Spanish missions in the Southwest probably had the first pipe organs in what is now the United States, and the first documented use of an organ in the Eastern colonies occurred in 1703, at an ordination in Gloria Dei "Old Swedes'' Church in Philadelphia.
Colonists in Pennsylvania established organbuilding as a craft in America in the mid-eighteenth century to supply instruments for the rich musical traditions associated with the continental European religious denominations they brought to America. David Tannenberg, a Moravian who was the first major organbuilder trained in the colonies, was preceded by several European-trained craftsmen and lesser native-trained builders.It was the nineteenth century which brought organbuilding in this country to its first full fruition as confidence in American craftsmanship rose and most churches that formerly eschewed music increasingly embraced it. Early in the century, two groups of organbuilders rose to prominence - one in New York, the other in Boston. By mid-century, advanced manufacturing capability and increased demand for organs brought a climax in the development of American organbuilding. Henry Erben, with the largest factory in the nation at mid-century, led a group of competitors in New York, including George Jardine, Ferris & Stuart, Hall & Labagh, and the Odell brothers, E. & G. G. Hook in Boston gained a substantial reputation, with major competition from William B. D. Simmons, George Stevens, William A. Johnson, and Steere & Turner.
Many hundreds of fine builders were also working in all areas of the nation during the final third of the nineteenth century, including Standbridge and Knauff of Philadelphia, Pomplitz of Baltimore, Marklove of Utica, William King of Elmira, Barckhoff and Koehnken of Ohio, Pfeffer and Kilgen of St. Louis, Baker of Charleston, S. C., Lancashire & Marshall of Moline, Illinois. Pilcher of Louisville, Schuelke of Milwaukee, and Schoenstein and Murray Harris of California.The late nineteenth century produced such outstanding names as Roosevelt in New York and Hutchings in Boston, whose firms paved the way for early twentieth century work and the evolution of the orchestral organ.
Colorfully orchestral organs of the first half of the twentieth century and the development of electrical and pneumatic action represented a tremendous change in the course of organbuilding. Pioneering work in symphonic organs by Steere, Estey, Skinner, Austin, Hope-Jones, Möller, Wurlitzer, Kilgen, Kimball, and Aeolian is rising in appreciation and as an area of study.
Reactions to orchestral organs resulted in classical reforms of the 1930s led by G. Donald Harrison of Aeolian-Skinner and Walter Holtkamp of Cleveland, who sought to recast in an American eclectic mold the tonal characteristics of 17th and 18th century European organs which, ironically, were brought to this country by the Pennsylvania colonists. This realization sparked the creation of the Organ Historical Society in 1956, which has since led this country's organ enthusiasts in documentation of organs and organbuilders from all eras.