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Keeping In Tune: The Bell Organ and Piano Company

Bell Organ and Piano remains one of Guelph’s most recognized industries from the past. Together with Raymond’s Sewing Machines and Sleeman’s Brewery, it characterizes the early industrial character of the city. Like most industries of the early 20th century, it started small. Robert Bell, soon joined by his brother William, opened a small Melodeon production shop in premises located atop a store on Wyndham Street. Output was small. Three men worked together to produce a single “Diploma Melodeon” per week with up to 25 a year

When the brothers combined their talents for business and production, work increased. It soon became necessary to move into larger premises on Carden Street. This three-story structure was the start of an expansion in size and production levels. By 1893, the company was operating out of two four-story buildings. In addition, they had their own lumber yard near the railroad tracks across from their factories.

Employees had increased from only three into the hundreds; production rates went from a maximum of 25 melodeons annually to more than 1200 melodeons and reed organs each year. The market had also expanded. Bell’s was producing melodeons, organs and later pianos that were sold nationally and internationally. The company was locating and establishing markets in Australia and England.

Changing Hands

By the time of the great expansion, Bell’s was no longer operating solely by the Bell family. In 1884, William Bell had created a partnership with his son W.J. Bell (1863-1925),  Mrs. W.B. Kennedy and A.W. Alexander. The younger William Bell, who did not appear to have the same talents as his father and uncle did, decided to sell the firm off in 1888.

The purchasers were a British syndicate. They changed the name to the Bell Organ and Piano Co, Ltd. This was significant as it marked the company’s start of piano production. However, William Bell Sr. continued to have a major say in the plant’s operation. While he did not dispute the workers forming a Sick and Accident Benefit Society in 1890, he did object to their disputing his perceived rights to cut wages and hours arbitrarily. His paternalistic approach led to the threat of a strike in 1897, the formation of a short-lived union in that same year and the eventual establishment of Canada’s first Organ and Piano Union in 1902.

Working Conditions and Accidents

Having a union in Bell’s was not optional. It was essential. The accident rate was high. As usual, while the employers blamed worker carelessness, the unguarded blades of sharp-edged tools were at fault.

As was common practice, no protection existed between the sharp edges of machinery and the employees. The result in Bells was predictable. Between 1872 and 1902, the number of noted/recorded accidents totalled 54. 1897 was a banner year with 8 accidents – all caused by edged tools. The other years ranged between 1 and 4.

In general, saws, buzz saws, planers, shapers, planer buzzers and similar machinery were at the root of most accidents at Bell’s. Very few were unrelated to edged tools. In one case in 1872, George Sayers fell into a vat of boiling water. It proved fatal. 

The frequency of accidents even made it into the local media. The local newspaper commented on on it and the causal factor stating: “Somehow or other men employed working Bell’s saws seem to be most unfortunate, for every now and then accidents of a similar nature occur.” (September 28, 1886).

The paper was not exaggerating for that year or any other. George Whetstone (“A Lad”) suffered three broken ribs when, while working a circular saw, it ejected a board straight at him (1888). In 1891, John Cormie was operating a Jack plane. It cut the first finger of his right hand to the bone. While operating a rip saw in 1897, John James had the misfortune of having the board fly up at him. The surprising action caused him to lose his attention on his job. His left hand was drawn in – the saw slicing it off. 

If it had not been for the inventiveness of S. J. Laughlin, in creating several safety devices, the butcher list would have been higher. Laughlin took an interest in every aspect of the Bell factory, including becoming president of the Sick and Accident Benefit Society at its incorporation on March 3, 1890. In 1906, although having an interest in the S J Laughlin and J Hough Company, Laughlin resigned as foreman and designer with Bell’s to go to another piano factory – The Armstrong Foster Company in Rochester, NY.

Strikes and  Unions

It is hardly surprising the employees at Bell’s went on strike. They walked out twice during the company’s history. The first time, only the woodfinishers struck. This was in April 1886. The strike, under the Berlin Woodfinishers Union of Berlin, of which Bell was a member, resulted from the company’s subcontracting out work. It was short, ending on April 15 with the company granting concessions.

The second strike was not as successful. It took place in 1897. It was a general one, over the cuts in rates by 8%. It was very brief as the rudderless workers, who were threatening to unionize were faced with William Bell’s truculent belief that unions were not good for business.

Despite a petition signed by 200 employees, Bell refused to give in an inch. This time, the workers capitulated instead of doing anything more concrete. If they had held off until Bell had retired later that year, this strike might have been successful.

Yet, some good did come out of it. In August 1897, before the aborted strike, the workers at Bell’s formed a union. This one failed, but, before it did so, it helped to create the Guelph Trades and Labour Council (GTLC) in 1897/1898.

The union formed three years later in 1902 – Local #34, was more successful. Its membership, restricted according to its craft, remained small.  Local #34 took part in such local events as the Guelph Labour Day Parade and became involved in the Guelph Trade and Labour Council as well as Guelph’s municipal government.

Local #34 was there to take an active part when the annual meeting of the Canadian Trades & Labour Council. In 1914, a prominent member, John Camidge, became President of the GTLC). As for city politics – in 1909, Guelph elected its first Trade Union Mayor. This was George Hasting of the Piano and Organ Workers Union. He served for the years 1909 and 1910. The union was to continue active for several years before disbanding in 1931.

Bell Pianos Conquer the World

 In late 1897, Bell’s began to work overtime as “Better Times” arrived and orders increased substantially. In fact, between 1897 and 1899, the company was working hard to keep up. In October 1899, the Guelph Recorder for the Industrial Banner remarked that the company’s 500 employees were working until 9pm. The product creating this demand was the piano. Its rise in popularity brought about further name and product changes.

The company produced its first grand piano in 1901. Exportation also increased with pianos making their way around the globe. Queen Victoria had one as did Queen Frederica. The kings of Italy and Spain as well as a Turkish Sultan joined the increasingly impressive list of Bell piano customers. On September 2, 1903, further indicating the change in popular taste, the company closed the pipe organ section.

The market for Bell pianos continued to grow, quickly outstripping the previous demands of melodeons and organs. In deference to this, the company changed its name to Bell Piano and Organ Co, Ltd. in 1907. A spin-off branch began to sell sheet music, phonographs and records in 1913. This was the Bell Music and Piano Company. Its products were carried in Guelph by Kelly’s Music Store. By this time, a trade magazine was available.

Adding New Products and New Ownership

As technology advanced, Bell’s began to advance into different music markets. They began to produce player pianos as well as phonographs (1925) and accessories such as radio cabinets and piano benches. As the 1920s ended, the British syndicate decided to divest themselves.

A new syndicate, located in Brantford and headed by John S. Dowling, bought the company on April 11, 1928. Once again, the company underwent a name change emerging as Bell Pianos Ltd. While it continued to produce, Bell’s was moving towards closure. In 1934, the company was sold for the last time. The purchaser was Lesage Pianos Ltd., St, Therese Quebec. While they continued to produce pianos in the Bell design, they closed the Guelph factories.

More than Musical Instruments

For the city, Bell’s was a major employer. Like so many other companies, there were the annual picnics and excursions. Riverside Park, Swastika Beach at Puslinch Lake and Waterloo were all popular destinations. The Bell Excursion to Toronto for Saturday August 10, 1901 was considered by the newspaper and the excursion committee to be “one of the most popular outings of the season.” In July 1904, the Bell Excursion saw 600 people board the train for their destination.

However, the company was also known for its extravagant displays – part of its earlier picnics. These appear to be almost competitive in nature as Bell’s created parades to rival those of other companies such as Raymond’s. In 1882, their annual outing was described as a “Monster Excursion.” Indeed, it was. The trip to Puslinch Lake on August 19, started at 8am with everyone gathering together to form a procession. At the very front, two young men carried banners saying “We Excel.” Next, was the City Band behind a carriage drawn by four grey horses in which sat Mr. William Bell, Jr., the bookkeeper and “representatives of the press.” Following were several other carriages – all “gaily decorated.”

In total, 35 carriages made up this procession which made its way eventually to Lake Puslinch. However, instead of proceeding there immediately, it made a short detour along Woolwich to Suffolk and Dublin and down Oxford to parade to the house where William Bell Sr. was “laid up” for a brief viewing.

Bell’s buildings also provided what many sportspeople would have considered a valuable resource. The tall building with its clock, the 1882 version made by Benjamin Savage a local notable clock and watchmaker, marked time passing as much as the whistle at Raymond’s did. However, its location also acted as a gathering point to hear what was happening elsewhere with the city’s favourite baseball team – The Guelph Maple Leafs.  

When the telegraph was the best means of communication, the Guelph Mercury was able to provide the public with information on the action taking place with the team when it was playing away. A young runner would take the information from the Mercury on bases run and batters up. He would take the tape over to the tower. Another person would then remove it from the runner and announce what was happening to the crowd gathered below. All baseball fans congregated at the foot of Bell’s factory tower until more advanced technology brought the game directly into people’s homes. Radio was to put an end to not only this social event but also to Bell’s relegating them both to Guelph’s industrial and cultural past.

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