Database Reports for Nelson-Wiggen Pianos and Orchestrions
The Nelson-Wiggen Piano Company, of Chicago, Illinois, incorporated and operated by two very talented former Seeburg employees, was a relative latecomer to the mechanical music era, being incorporated in 1922. Consequently, the company's total production was mainly confined to only about seven years, a short period of time compared to other contemporary manufacturers of coin-operated pianos and orchestrions. Nonetheless, Nelson-Wiggen managed to produce a high-quality line of small keyboard and cabinet style coin-operated pianos and orchestrions. Unfortunately, because of its late start into the field of automatic music, a relatively small number of Nelson-Wiggen instruments survive today.
The initial source of data that went into creating the Nelson-Wiggen database has been meticulously gathered over a period of many years by Art Reblitz, a man long recognized as a collector of automatic musical instruments and an expert in the area of mechanical music restoration. Whenever he has had access to or enjoyed the opportunity to rebuild a Nelson-Wiggen piano or orchestrion he has taken the time to carefully write down any historical details of interest, and do this for each and every specimen he has encountered. Many other people, listed on the Mechanical Music Registry's Acknowledgements page, also submitted information to Art. The result of all of this painstaking effort is the Nelson-Wiggen piano and orchestrion database, which is presented in an orderly, easy to read and comprehensible manner. The database report can be accessed at the bottom section of this page.
This page continues with detailed descriptions of various technical and/or mechanical features, which are deemed important for a truly useful understanding of both the database reports and to effectively fill in the Survey Reporting Form. The actual database reports and survey form can be accessed in the Distribution of Database Information section and then clicking on the large Download button at the bottom of this page.
Nelson-Wiggen instruments were advertised as "the better automatic," always emphasizing quality of materials and music: "One of our big features is the ability to play soft music—any automatic can play loudly—the Nelson-Wiggen line plays soft music, real music, and plays it well." During 1922 and up through 1929 the Nelson-Wiggen Piano Company manufactured an extensive selection of high-quality coin pianos and cabinet orchestrions that included some 20 currently recognized models. The last piano based model planned for introduction was the Radio Piano, which was a combination cabinet style A-roll piano with a built-in radio. It is unknown if any Radio Pianos were ever sold. In addition there were regular 88-note home player pianos bearing the Nelson-Wiggen name, and the rare Nelson-Wiggen Selector Duplex Organ, which utilized a specialized music roll whereby the first five tunes played from the left side of the roll when it moved forward, and with the last five tunes playing from the right side when the roll moved slowly backward.
Very likely the last product to be added to the Nelson-Wiggen line was the Duplex-O-Phone, an automatic phonograph intended for use in motion picture houses. This brief article appeared in the March 23, 1929, issue of The Music Trades Review, with the headline: Nelson-Wiggen Piano Co. Adds Phonograph to Line.
"The Nelson-Wiggen Piano Co. has added another line to the Nelson-Wiggen coin-operated pianos which it has long made. The new instrument is called the Duplex-O-Phone, and is made in several styles, of which the most popular to date seems to be Style 3. This, which is called "the new sound device for motion picture houses," is a three-table talking machine playing double-face flat disks, and having as its features a dynamic speaker, strong amplifying unit and master control."
Because the Style 3 Duplex-O-Phone was said to be the most popular model it seem reasonable to speculate that more than a few of these automatic phonographs must have been sold. But sales were probably not brisk. In May of 1929 the company vacated its Chicago building and moved operations to the city of Rockford, Illinois, 85 miles northwest of downtown Chicago. At this point Oscar Nelson, President of the company, had taken to the road to personally sell the Nelson-Wiggen coin-operated pianos, talking machines, and organs. Unfortunately, the economy was to soon collapse and by 1931 there was little to no interest in automatic pianos or organs.
|Year of Introduction for Nelson-Wiggen Instruments|
|Model Designation||Format / Comments|
|1922||88-Note Home Player Piano||Upright keyboard piano.|
|1922||Dance-O-Grand||Cabinet style reed organ with percussion.|
|1922||Harp-O-Grand||Cabinet style piano.|
|1922||Piano Grand or
Pian-O-Grand, style No. 1
|Upright keyboard piano.|
|1923||Banj-O-Grand||Cabinet style piano.|
|1923||Pian-O-Grand, style No. 2||Upright keyboard piano.|
|1923||Pian-O-Grand, style No. 3||Upright keyboard piano.|
|1925||Style 4||Cabinet style with single stroke xylophone|
|1925||Style 4X Orchestra||Cabinet style piano.|
|1925||Style 5 Orchestra||Cabinet style orchestrion.|
|1925||Style 5X Orchestra||Cabinet style orchestrion.|
|1926||Casino||Cabinet style piano.|
|1926||Casino-X||Cabinet style piano.|
|1926||Style 6 Orchestra||Cabinet style orchestrion.|
|1926||Style 7 Full Orchestra Keyboard Piano||Upright keyboard piano.|
|1927||Style 8||Cabinet style piano.|
|1927||Selector-Duplex Organ||Keyboard style piano/organ.|
|1928||Style 4T Orchestra||Cabinet style with A.B.T. pistol & target game|
|1928||Style 6T Orchestra||Cabinet style with A.B.T. pistol & target game|
|1928||Style 8T||Cabinet style with A.B.T. pistol & target game|
|1929||Radio Piano (planned by Oscar Nelson)||Cabinet style piano with radio.|
|1929||Duplex-O-Phone||Automatic phonograph for use in
motion picture houses.
Although Nelson-Wiggen produced automatic pianos for a relatively short period of time compared to the industry giants Wurlitzer and Seeburg, their serial numbering system is not entirely straightforward. The first few models had names only, but nomenclature was soon changed to a system of style numbers, which for the most part were issued in numerical order. Knowing when each new model was first advertised helps us to assign approximate years of manufacture throughout the list.
The pianos, and possibly the cabinets, for many Nelson-Wiggen pianos were made by the Haddorff Piano Co. of Rockford, Illinois, and bear that company’s rubber-stamped serial number on each piano plate (and often die-stamped into the back). Haddorff had been a major supplier to the J.P. Seeburg Company until about 1921 when Seeburg began making its own pianos. Oscar Nelson and Peter Wiggen left the Seeburg company about the same time, and since the Nelson-Wiggen Piano Co. was much smaller than Seeburg it seems appropriate that Nelson and Wiggen would turn to Haddorff as a supplier. The main Haddorff serial numbering series for Nelson-Wiggen pianos runs from about 97,500 (1922) through 114,700 (1929).
Another series, which has only been seen in Style 8 coin pianos, runs from about 208,000 through about 216,000. The source of these pianos remains unknown.
To complicate matters further, a few style 8 pianos have three-digit serial numbers: numbers 116, 117 and 122. One piano resembling a Casino X has June 1924 stamped on the piano action, bears the serial number 166,024 and has a wood nameplate covering the name Chicago Electric – Smith, Barnes and Strohber cast into the plate. As the serial number doesn’t fit into any known Smith, Barnes and Strohber or Nelson-Wiggen numbering series, the manufacturer of this latter piano remains a complete mystery.
Nelson-Wiggen obtained most or all of its pneumatic stacks from the Simplex Player Action Company of Worcester, Massachusetts, one of the largest suppliers of player actions for piano companies that did not wish to make their own. If stack numbers can be found, added to this list, and compared to numbers found in home player piano stacks with known years of manufacture (assuming someone makes such a list in the future), this will help us to refine the production dates of pianos on this list in the future.
The Dance-O-Grand, Nelson-Wiggen’s first small keyboardless orchestrion, contained three sets of reed organ reeds and percussion, with no piano. No examples are known. Only a few Nelson-Wiggen models incorporated pipes: the Style 2 Pian-O-Grand (with a keyboard, available with either flute or violin pipes), an unknown model in a 4X cabinet (a keyboardless model with flute pipes instead of xylophone; only one or two examples are known), the Style 5 (a large cabinet model orchestrion; one original example is known), and the Selector Duplex Organ.
The keyboard Style 3 had a reiterating xylophone (or rarely, bells). Styles 4X, a few 5X, and keyboard Style 7 orchestrions had single stroke xylophones for playing 4X rolls. The 5X often had a single stroke marimba, with larger and fewer bars than the usual xylophone pitched an octave lower than the xylophone and with resonators to amplify the lower fundamental tone. Style 8 coin pianos usually had reiterating xylophone and reiterating bells, although some had only xylophone. The survey form (accessed at the bottom section of this page) has places for you to fill in all relevant details.
One oddity that occurs in certain Nelson-Wiggen Style 6 orchestrions is a cymbal that is cut off on the side facing the right side of the cabinet because it would otherwise be too big to fit. Not all are like this. It is unknown whether the two types of cymbal are mounted in different places or are of two different sizes. Further information is needed.
The instrumentation in most Nelson-Wiggen machines was usually consistent with advertising and catalogue descriptions. However, the little Style 8 was available in several observed configurations. Here are some examples:
The Gray branded coin piano is smaller than a Nelson-Wiggen Style 8, but it is unknown if it is smaller than a Casino-X or Banj-O-Grand. The piano has a cast iron overlay plate over the name with “Gray Piano Co,” and “Chicago” on the second line. The roll shelf is in the midsection of the case. It is piano with a banjo attachment, and no extra instrument.
The mandolin attachment was a widely-used device and was standard fare for almost all coin-operated pianos and orchestrions. In its simplest and most common form it consisted of a thin wooden board or rail that had a curtain of narrow leather or the more commonly used bellows cloth strips* glued to it, and that when lowered allowed the individual strips to dangle in front of the piano hammers. Each narrow strip had a metal or hardwood tab attached to its lower end. It was this little tab hitting and then bouncing off the piano string that produced the tinkling metallic sound reminiscent of the tone made by plucking a mandolin. Thus, came about the name: Mandolin attachment. All coin pianos and orchestrions except very earliest ones had a perforation in the music roll that automatically turned the mandolin on and off periodically during each tune.
Each note in the piano action is normally regulated so the jack pushes the hammer almost to the strings and then releases it, allowing the hammer to bounce off the strings without jamming or “blocking” against them and dampening the tone. The backcheck then catches the hammer butt so the hammer doesn’t bounce off the hammer rail and hit the strings again. The letoff distance is normally set at 1/16” to 1/8”, so the piano hammers clear the strings and then are checked with any remain momentum dissipated. This allows the hammer to cleanly strike the strings and then immediately rebound, allowing the string tone to decay without interference. When the mandolin attachment is lowered into place the piano hammer hits the metal tab on the end of an individual mandolin attachment strip, which then hits the piano strings, immediately rebounding from the strings and producing the characteristic metallic tinkle common to all curtain type mandolin attachments. The notes played by the mandolin attachment have their letoff set at the usual 1/16” to 1/8” plus the thickness of the metal clip, so the clip doesn’t block against the strings. There are never any mandolin tabs or clips for the copper-wound bass strings, because the clips wear through the copper very quickly, ruining the strings.
The banjo attachment, common to many Nelson-Wiggen pianos, is quite similar in both appearance and construction, with the difference being the metal tab common to the so-called mandolin attachments, has been replaced by a thin, tapered hardwood tab or block. Per the Nelson-Wiggen banjo attachment patent, hammer letoff should be adjusted to the usual dimension of 1/16” to 1/8”. This allows the piano to play normally without the banjo attachment, but when the banjo attachment is lowered the piano hammer will hit the wood tab and not let off, holding the tab against the piano string, producing a staccato (very short in duration) plunking sound reminiscent of the playing of a banjo. In certain advertising, Nelson-Wiggen offered the customer’s choice of either a banjo or mandolin attachment in most models.
* Bellows cloth is basically a durable, thin layer of rubber sandwiched in between two outer layers of heavy twill cloth.
The majority of Nelson-Wiggen pianos had clear glass with curtains mounted inside, usually spread apart near the center to provide an interior view of the instrument. Those with art glass had standard designs that didn’t change much, if at all, over the limited years of production. If a piano has art glass of a non-standard design, please report this in the comment box at the bottom of the survey form (accessed at the bottom section of this page). Otherwise, just check one of the three choices: plain glass with a curtain, art glass mounted from the inside, or art glass screwed to the outside of the case.
Because Nelson-Wiggen pianos were only introduced after coin piano and orchestrion mechanical design was already quite refined, the firm stayed with the same basic designs for most of their large mechanisms—the pump, stack, spoolbox, rewind mechanism, vacuum control regulator, pedal pneumatics, etc.—for their entire time in business. Consequently, the survey form doesn’t have spaces for early or late mechanisms as in reporting forms for other brands. If you have an unusual mechanism to report, please include it in the comment box at the end of the survey form (accessed at the bottom section of this page).
The primary information that went into building up the Nelson-Wiggen database has been meticulously gathered over a period of 45 years by Art Reblitz, a longtime expert in the restoration, history, and music of automatic pianos and organs. Whenever he has had access to, or enjoyed the opportunity to rebuild, a Nelson-Wiggen piano or orchestrion he has carefully recorded mechanical and historical details of interest. Many other people, listed under Acknowledgements in the Introduction to the Registry, also submitted information to Art. The result of his painstaking effort is presented in an orderly, easy to read format in the report offered below.
By default, current ownership information is not integral to the database project, but a provision exists whereby the current owner's name information can be accommodated and then shown in database reports. However, this will be done only if and when specific written permission is granted to the Mechanical Music Press specifically authorizing us to show and/or distribute individual ownership information. Furthermore, if and when such authorization is granted the Mechanical Music Press and/or its authors shall assume no liability or responsibility of any kind, nor to any extent, regarding any inferred, purported, or actual privacy intrusions, incidents, or claims.
To ADD ANOTHER ITEM TO THE DATABASE or to facilitate the reporting of errors regarding Nelson-Wiggen pianos and orchestrions, please click on the Survey Reporting Form button in the options panel below. Please note that we welcome any survey information, whether it be only the brand, model, and serial number, or all requested details. We realize that it can be difficult (even for an experienced restorer) to find certain serial numbers without partially disassembling an instrument. Nonetheless, please submit a form regardless of how many spaces you can currently fill in.
All database report information is offered "as is," without any guarantee or warranty whatsoever of any kind, neither stated, implied, nor inferred, as to the accuracy, correctness, exactness, suitability, or usefulness of any content.
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|Download the current database report as a PDF
by clicking on a left hand button, or report another
instrument by clicking on the right hand survey button.
Compiled by Art Reblitz, and transferred into database format by Terry Hathaway.