The Wurlitzer family had an excellent reputation as a supplier of fine musical instruments dating back to 1659 in Saxony (now Germany). In 1853, 22-year-old Rudolph Wurlitzer immigrated to the U.S. to explore other opportunities, rather than simply staying in Saxony and joining the family business.
Rudolph Wurlitzer (1831-1914)
His first "real job" was in Cincinnati, Ohio as a door-to-door salesman. In 1854, he worked as a bank teller and was able to save enough money to have his family back in Europe send him some of their high-quality musical instruments. He sold a small selection of instruments direct to local retailers that had previously gone through multiple middlemen and importers. In 1856, Wurlitzer officially founded The Rudolph Wurlitzer Company in Cincinnati, Ohio as a musical instrument import business. He also supplied drums and other musical instruments to the U.S. Army during the Civil War and by 1865, he had become the largest supplier of band instruments in America. He then made the bold transition from importing to manufacturing, and in 1880, Wurlitzer built and sold the first American-made Wurlitzer piano. The manufacturing took place in a factory located in North Tonawanda, New York. Why he chose Cincinnati and North Tonawanda for his business is a mystery -
other than the fact that both locations had a large population of German speaking emigrants, eager to work for Wurlitzer.
Rudolph Wurlitzer Manufacturing Company
In 1889, Wurlitzer's son, Howard joined the company and introduced the innovation of automatic instruments, which led to the firm's production of self-playing pianos and band organs. Around the turn of the century, their next major innovation was the Mighty Wurlitzer - which was the large theater organ used in silent film cinemas and theaters throughout America.
Around 1850, the platform carousel (merry-go-round) was developed in Europe where the animals would travel around in a circle sitting on a suspended circular floor which hung from a center pole. These machines were steam powered. Eventually, technological advances such as bevel gears and offset cranks were installed on these platform carousels, giving the animals their familiar up and down motion as they traveled around the center pole. Since recorded music had not yet been invented and live musicians were too expensive, automatic band organs (or fairground organs as they were called in Europe), were used to provide the sound and feel of a live military band. According to some carousel owners, adding a mechanical band organ to a carousel often increased ridership and revenue by 40% or more! The magical music emanating from these technological marvels (for their time) immediately became the soul of every carousel.
Around the turn of the century, amusement parks were being built in almost every major U.S. city and the carousel owners were importing the necessary band organs from Germany, France and Belgium at significant cost. Wurlitzer, recognizing the great opportunity to build the band organs in America, starting manufacturing band organs in North Tonawanda, NY; which just so happened to be the same location where several of the leading carousel manufacturers were located. Wurlitzer soon dominated the market by offering a wide range of models and price ranges. His band organs quickly became the industry standard.
The earliest band organs produced by Wurlitzer around 1890 were steam powered or hand cranked and the music was encoded on a barrel lined with steel pins. With the reasonable availability of electric motors around the turn of the century, Wurlitzer switched the musical tracks to an electrically driven paper roll with perforations (similar to a player piano roll) which sent a pneumatic signal to actuate the organ pipes and drums. These musical rolls were in fact the first mass produced "digital storage device" (similar to a computer punch card) where the music could be replicated exactly as composed. Each paper roll would play 6 or 10 tunes and would then be rewound for replay. Some larger organ models featured "duplex roll" mechanisms which allowed continuous music -- the alternate roll would play while the other rewound. The Wurlitzer rolls soon became the industry standard with many competitors adopting one or more of the three Wurlitzer formats -- the 125 roll (46 notes), the 150 roll (46 notes plus a register to activate orchestral bells), or the wider 165 roll (75 notes with registers). Thousands of these paper music rolls were produced by Wurlitzer from about 1905 to 1945. Wurlitzer got out of the business altogether in 1945 when they sold their roll making equipment and spare parts to Allan Herschell Carousel Company of North Tonawanda, NY.
An extensive catalog of Wurlitzer rolls and roll history can be found at www.wurlitzer-rolls.com. Even today, paper roll copies or "recuts" are produced by Play-Rite Music Rolls and other companies to provide music rolls for collectors of surviving band organs.
Each band organ has an electrically driven crankshaft that powers both the air bellows that feed the various music pipes as well as the roll mechanism. A typical organ has roughly 100 pipes and the voicing would include something like 15 bass pipes, 18 trombone pipes, 14 melody flutes, 13 brass trumpets, 13 wood trumpets, 13 brass piccolos, and 13 wood flageolets, bass drum, snare drum, cymbal, and sometimes orchestra bells. Early organs featured brass trumpets and trombones which tended to be very loud and shrill. Later models used wooden trumpets and trombones which produced more of a pleasant, mellow sound. The wooden horns were certainly less expensive to manufacture for Wurlitzer than the brass horns which is probably why they became the industry standard from approximately 1920 to 1942 -- when the last band organ was produced. High fidelity recorded music and World War II signaled the end of the beloved Wurlitzer band organ as carousel owners quickly switched to less expensive amplified music - sometimes gutting their antique organs and installing an amplifier and speakers.
Wurlitzer Model 165 Band Organ
Wurlitzer produced roughly 20 different band organ models with three models that were mass produced and still widely collected today. The compact Wurlitzer Model 105 had 46 notes and was the workhorse of the traveling carnival and smaller carousels. The larger Wurlitzer Model 153 and Wurlitzer Model 165 had 75 notes and were typically found at larger carousels, amusement parks, and skating rinks. Of the nearly 4000 wooden carousels carved in America between 1885 and the 1930s, fewer than 150 are still in existence. A similar number of Band Organs were also produced. An estimated 300 have survived (not including reproductions which are still produced today). Two such companies where you can buy a "brand new" band organ include the Stinson Band Organ Company of Bellefontaine, Ohio and the Johnson Organ Company of Fargo, North Dakota. Both companies offer traditional paper roll or computer controlled MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) versions. Large libraries of MIDI format tunes (including band organ renditions of modern songs) are available from both companies.
Today, these priceless pieces of Americana have a small but passionate collector base that helps to maintain and restore these band organs to their former glory. We hope this website helps to educate and preserve these treasures for generations to come.
Please enjoy your visit!