Music Roll History

The study of roll-operated pneumatic organs authored by Fred Dahlinger Jr. and published by the Carousel Organ Association of America in the 2013 & 2014 ‘Carousel Organ’ (issues 52 to 59), created awareness that the heritage of 8-to-the-inch [hereafter 8tti] paper rolls is severely threatened. In particular, there is a void of readily-available information about the rolls that were issued to play on organs that had tracker bar holes with that spacing. This summary is derived from those works, to support understanding of the rollography that documents the rolls that have survived into the early 21st century.

For anyone desiring a broad understanding of roll-operated pneumatic organs manufactured in the US, from their initial release to their final issues, we recommend that you start by reading that series of articles. The extensive footnotes to the series reference original documentation and other publications that provide additional useful information.

The manufacture of 8tti paper rolls for use in band organs was initiated about 1907, with new creative activity continuing to 1957. Of the thousands of rolls made for American band organs by the NTMIW, Artizan Factories Inc., Wurlitzer and the B. A. B. Organ Company, and perpetuated by successors, perhaps only five per cent of the output remains in existence today. This rollography may realistically aggregate perhaps just ten percent of the known rolls, after all sources of knowledge have been expended. The stark reality is that much of the 8tti roll heritage is already gone.

Paper material was long ago identified as the optimum choice for use as a memory medium in mechanical musical instruments. First proposed by the 1840s, applications evolved in both Europe and North America. In the US, makers of table top crank organs, player pianos, and mechanical reed organs instituted widespread use of paper rolls in the 1870s and 1880s. They were very satisfactory for smaller and indoor use. Operation of large mechanical organs and outdoor machines by paper roll required a longer term effort and an overcoming of the decades-long commitment to the simple pinned cylinder technology. The enduring use in outdoor organs was fortified by the application of more weather-durable and physically stable papers that resisted deformation due to temperature and humidity swings.

Continue reading about the historical manufacturing of these rolls on the next page.