Melodeon, c. 1860-1890, Xavier Spang, Rosewood and iron, Gift of Mrs. Gordon West, 1959.09.01

The melodeon is an American invention from the first half of the 19th century. Although melodeons were very popular before and during the Civil War era, they are seldom seen today. Housed in a piano-like case, a melodeon is a small reed organ with a five or six octave keyboard. Back in its heyday, Americans preferred the melodeon over the piano for its durability, lower price, and the advantage of seldom needing maintenance and tuning. Two men in Buffalo, New York – Jeremiah Carhart and Elias Parkman Needham – invented the melodeon. They had sought to improve the previous-existing pump organ and created an instrument that, instead of using pressure bellows like the European harmonium, used suction bellows. In the mid-19th century, it was common for well-to-do families to have a melodeon, often situated in the parlor, and to use it for entertaining guests and family members. When the Cochrans lived there, the Neill-Cochran House was often filled with music. The Cochran family had a Victrola, and a piano is visible in the back parlor of the 1914 photographs from Bessie Cochran’s wedding.

The Neill-Cochran House Museum melodeon was made by Xavier Spang, a mid-19th century organ and melodeon maker from Syracuse, New York. Spang advertisements first appear in 1860 and disappear after 1890, leading us to believe that he went out of business shortly before the turn of the century.

melodeon