Friday, December 5, 2014

Making beautiful music in Washington, the Organ Capital of the World

A hundred years or more ago, beautiful music came from a Northwestern New Jersey community in such abundance that the area was said to be the Organ Capital of the World.

Words from an 1897 catalog paint the picture: "Nestled among the green hills of Warren County... lies the beautiful little city of Washington, where for more than a half century, Cornish Pianos and Organs have been built. [...] Here is no great rush, but an infinite care and painstaking labor are exercised in a quiet co-operative way."

There's no sign of the company or the factory at its old location on the corner of State Route 57 and South Lincoln Avenue today; we learned about it from a docent during our visit to the Bread Lock Museum a few months ago. Astoria, Queens may be the birthplace of the more famous and fabled Steinway and Sons piano dynasty, but one could say the impact of Washington, Warren County on the world of music appreciation for the common person was greater. If the manufacturers in this town had their way, every American family would a piano or organ of their own. According to its own promotional materials, Cornish put out 40 complete instruments every working day, producing up to 12,000 a year in its factory.

Unlike Steinway and its luxurious Manhattan showroom, the Cornish Company eschewed retail. Rather, it sold direct to consumer via catalogs and advertisements that emphasized both the quality and relative affordability of the instruments. Potential customers could pick from several ornately-carved cabinets to accent their home decor, and "every responsible person in the land" was encouraged to purchase an organ or piano on credit. Cornish promised that purchasers could return their instrument within a year and get back the payments they'd made plus six percent interest. As an added inducement, the company made arrangements with a correspondence school to provide piano lessons to customers who may not have already known how to play a keyboard instrument.

The factory itself started as a much smaller structure built by a furniture manufacturer in 1858. After purchasing the building in 1880, the Cornish family and built several additions until it took up most of a city block. Nearly two dozen smaller keyboard instrument manufacturers followed, earning Washington its title as Organ Capital of the World.

The ultimate end of the Cornish company and its factory aren't quite clear. Local historians feel that the rise of the phonograph may have led to the company's demise, a good theory considering one didn't need to invest time in lessons to learn to play a record. Some reports say that the company never recovered from a 1922 factory fire, and a 1926 New York Times article states that the building was to be converted to a hotel, with 40 rooms on the second and third floors. Fifty years later, The Star Gazette of Hackettstown and Washington reports that after the company went into receivership in 1921, a former baseball player named Socks Farrell purchased the property, renovating a portion of the old factory to become the Farrell Arms.

Ultimately, the structure appears to have been destroyed in a 1934 fire, replaced over time by a gas station and then the Krauszers food store that stands today. Cornish organs and pianos, however, still stand beautifully in living rooms and parlors around the world, handed down over the generations to their original purchasers' offspring.

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