What Exactly is a Melodeon?

Crumpled Sheet Music on Piano Keyboard

(Photo credit: Phil Henry | Unsplash)

Somewhere in the midst of researching The Haweaters I stumbled across a list of the dozen or so manufacturers that were operating in Owen Sound around the time the Amer family were living there in the mid-1860s. That list included many of the sorts of businesses you'd expect to find in a burgeoning 19th century Ontario port city -- tanneries, potash works, foundries -- as well as a curious entry for Sloane’s Melodeon Factory.

Part of what peaked my curiosity was the factory's name, since a settler with the surname of Sloan figured prominently in the circumstances surrounding the murders of William and Charles Bryan a mere decade later and, if there's one thing I learned from combing through countless antique documents, it's that spellings can vary quite a bit from one mention to the next. Some moderate detective work eventually ruled out a direct connection between the man and the instrument maker, but not before it occurred to me that I had no idea what a melodeon was or why such a thing would have been manufactured in Owen Sound.

Though relatively unknown to us now, melodeons (also known as cottage organs, harmoniums, cabinet organs, parlour organs, and pump organs) were a popular form of entertainment in the mid-to-late 19th century and came in many shapes and sizes. Compact portable versions tended to look very much like accordions while the larger parlour varieties were designed to look like pianos and were played by pumping a pedal that sent air through the instrument’s brass reeds.

Of the roughly 60 manufacturers in Canada, most were located in Ontario, including Sloane's Melodeon Factory which flourished in Owen Sound from 1865 until it finally closed its doors in 1889 or somewhere thereabouts. Dates tend to be as variable as spellings prior to the 20th century so, depending on the source you happen to be reading, the years Sloane's was in operation can slide a few years in either direction.

Although I have Annie Amer learning to play a melodeon in The Haweaters, I don't really know that her family ever owned such a thing. However, it seemed like exactly the sort of frivolity that a recently monied family in that time period would splash out on in an effort to set themselves apart from neighbours who could barely afford the necessities of life.

The clip below shows someone not quite rocking out on the type of melodeon that Annie Amer plays in the book and although this video may not bear witness to the finest musician who ever lived, the song he is struggling to master is infinitely easier on the ears (and the nerves) than many of the cheesy tunes that were popular in the Ontario parlours of Annie Amer's youth.

Based on the real-life 1877 killings of two members of one family by two members of another, The Haweaters brings to life some of Manitoulin’s earliest European settlers as they struggle against nature, poverty, and each other in a collective quest to leave their dubious pasts behind them and attain the prosperity they know they deserve in this rugged wilderness community. Learn more.