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The Angelus Piano Player - Wilcox and White, Meriden, Connecticut, c. 1903
A Family Business
Just across the road from the Aeolian Company, in Cambridge Street, Meriden, Connecticut, was the Wilcox and White Organ Company, founded in 1877 by Horace Cornwell Wilcox and Henry Kirk White. As an important local businessman and president of the Meriden Britannia Company, Horace Wilcox provided much of the $30,000 capital for the new enterprise, while Henry White and his sons brought with them great expertise in organ building, gained in part at the Estey factory in Brattleboro, Vermont. Since Henry White's first marriage was to Lucy Cornwell, it may be that there was a family connection between the two founding partners.
Henry Kirk White and Family - Meriden, Connecticut, c. 1904.
Certainly the firm was run very much as a family business, with all Henry White's sons playing their part, and even his grandson, Frank Cornwell White, specialising as an engineer and developing many refinements of the Angelus, including the firm's reproducing piano, the Angelus Artrio. The photograph above, taken somewhere between 1902 and 1906, shows Henry Kirk White as an octogenarian, with his eldest son, James Henry White, his grandson, Frank Cornwell White, and his great-grandson, Henry Foster White, in the centre.
An Early View of the Wilcox and White Factory - Meriden, Connecticut, 1893.
Henry Kirk White was born in 1822 in Bolton, Connecticut and began his career as a piano and organ tuner, settling in 1845 in Colchester, where he worked in an instrument factory for one Denison Smith. Within two years he had set up in business on his own, manufacturing melodeons in New London, and in 1853 he moved the business to Washington, New Jersey, where he remained until the outbreak of the Civil War. From that point onwards, he took up tuning again, in the Philadephia area, and then in 1865, once the War was over, he took his family to Brattleboro, Vermont, where he became the foreman of the tuning and action department at the Estey Organ factory, his three sons also working there for a time. In 1877 the family moved to Meriden, and the new Wilcox and White Organ Company was brought into being. Gradually James Henry White, eldest son of the founder, took administrative control of the business, with his brothers active on the technical side, though both died relatively early in life, in the late 1890s. Henry K. White himself remained active in the firm well into his seventies, supervising the mechanical departments until his retirement around 1900. He died in 1907, at the grand old age of 84.
Henry White and Sons with one of their early Reed Organs - Meriden, Connecticut, 1880s.
During the early 1880s the firm produced normal reed organs, as did a good many other firms in New England, but they made a feature of the decorated top that came to characterise the American organ, and they gave their products the trade name of Symphony. No doubt the metal processing industries, for which Meriden was famous, helped them to gain an edge over their competitors in the production of reeds and other components. Some idea of the breathtaking scale of the firm's business can be gleaned from the fact that, by January 1889, their agents in Philadelphia alone had sold nearly 7,000 organs, and were still continuing to do so at the rate of sixty or seventy per month. In 1888 they hired William D. Parker, a protégé of John McTammany, to be in charge of their experimental department, and a year later they were making and selling a new roll-operated reed organ, known initially as the Pneumatic Symphony.
The Pneumatic Symphony Organ, Wilcox & White, Meriden, 1889.
We might at this point pause in our historical progression towards the Angelus in order to consider one rather thorny commercial issue, and one whose details are regrettably lost in the mists of time. The Wilcox and White factory in Meriden was located on Cambridge Street, quite literally across the road from the Aeolian Company's establishment on the junction of Cambridge and Tremont. Horace Wilcox was a director and substantial shareholder in both firms, and it was no doubt he who drew the two enterprises to Meriden in the first place. Wilcox was an experienced and vastly successful businesman, the President of the Meriden Britannia Company, manufacturers of silver plate, and it may be that his character and his commercial acumen kept the relationship of the two competing companies on an even keel. A sign of this slight cosiness can be seen from the fact that George Whight and Co, of London, England, initially acted as the European agency for both organ manufacturers.
Horace Cornwell Wilcox of Meriden, Connecticut, Joint Founder of Wilcox & White.
However, Horace Wilcox died in August 1890, and for some twenty years thereafter the two neighbours seem to have embarked on anything but a friendly relationship, rather like two brothers who fall out after the death of their father. The mutual irritation manifested itself most vigorously in the battle of words over who had first brought a piano player on to the market. It is understandable, but nevertheless remarkable, that such energy should have been directed to questions of priority of invention, of no more than a year or so, when in retrospect it is the overall technical, musical and commercial achievements that are undoubtedly the most important.
The Angelus Trademark
The trade name and design, apparently first applied to the piano player in 1897, were inspired by a well-known painting by the French artist, Jean-François Millet, made in the village of Barbizon to the south-east of Paris in 1857, and Wilcox & White adopted a scaled-down version as their trademark.
The Angelus - in the 1857 Painting by Jean-François Millet.
This particular painting had been very much in the news in the USA, having been purchased at a Paris auction in 1889 on behalf of the American Arts Association, and then exhibited in the US for ten years, before being sold back to the Louvre in 1899. The enormous prices paid ensured that the work remained in the public consciousness, and must therefore have helped Wilcox & White to market their piano player as an object of grand luxe.
The Angelus - as a Cartoon in the Washington Times, 26 April 1896, . . .
. . . and as the Wilcox & White Trademark.
The first Angelus manufactured by Wilcox & White was not a piano player at all, but rather a style of casing for one its non-automatic Symphony organs, designed by a well-known architect for his own private residence, and adopted for general sale by the company in 1893. So when the piano in the illustration above was manufactured in 1895, according to Wilcox & White, the trade name had already been in existence for a couple of years. Such a grand piano would have been rather difficult to play from roll, since one would have almost no view of the perforations, and so no effective way of controlling the speed or dynamics. But there is no evidence that it was ever widely advertised to the public, which is what really counts. By 1895 there was already one other internal pneumatic player on the market, namely the Autono, invented by Fred R. Goolman of Los Angeles, and apparently sold by him from 1894 onwards, later developing into the Peerless player piano. In addition, the Aeolian Company developed and exhibited a roll-operated electric piano as early as 1889, and its patent books, which survive at the Strong Museum in Rochester, NY, include such instruments going back to the beginning of the 1880s, though again with no indication that they were manufactured or sold in any quantity.
An early Angelus-Mathuschek Player Grand Piano - Meriden, Connecticut, 1895.
The Angelus and the Angelus Orchestral
The first recorded sign of Wilcox & White's piano player came in February 1896, after a reporter from Music Trade Review had visited the Wilcox & White factory in Meriden. A further report indicated that it was on display in Providence, Rhode Island, by March 2nd of that year, and it must have met with success wherever it went, for in 1897 the Wilcox & White firm was re-organised with greatly increased capital and a plan to extend its factories to cope with the demand for the new instrument. Since it was essentially a development of the roll-playing models of the existing Symphony reed organ, the earliest versions of the Angelus included a set of built-in reeds as well, and it was initially known as the Angelus Orchestral piano player.
An advertisement for the Angelus Orchestral piano player - Meriden, Connecticut, 1898.
The combination of a piano player and a reed organ must have been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it might have allowed for an interesting rendition of a piano concerto, with a few judiciously chosen string and wind tones in the orchestral tuttis, but it surely must have been a nightmare for piano tuners, who would have had to keep two instruments in perfect unison. Even a hundred years ago, when most piano tuners could probably turn their hands to scraping the odd brass reed, one can just imagine the upturned eyes and stifled grumbles as another of "those darned orchestras" turned up in someone's genteel parlour. So without much delay Wilcox & White added a normal piano player to their range, for those music lovers who were content to treat piano music as it was written.
The Angelus Piano Player - Harper's Magazine Advertiser, April 1903.