From Portable Pianos to Portable Organs

Earlier this week My Own True Love and I were at an event at an aviation history museum in Poplar Grove, Illinois.* In the course of chatting with the executive director, the GI Steinway (aka the Victory Vertical) came up. The director mentioned that another museum in the community had a portable organ made for army chaplains. Once again down the rabbit hole. I went**

Army chaplain plays a portable organ during Sunday services while members of the all Japanese-American 442-Division combat team sing hymns.

Army chaplain Thomas Eugene West, plays the organ during the singing of a hymn by members of the Japanese-American 422 Division combat team at the Sunday services at Camp Shelby

It turns out that the army was a late player in the production of portable reed pump organs. The first portable organs were invented in the late nineteenth century for use by missionaries,*** traveling evangelists, and, and, at the other end of the musical social spectrum, by traveling musicians who played at dances. The organs had a shorter keyboard than a regular reed organ and folded up into a box roughly the size of a large suitcase.**** Unlike the military pianos produced by Steinway in the Second World War, portable organs were designed to be carried by one strong person: they weighed 90 pounds in the carrying case.

By World War II, Etsey and other organ manufacturers were producing folding organs in olive drab boxes as part of the standard chaplain’s kit and continued to be part of the kit through the Korean War.

*The Poplar Grove Vintage Wings and Wheels Museum: If aviation history is your thing and you find yourself in northern Illinois, it’s worth a stop.

**If you decide to follow this up further, I will point out something that confused me for a bit: The Etsey Organ Company was the major manufacturer of reed organs in the United States, portable and otherwise, for roughly 100 years. There are also several listings of chaplain organs on Etsy. You’re welcome.

***The Etsey Organ Company developed an “Acclimatized Organ” in the 1880s which was designed to withstand tropical weather, possibly pioneering some of the techniques used to weatherproof pianos for military use in the Pacific Theater.

****One source describes it as the size of a child’s coffin, which is vivid but misses the point that the organ was portable.


  1. Jacky Briggs on May 3, 2024 at 1:54 pm

    Great article! However, it was the ESTEY organ company, not the “ETSY”.

    • Pamela on May 4, 2024 at 9:19 pm

      Yes it was

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