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Keeping In Tune: The Bell Organ and Piano Company

Bell’s 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 off 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-storey structure was the start of what became an expansion in size and production levels. In fact, by 1893, the company was operating out of two four-storey buildings. In addition, they had their own lumber yard located near the tracks across from their factories. Employees had risen in numbers from only three to into the hundreds; production rates went from a maximum of 25 melodeon 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 being sold nationally and internationally, finding markets in Australia and England.

Changing Hands

By the time of the great expansion, Bell’s was no longer operating solely under the Bell family. In 1884, William Bell created a partnership with his son W.J. Bell (1863-1925) as well as Mrs. W.B. Kennedy, and A.W. Alexander. The younger 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 who 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 operation of the plant. 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.

Accident, Strikes and Forming a Union

Having a union in Bell’s was not optional. It was essential. The accident rate at Bell’s was high. As usual, while the employers blamed worker carelessness, it was the unguarded blades of sharp-edged tools that was at fault. As was common in factories of this time, 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 surviving accidents totalled 54. 1897 was a banner year with 8 accidents – all caused by edged tools. The other years ranged between 1 and 4.

While some, such as the first noted accident were unrelated to edged-tools (In 1872 George Sayers fell into a vat of boiling water. It proved fatal). The majority were not. Accidents were the result of circular saws, buzz saws, planers, shapers, planer buzzer and similar machinery. In fact, the local newspaper made a comment on how frequent accidents were taking place at Bell’s 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 and, in the surprise, his hand was drawn in, amputating his left hand.

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

It is hardly surprising the employees at Bell’s went on strike. In fact, 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. In spite of a petition signed by 200 employees, Bell refused to give in an inch. This time, the workers capitulated rather than actually do anything more concrete. If they had held off until he had retired later that year, this strike might have been successful. Yet, some good did come out of it. In August 1897, prior to 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.

However, the union formed in 1902 remained strong. Its membership, restricted according to its craft, remained small. The Bell Piano Union Local #34 took part in such local events as the Guelph Labour Day Parade and became involved in the Guelph Trade and Labour Council and the local government. When the annual meeting of the Canadian Trades & Labour Council was held in Guelph in 1912, Local #34 was there to take an active part. 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 1909 and 1910. The union was to continue active for several more 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 Excell.” Next, was the City Band behind which was 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 sports people 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 brough 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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