“Lilliputian” or “Cabinet”
Orchestrions are designed to imitate an entire orchestra. Some models would play dozens of instruments and entire selections of music in an effort to reproduce an orchestra without the players, just a barrel or roll of paper selecting a number wind, string and percussion instruments. They evolved from the coin-operated player pianos of the day, taking automated music to a new level.
In 1898, the Peerless Style “D” piano was introduced and set the standard for the American Orchestrions that would follow. It was a coin-operated pneumatic “nickelodeon” piano that played from a paper roll using vacuum pump and pneumatic stacks. Until then the industry had been dominated by European imports which were more like a music box in their use of a pinned barrel instead of a paper roll for music, and often only used a 44 key keyboard (half of a piano’s 88 keys). What was a fledgling industry at the turn of the century was selling hundreds of orchestrions by 1910.
The center of the American Orchestrion industry was Chicago, where dozens of manufacturers were based, including Seeburg. Though Wurlitzer held an early lead in sales, Seeburg would go on to be the leading manufacturer by the 1920’s. They pioneered the use of “Art Glass” on their cabinets, used standardized parts that worked across most of their styles and had beautiful oak cabinets with a dark finish. The “Type A” paper rolls that ran the orchestrion were shared by many companies and are still in production today.
The “Style L”, originally called the cabinet, was the most popular orchestrion of all time with many thousands still in existence today. Smaller than the average orchestrion, there was no external keyboard for the piano and the addition of a mandolin bar made it capable of playing two seemingly different instruments at once. The mandolin bar was a movable set of brass strips that rested against the piano strings, below the hammer striking point, and vibrated against the strips after struck.
Popular with collectors, the “Style L”, sometimes called the Lilliputian, was one of the most affordable orchestrions as well. A new cabinet cost $350 in 1918 and $850 in 1925—and that was with more than a 100% markup from wholesale. The earlier cabinets had two full wooden doors, while later models had four doors. There was also a slightly larger version called the “Greyhound” that had mechanized dogs that raced until the music ended, giving gamblers something to bet on while listening to music.
Prohibition initially slowed the sales of Orchestrions, but when speakeasies began to take hold, they went on to their best sales in the mid 1920’s. Their dominance was short as the introduction of both the phonograph and radio would soon chip away at the industry. The 1930’s would prove to be the time of the Jukebox, taking over the reins from is coin-operated cousins.
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