It could be musical, but it looks medieval
  • A whimsical Cat in the Hat in school play
  • A grand piano with my name penciled on it
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    Auction Finds

    Vintage toy pianos that were child’s play

    The first piano I saw was in the back lot of an auction house, most of its front stripped clean of the black paint that defined the rest of it. All that was left was the natural wood. This seemed to be a fix-up project that had not been completed.

    Inside the auction house, I found a child-size organ with the name Magnus in gold leaf. It was surprising to see two children’s pianos at one auction house on the same day. Large-size pianos don’t come up for auction that often, and children’s are even rarer.

    That was not the last of them, though. A few weeks later, I came across one that was even nicer: a toy player piano accompanied by music rolls that had been placed in a box next to it. Player pianos were always adult entertainment; I never knew they were also made for children.

    toy piano

    The Piano Lodeon, a child’s player piano.

    Here are the pianos I found:

    Piano Lodeon

    This piano was made by a New York company called J. Chein and Co., which made children’s toys from around 1903 to the 1980s. The company manufactured toys as premiums inside Cracker Jack boxes, for Walt Disney Productions and “Peanuts” characters, among others. It was best known for its mechanical toys.

    In the 1960s, the company produced the Piano Lodeon, an automatic player piano made of plastic and tin that came with rolls of punched paper with popular songs on them. The piano was said to be both complex and expensive, and did not sell very well. Here’s what one looks like with the rolls.

    toy piano

    A box of music rolls for the Piano Lodeon.

    Here’s how one site described how it worked:

    “You insert a music roll into the piano turn the switch on. Then put the lever into play which allows the piano to play the music roll on its own. When music roll is done you push the lever up to rewind then the roll rewinds its self.”

    You can listen to the piano playing “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” here.

    The box of rolls at auction included such songs as “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” “Sweet Sue (Just You),” “I’ve Found A New Baby,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and “Sweet Georgia Brown.”

    toy piano

    Magnus organ in Bakelite case.

    Magnus organ

    This electric child’s organ (Model 1510) with the Bakelite case is a reed organ, meaning it works with an electric fan that blows air across the reeds inside the organ, as opposed to having foot-powered bellows like those on adult-size organs. This organ has an on-off switch on the side. It was said to have been made in the 1940s or 1950s by the Magnus Hamilton Co. of New Jersey.

    The company sold harmonicas and mechanical reed organs, and later sold electric chord organs. A 1966 ad in Life magazine promoted a new Magnus chord organ as a way for children to learn to play and sing songs in 60 seconds – “without lessons.” The ad suggested it as a first step in a child’s musical education.

    Curators for the new National Museum for African American History and Culture in Washington came across one of the 1510s in 2011 while they were visiting Mississippi searching for treasures in people’s homes for the museum. One curator told of a woman who brought in a Magnus Bakelite organ given to her by her mother in 1948 when she was a year old. The curator said that it was the first time she had seen a child’s organ.

    toy piano

    Toy upright piano with front stripped of paint.

    Upright piano, no manufacturer’s name

    This didn’t look like a toy but a piano just as serious as a regular-sized one with all of the normal parts, including pedals. It even had wheels and sported metal handles on both sides for carrying.

    toy piano

    The keys and hammer action on the upright piano.

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