Step 1 — Artifact analysis


  1. Give a physical description of the artifact. What does it appear to be made of?
  2. Describe its special qualities: shape, color, size, movable parts. What is printed on it?
  3. Uses of the artifact:
    • What might it have been used for?
    • Who might have used it?
    • Where might it have been used?
    • When might it have been used?
  4. What does the artifact tell us…
    • about the technology of the time in which it was made and used?
    • about the life and times of the people who made it and used it?
  5. How is the technology different today?
  6. Create a reed instrument that will make sound.

Step 2 — Read the description of the artifact and its context

organ-adThe reed organ, or melodeon, is a musical instrument which shapes sound when a player pumps foot pedals, that causes a suction of air across a brass reed in a wooden chamber, creating a musical note played on a keyboard similar to that of a piano’s. Beginning in the 1840s, the reed organ experienced rapid growth and popularity, becoming a symbol of middle class social status. But its heyday was squarely in the Gilded Age.

The Reed Organ was manufactured by The Estey Organ Company of Brattleboro, Vermont in 1872. This particular organ is a classic Victorian design. The wood is red oak and shows the earlier more compact statue. Later, reed organs wore “high tops,” the bigger, the better. Impressively decorated organs correlated directly to the good virtue of the household. Thus, the more ornamented the instrument was, the more assured of heavenly and social acceptance.

Considering that the Victorians loved ornate decorations, this model is relatively plain, though it has delicate fretwork and beautiful detail. These music makers were very coveted in the Gilded Age which saw a huge growth in home ownership. These “parlor organs embodied three important Victorian ideals: mother, home and heaven. The ability to play an organ was the mark of the genteel Victorian lady, the keeper of family culture and manners. The organ player convened the family by leading them to sing popular hymns. The parlor organ extended the woman's influence within the home, strengthened family unity and reinforced their shared piety.”

Step 3 — Consider the artifact in its historical context

The Estey Reed Organ in the context of the Gilded Age. Considering both the artifact and your knowledge of the time period, answer the following questions:

  1. What were the effects of industrialization on the leisure time of both rural and urban Americans? Consider both benefits and costs.
  2. What was the attitude toward technology at this time in the United States and in Vermont? Did Americans and Vermonters embrace or resist technological changes?
  3. Did the Estey organ have a more profound effect on Vermonters than other Americans?
  4. What was the economic impact of the Estey Organ Company, and the reed organ in particular, on Brattleboro? On Vermont?
  5. For Americans and Vermonters, did the changes of the Gilded Age affect their sense of identity?
  6. What role did advertising play in marketing during the Gilded Age?

Step 4: Final narrative

The Gilded Age was approximately from 1865 to 1915. During this time, also known as the Victorian Period, there were huge advances in all sorts of technologies, making America an industrial giant, most notably in the Northeast, along the Great Lakes, and the Pacific Coast.

Musical instruments previously had been made one at a time by individuals. As far as organs were concerned, there were only approximately 20 in New England. During the Gilded Age there was a change in the way these instruments were made. The Estey Organ company built a huge factory in Brattleboro, VT, and with the help and concepts of the industrial revolution mass produced these organs so they could be sold and enjoyed around the world.

Over a half a million reed, pipe, and later, electronic organs were  produced by the Estey Organ company for buyers worldwide. Their popularity was shown in places such as the Waldorf Astoria, the Irving Theater, The Capitol Theater, The Salvation Army Auditorium, and Madison Square Garden. Such was the importance of Estey Organ Company that its eight large identical factory buildings, built in 1872 are on the National Registry for Historic Places. “Estey's influence on the growth and social fabric was monumental. Its hundreds of employees, many of whom built homes near the factory in the neighborhood still known as Esteyville, ‘Became one big happy family’ according to John MacArthur, a Marlboro College Physics Professor who helped the develop the companies line of electronic organs in the late 1950's.”

Jacob Estey was ahead of his time in offering equal wages for women; his company primarily employed women assemblers that also raised their stature in the community, and was beneficial to the economy of Brattleboro. Estey exhibited innovative advertising practices as well, tying the purchase of a musical instrument to the moral fabric of the time, as shown in the ad below. This Vermont organ company became famous for promoting the goodness of music in family life. During the Gilded Age, homes, churches and schools felt compelled to own one of the very best icons of American quality, the Estey Reed Organ.

We often forget that culture was also deeply impacted by industrialization. Elegant and prestigious, the reed organ was a symbol of refinement, status, even religious beliefs and traditions.


Cashman, Sean Dennis, America in the Gilded Age. New York: NYU Press, 1993

Waring, Dennis Gardner, The Estey Reed Organ: Imagination, Music, and Material Culture in 19th Century America. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University Microfilms, 1993

Waring, Dennis Gardner, Manufacturing the Muse: Estey Organs and Consumer Culture in Victorian America. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2002

Lesson plan and commentary by

Cathy Frankfurter
Lamoille Union High School
Hyde Park, Vermont