.

It also has floral “wall-paper” on the inside of the grill, which gives it a sweet “granny’s parlour” quality.  And the bellows are wonderful, with a striking dark patterned paper, and it’s a really long bellows with twenty folds too.  Maybe they needed all that air because the compression wasn’t good?

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On the inside, the treble valves are aligned with what look for all the world like sewing-pins; whatever works I suppose.

The leathers are obviously wasted, and a lot of the reeds don’t sound clearly, but those that do actually seem like they’re close to in-tune, which is fairly remarkable.  Steel reeds, on what look to me like plates made from two different metals, could that be?  The bass reeds are I think on zinc (grey) plates, but some of the treble ones seem much shinier, maybe aluminum?  Hmm.
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, the reeds are screwed onto the blocks, not attached with beeswax.  There are thin leather gaskets around each reed-plate to seal it, but they’re all screwed on.  That seems quite unusual to me, anybody seen that before?

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I’d actually like to hear what this box would sound like if it was restored.  Hard for me to play though, because the keys are so narrow my fingers rub against the edges.  People had skinnier fingertips back then.

I wonder if Joshua Horowitz, the Klezmer revivalist, plays something similar to this?  [edit, Sept 28.  Nope, he plays an early button-chromatic from 1889.]

The Craigslist seller thought it was “handmade,” which is sort of true of all accordions since even mass-production requires quite a bit of hand-work.  But the fact that there’s (cryptic) hand-writen markings on the reed-blocks to keep the matching set together implies to me that it was probably made somewhere with other instruments, i.e., in a small factory or workshop.  The seller said someone in his family had made the accordion.  Perhaps they worked in the factory and got to take this one home?

Antique Piano Accordion - Stamped inscription on bass machineInterestingly, the bass-mechanism has a stamped (not hand-written) marking on it, “D.R.P. 343113” which is intriguing.  Was the relatively complicated bass machine purchased separately by the instrument maker?  Or maybe it’s a patent notice?  Anybody know old accordion insides?

Questions, is it German?  Italian?  Hmm… and what year?  How early in the evolution of piano accordions is this one?  Lovely.

Antique Piano Accordion - a little crooked, but at its age, cut it some slack.

27 Comments leave one →
  1. September 28, 2013 2:37 pm

    By the way, a shout-out to Karl, the mysterious Craigslist seller, who was really nice. I’m happy I can learn more about this instrument with the help of others.

  2. September 30, 2013 2:06 pm

    Excellent, so happy it is in your hands Bruce. 🙂

    • September 30, 2013 2:15 pm

      Grey, thanks very much for the initial tip through the Vancouver Squeezebox Circle Facebook list. Since I posted this I saw photos of another similar one from the 1880’s! Still seeking clues about the maker and history.

  3. Paul Groff permalink
    October 28, 2013 12:24 am

    Hi, I think this is a german accordion that copied Italian stylistic and constructional features. DRP is an abbreviation for Deutsches Reich Patent.

    Early Italian piano-keyboard accordions (that influenced accordions, often cheaper, that were made in Germany) had similar key proportions and similar hooks, e.g.

    And, although many nice Italian boxes had more intricate metal grilles, some had similarly-patterned, but slightly fancier, stamped metal grilles, e.g.

    IMO your accordion was probably made by Meinel & Herold; compare for example:

    Yours looks to be in very nice restorable condition and has a lot of character! Wishing you a lot of enjoyment with it.

    Paul Groff
    Miami, FL USA

  4. October 28, 2013 10:43 am

    Wow, Thanks for your response Paul!

    Now we know the DRP means a patent number, cool. Which seems to place it in Germany. and wow, that Meinel & Herold has the same grill pattern, even though it’s a button accordion with a wooden grill. Neat!

    So now the question is, I wonder how old it is?

    Thanks so much for your help!

  5. Paul Groff permalink
    October 29, 2013 6:50 pm

    Hi Bruce, Sorry, meant to include that. My guess is ca 1920s.

  6. December 13, 2013 6:56 am

    What a gem! Talk about a “diamond – or more accurately – a rhinestone in the rough”! We’re jealous you got your hands on it before us, this is exactly the kind of accordion we would love to artfully restore!

    As for the year? We’re guessing circa 1900 !

    If you find out would be great if you could pop the final answers onto our community Facebook page:

    • December 13, 2013 8:25 am

      Thanks for the appreciation, yeah, a lucky find. No definitive date yet, but I’m liking the earlier date, closer to 1900 myself. It feels older than the 1920s accordions I’ve seen. Diero was playing those “lyre” shaped keyboards by then. This one is more primitive than those. It might be a throwback, made in an earlier style, but I have to guess it was an earlier model, more similar to the ones Guido Deiro was playing in Europe before he immigrated in 1908. (Hard to see exactly what his “first piano accordion” there looked like in 1905.)

      (I’m writing about the Deiros now so they’re on my mind as a gauge.)

      This accordion of course could have been made in an “old fashioned” way, and it certainly could have “immigrated” to Canada at a later date, brought perhaps, as I was told, by the person who made it in Germany. Maybe they worked at the Meinel & Herold company and brought it along as a souvenir? Interesting to speculate.

      It would be fun to get this one restored. As I said, I think the reeds might sound quite nice, even after nearly 100 years.

  7. wayne Routledge permalink
    September 30, 2015 5:20 pm

    Well it’s 2015 and as I took my accordion curio down from it’s perch to drag to the curb I became curious. I found nothing about it on the internet but stumbled on this page and found a number of similarities. And noticed that it remained a mystery

  8. wayne Routledge permalink
    September 30, 2015 5:27 pm

    and this is it.. button (chords) sound lovely, played (wooden) keys
    If I could figure out (exactly) how to post a photo I would…. hint hint

    • September 30, 2015 8:14 pm

      If yours is as old as this (tiny keys, etc) then it would be a shame to throw it away. It’s probably only usable as an antique (not a playable instrument), but worth several hundred dollars to a collector who doesn’t have one like it.

  9. John Harding permalink
    February 7, 2016 8:29 pm

    I have a Meinel & Herold Stanelli 48 bass, no bass or treble couplers (of course), with two red rhinestones at each end of the keyboard, which is in reasonable condition; the tone is typically loud Bavarian style – I do play it. Unfortunately there is no case (I’ve improvised). I would guess its age at about 1930s, art deco style.Yours is a most interesting machine and is definitely older; around 1900 my guess, beautiful case (I love it), the simplicity of the reed setup and clasps for the bellows I find most unusual (mine has screws instead of the pins which are in use today), it is also cleaner looking than mine and would probably repair well.
    Thankyou for sharing this page.

  10. February 9, 2016 8:57 pm

    Way back in October 2015 our friend Wayne sent some photos of his similar accordion (sorry for the long delay):

    Hi Bruce,

    I appreciate the invitation to post the photos. It may be of interest to someone- it is to me!
    Also, I just noticed that the pattern on the edge is similar to the pattern of your accordion as seen in the header of the article. Interesting.
    For what it’s worth, mine was purchased in the countryside at a yard sale, just outside of Ottawa, close to Smith’s Falls ON. Canada
    Thanks again, please find 3 attached photos,
    Wayne's Meinel & Herold
    Wayne's Meinel & Herold, Grill view
    Wayne's Meinel & Herold, Top View with inlay and straps

    • John T. Harding permalink
      February 10, 2016 3:19 pm

      Hi Bruce,

      Greetings from Hobart, Tasmania (Downunder). I followed your post and mentioned that I had a Meinel & Herold 48 bass accordion ‘Stanelli’model, made in Germany about 1930 which I do play. I am appending a photo and you will notice that the bellows have been renewed (no leaks, bliss) and it does not have those unique buttons for the bass, neither did I have the original case (lucky you). The mechanics are basic and incorporate the unusual reedbed screws. I paid $A200 at a local flea market and consider it a bargain. I do think that yours is a worthwhile project for restoration as it is unique.

      • April 4, 2016 11:32 pm

        Sorry Bruce, tried a few to upload pictures without success. We have a site called ‘Flickr’ in Oz, but it did not help me.Regards, John

  11. February 10, 2016 4:38 pm

    If only every antique accordion manufacturer had its own webpage!

    • John T. Harding permalink
      February 10, 2016 6:05 pm

      Hi Bruce,

      Being antiques there was probably no internet and they may not be around any more? But it would be a good idea and you may have started one here.

      Kind regards, John.

  12. February 23, 2016 7:55 pm

    Hi Bruce, Love your antique Meiner & Herold, as I mentioned previously I have a 1930s model (German) which I do play. I would be happy to upload a photo of it, if I knew how, tried but to no avail, perhaps through a reply to this thread? I have since subscribed to ‘Accordion Uprising’, which sounds interesting and may be an answer to your suggestion of an antique accordion web page. Thank you for sharing your unique piece of musical history. Regards, John

  13. February 24, 2016 12:40 pm

    Hi John. I don’t know why people can’t upload pictures into comments here. That would be nice.

    • John T. Harding permalink
      February 25, 2016 12:50 pm

      Thank you Bruce, I’ll see what I can do, There has to be a way somehow, shall keep trying because this is such an interesting g post.

  14. John T. Harding permalink
    February 25, 2016 1:22 pm

    Hi Bruce,
    Thinking about the picture upload dilemna. I could attach them to an email if I can have your email address. Mine is if that is permissible?
    Regards, John.

  15. John Harding permalink
    April 5, 2016 3:00 pm

    Alternatively I could use Facebook and upload the picture to the ‘Accordion Action’ site?

    • April 6, 2016 4:39 pm

      Sorry, spending most of my time writing the accordion book. What we need is a wikipedia style site where people can upload and comment on the histories of different accordions. I don’t think I’m capable of doing that now unfortunately.

      • John T. Harding permalink
        April 6, 2016 5:49 pm

        I fully understand, my original post was a long time ago. Just love my accordion, good luck with the book.

  16. Gracie Hillary Ramsfield permalink
    September 1, 2017 3:56 pm

    Hi Bruce. I am doing some research on accordions at the moment. Take a look at the photo under “Exhibits”. It seems similar to the one you posted about.

    [Added photo]
    Accordion from the Old Log Church Museum in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada

    • September 1, 2017 4:15 pm

      Oh Gracie, that’s nice! Looks like a (presumably later) fancier version from the same manufacturer!

  17. August 20, 2018 3:19 pm

    Though top-class, professional-quality piano accordions developed rapidly in the early 1900s (driven by the demands of players like the Deiro brothers), less expensive models were much slower to change/improve, and I’d agree with Paul Groff on assigning this Meinel & Herold to the 1920s. Not only were they not making ANY piano accordions as early as 1900 (I have their 1903 catalogue, which has none listed), but also that German Patent for the bass mechanism was only applied for in 1920, and granted in 1921.

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