Good old-fashioned low-tech organic music

December 02, 2007|By JULIE E. GREENE

Russ and Darlene Snyder were perusing a large flea market in Carlisle, Pa., in 1974 when they noticed what he called a "pretty box with stenciling on it."

Since then Russ Snyder has taught himself all about such boxes - mechanical organs that create music when compressed air passes into reeds. The musical notes and the notes' duration are determined in many cases by a continuous sheet of paper containing holes of various lengths. As each hole passes over a reed, it allows the air to enter the reed, producing a sound.

The concept is similar to a music box, but has different components.

Snyder, 64, of the Beaver Creek area, and his wife, Darlene, 63, have loaned about half of their collection of more than 60 mechanical organs to the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts for an exhibit that runs through Sunday, Feb. 10.

This is the second time the couple have loaned one of their collections to the museum. During the winter of 1997-98, the museum displayed approximately 300 pieces from the couple's collections of toy steam engines, air rifles and other toys and games.


Russ Snyder said he and Darlene like collecting things. He's adding a 384-square-foot room to his house just to display their organs and 60 arcade machines that date from the late 1800s to the 1920s.

Russ Snyder will play mechanical organ music at the museum from 1 to 2 p.m. Sundays, Dec. 9, Jan. 6 and Feb. 10.

While he's playing the organs, he also will pick them up, turn them over and show how they work or how he's repaired them, Museum Curator Ann Wagner said.

The Washington County Museum of Fine Arts is open 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays.

For more information, call 301-739-5727 or go to

Photos by Ric Dugan


Russ and Darlene Snyder of the Beaver Creek area stand with several mechanical organs from their collection. The organs are on display at Washington County Museum of Fine Arts through Sunday, Feb. 10.

This 1930 Playasax contains a harmonica so the musician would blow and draw on the mouthpiece as they would a harmonica, while cranking the paper roll through, to make music, Snyder said. One difference between the Playasax and the harmonica: The Playasax makes the same tone whether air is blown or drawn.

Russ Snyder said this type of mechanical organ would have been carried by street musicians. He said the Musical Box Society International determined that this particular organ is one of the oldest "street" instruments surviving. The organ, made by A. Hinton in London, cost 30 pounds when it was built between 1790 and 1810. This organ uses a barrel or cobb with pins and staples, rather than a roll of paper with holes, to create musical notes. Pins produce a short note. Staples sustain the note longer.

As the heavy paper roll is cranked through this 1880 McTammany Paper Roll organ to play music, the paper is rolled onto the opposite spool. The paper has to be cranked back through to the original spool to set the organ up to play again.

The record on this 1890 German Cardboard Record Organ is, of course, made of cardboard. The longer holes in the record represent sustained musical notes.

This Organina from the 1880s currently plays "Listen to the Mockingbird." To play a different tune, the paper roll inside must be changed.

This German drum manopan is believed to have been manufactured between 1880 and 1904, Russ Snyder said. Cranking the organ results in music from reeds inside the organ, as well as from the drums, cymbal and three bells on top.

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