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