Lizzie Alcott’s keyboard: seraphine or melodeon? What’s the difference? And which one is it?

I recently read an intriguing line in Eve LaPlante’s book, Marmee & Louisa: The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother regarding the keyboard that Lizzie Alcott used to play. It reads: In 1847, “Abigail, who had acquired a keyboard instrument called a seraphine, gave the children regular music lessons, as her mother had done for Abigail and her sisters.” (pg. 171 ebook Marmee & Louisa, footnote pg. 124 Cynthia Barton, Transcendental Wife.

I thought it was a melodeon. This is what the tour guides at Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House called it.

It turns out a seraphine and a melodeon look a lot alike:

keyboards combined

I even showed pictures of the two instruments to a musical historian I ran into at the Barrow bookstore in Concord and he couldn’t really tell the difference! Apparently the outer design was interchangeable according to the pictures I found in the book at the store.

So here is a picture of Lizzie’s seraphine or melodeon from Orchard House (this is an older picture):

or is it beth's seraphine

What do you think? I’d especially love to hear from tour guides at Orchard House.

Ever wondered what such an instrument sounded like? Close your eyes and imagine it’s Lizzie playing …

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25 thoughts on “Lizzie Alcott’s keyboard: seraphine or melodeon? What’s the difference? And which one is it?

  1. amybeldingbrown says:

    Maybe someone could check with Orchard House about the provenance of the melodeon. Not everything there is original to Louisa’s family. Maybe the instrument was donated by a relative or friend after Orchard House opened.
    Also, I was surprised to learn that Abigail gave lessons to her daughters. I thought she couldn’t play the keyboard because of the scarring on her right hand.

  2. drbethnolan says:

    I asked today and they say it’s a melodeon – which is what I thought it was listed as in the “black book” inventory (there is one in each room on the tour, listing the items there). I thought the girls were given lessons by their “aunt” – not a real aunt but close family friend – the one who gave them the piano in the parlor. Auntie May I thought she was called…

    • susanwbailey says:

      I suppose it could have been a combination of the two – Abba had the knowledge although with the scarring on her right hand, she might have found it hard to play. I remember when she worked up in Maine at the spa and had nightmares about her daughters needing her and Lizzie crying that she needed her mama to show her how to play a particular piece.

      Didn’t the piano in the parlor come after, when Orchard House was set up as a museum?

    • AnneJoLaura says:

      I was wondering, does anyone ever play this instrument (if it is in a condition to be played, that is)?

      I also wonder if there is any way to find out what songs or pieces Lizzie liked to play. Did she mention any in her journal?

      • susanwbailey says:

        That is a GREAT question – Dr. Nolan, has anyone played Lizzie’s melodeon recently?

        As far as I know there is only one complete journal by Lizzie when she was 11 and there is no mention of favorite hymns as far as I could tell from reading it. I imagine the popular hymns of the day would be a good guess.

      • drbethnolan says:

        As far as I know the melodeon is HANDS OFF to all of us! 😊 I did double check today when I was in and the Chickering piano was a May family piece – “Auntie Bond” is what I was trying to come up with! The melodeon is thought to be Lizzie’s but that can’t be proven definitively as its not documented specifically as such. And please call me Beth – we’re among kindred spirits!

      • susanwbailey says:

        Of course! 🙂 Beth, thanks for all this great information. And you too AnneJoLaura. That’s cool that the piano came Aunt Bond. Very fitting.

  3. SilverSeason says:

    My mother had a family piece she called a melodeon and it looked very much like your picture. It was intended to be an attractive piece of furniture as well as a musical instrument. People have converted old melodeons into lady’s desks or dressing tables.

  4. AnneJoLaura says:

    Hi, first time commenter here,

    Louisa mentions the seraphine in a letter written in 1845: “[Anna] is to lazy to do any thing but drum on the Seraphine till we are all stuned with her noise.”

    There is a book on Google Books, Manufacturing the Muse: Estey Organs and Consumer Culture in Victorian America, that mentions the difference between seraphines and melodeons: “Seraphines predated melodeons and used a pressure wind system that forced the wind through four or five octaves of reeds; melodeons had a three- to five- octave range and, in contrast, used a suction wind system whereby air was drawn through the reeds by a vacuum generated from the player’s treadling” (page 271).

    Is name of its maker on the instrument at Orchard House? That might help you track down what type of instrument it is. Other than that, an organ restorer might be your best bet.

    Best of luck, hope to hear what you find out!

    • susanwbailey says:

      Wow, GREAT information, thank you! I’m glad to know what the difference is between the two instruments.

    • drbethnolan says:

      Great reference! Is the letter in the Cheney book? I am thinking they would have been in their early teens in “45 — shortly after Fruitlands — perhaps while they were living at Wayside/Hillside? Interesting!

      • susanwbailey says:

        I’ve seen it in several of the bios, I’ll have to track it down. And yes, I think it was during the Hillside era.

      • susanwbailey says:

        Here’s an account of the dream from LaPlante’s book, pg. 146: “One night in late May, not long after she moved into the water-cure spa, Abigail hada dream that she was home with her girls. In the dream Lizzie was seated at the piano, weeping because Abigail wasn’t there to help her find a certain note. Louisa was outside, running up the lane toward the house, her long dark hair blowing up behind her. “Mother,” Louisa screamed. “Mother? Is it you?” Abigail woke from the dream in tears, feeling guilty for being so far from her girls”

        Unfortunately there is no footnote for this passage. Harriet Reisen also mentioned this dream although lacking some of the detail of LaPlante’s account.

      • AnneJoLaura says:

        The dream is also mentioned in Cynthia H. Barton’s Transcendental Wife. The account is from a letter Abba wrote to her family a couple of weeks after her arrival in Waterford, May 27, 1848.

      • AnneJoLaura says:

        The letter is originally from Annie Clark’s The Alcotts in Harvard (can be accessed through archive.org), and is also in Selected Letters. Yep, it’s from the first summer at Hillside!

  5. What a beautiful post and I need to nose around here and see all this information you have!

  6. Elizabeth K. Hilprecht says:

    I’m taking it all in…so fascinating!!!

  7. […] mildly famous examples: John Brown gave one to his daughter in 1857; the Alcott family had one at Orchard House. By the 1870s, manufacturers were turning their focus to parlor organs and pianos, and sales of new […]

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