Dr. Josiah Leavitt (1744–1804) was an early Massachusetts physician and inventor. Possessed of an early love for mechanical movements and for music, Dr. Leavitt eventually gave up his medical practice and moved to Boston, where he became one of the earliest manufacturers of pipe organs in the United States.
Josiah Leavitt was born October 21, 1744, in Hingham, Massachusetts, the son of Hezekiah and Grace (Hatch) Leavitt. Hezekiah Leavitt was a prosperous Hingham merchant who owned one of the town's largest warehouses on the harbor, a large wharf and a share of the town's gristmill and fisheries business. Josiah Leavitt's father was a close friend and business associate of Rev. Ebenezer Gay, third minister of Old Ship Church, Hingham's Meetinghouse.
Following his education at Harvard College, Dr. Josiah Leavitt became a practicing physician at Hingham. On the side, the mechanically-inclined Leavitt tinkered with inventions and mechanical movements. One of the first products of Leavitt's sideline was a large clock, manufactured in 1772–73, which was subsequently hung in a dormer window on the southwesterly slope of the roof of Old Ship Church, so that the clock's dial could be seen by townspeople. Leavitt's clock, the first built in Hingham, was probably the only clock he ever built. Where Dr. Leavitt garnered his expertise is unknown, although contemporaries noted his mechanical aptitude, as well as the fact that his sister Hannah was married to Hingham watchmaker Joseph Lovis.
In 1774, Dr. Leavitt built a large Colonial clapboard home  at 93 Main Street, two blocks from the Meetinghouse. But shortly afterwards, Leavitt moved to Sterling, Massachusetts, where he built another Colonial home, and then a few years later to Boston, where he gave up his medical practice, embraced his affinity for music and mechanics and began manufacturing organs.
Organ-making in the American Colonies
The first organ in America had been manufactured earlier in the eighteenth century. Most American churches, especially Anglican, often purchased their organs from London builders. Boston's Trinity Church purchased an organ from London builder Abraham Jordan in 1744; by 1756 Boston's King's Chapel had replaced a primitive early organ with one by London manufacturer Richard Bridge, whose organ of 1733 was still in use at Trinity Church in Newport, Rhode Island. Boston's Brattle Street Church finally purchased an elaborate English organ in 1790 manufactured by Londoner Samuel Green. But the rise of native-born organ builders, as well as a backlash against English imports, began to stimulate a demand for American-born instruments.
In 1790, for instance, on the eve of the arrival of Brattle Square Church's London organ, the congregation went into an uproar. "So bitterly had this most liberal of Boston congregational churches been divided over the issue that even as the ship bearing the organ hove into view, a conservative member of the congregation offered to reimburse the church its cost if the instrument were thrown overboard outside Boston harbor."
As a consequence of the increasing prosperity in the former English colony, the relaxation of Puritanism's formal rigors (the church had an historic aversion to organs), a dislike of purchasing English products and the emergence of American organ builders, a small market began to develop in New England for homegrown organs. Previously, Boston's Park Street Church had a 50-voice choir – but no organ. And of the region's host of Congregationalist churches, only First Church in Providence, Rhode Island, dared used an organ in worship prior to the Revolutionary War. Most houses of worships made do with a pitch pipe, or with a cello or bass viol.
But following the Revolutionary War, demand for organs, previously limited to more progressive Anglican churches, began to take off. Edward Bromfield Jr. of Boston, Massachusetts is generally credited with having built America's first organ in 1745. (Indications are that a Philadelphia craftsman, Mathias Zimmerman actually built an earlier organ prior to 1737). Because of the limited demand, Blomfield built most of his organs for amateur (and not ecclesiastical) use. Of all Boston's churches, by 1753 only one – Christ Church (Old North Church) – had an American-made organ, built by Thomas Johnston, a local craftsman, in 1753. A year later, Johnston built an organ for Salem's Christ Episcopal Church containing one manual and six stops. At the time, Bromfield and Johnston were the only active American organ builders.
Dr. Leavitt embarks on a new career
Because of his musical interests, Dr. Leavitt had corresponded with organ builder Bromfield, and was also acquainted with craftsman Johnston, who died in 1768. Shortly afterwards, Leavitt himself relocated to Boston. "Once a practicing physician", noted a report by the United States Centennial Commission in 1876, "[Dr. Leavitt's] strong taste for the mechanics of music induced him to relinquish his profession and devote himself to organ-building, which he continued for many years."
In Boston, the former physician set about creating a workshop where he and several assistants began building organs for New England churches. On February 8, 1792, an advertisement appeared in The Columbian Centinel announcing that Leavitt had finished an organ destined for the Universalist Religious Society of Boston. "For compass and sweetness of sound and elegance of construction", the newspaper noted, "it is exceeded by but a few imported Organs."
By the following November, Leavitt, who had entirely given up his medical practice in favor of producing organs, had completed a new instrument for the Congregationalist Meetinghouse in Worthington, Connecticut. He was soon building other organs to satisfy the burgeoning demand. The arrival of one of Leavitt's creation at the Worthington meeting house was an event of enough import that The Hartford Courant ran a story about it:
"The public are hereby notified", wrote The Courant, "that Mr. Josiah Leavitt of Boston, organ builder hath lately been employed to construct an ORGAN for the Worthington parish, which is completed and set up in the Meeting-house. The Organ will be opened by said Leavitt on Thursday the 8th of November instant, at which time a sermon will be preached on the occasion, and Music will be performed. After the exercises there will be a collection for the benefit of said builder."
Other churches, now freed from the old Puritan strictures against musical instrument accompaniment, were soon ordering Leavitt's organs. The church of Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1794 set up Leavitt's creation in the gallery of the meeting house, and subsequently showed off its acquisition. "This organ (which is certainly the most elegant of any in New England", noted the town's newspaper the Morning Star, "is about fifteen feet high, ten feet in breadth, and seven feet from front to rear, was built by Dr. Josiah Leavitt, an ingenious organ builder of Boston, for whose benefit there will be a contribution after service is over."
Among other churches which ordered Leavitt organs were the Episcopal church of Dedham, Massachusetts, and TK. His business, though, was still spotty enough that he sometimes advertised his half-completed instruments for sale in regional newspapers. One 1793 ad in the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Oracle of the Day noted that Leavitt had on hand "a Church-Organ nearly completed, (except the Case and Pipes)", which he would finish building to the buyer's specifications. Another instrument on hand in the former physician's workshop was "an elegant House-Organ with a Mahogany case, and which might be sufficient for a small Church or Society." Should the instrument prove inadequate, Leavitt's ad noted, he would take it back within one year in trade for a larger one.
Later life and legacy
"It was a particular accomplishment that Josiah Leavitt, a Congregationalist, was able to place instruments in dissenting churches", writes Orpha Caroline Ochse in The History of the Organ in the United States. "Many of these churches were still violently opposed to the use of the organ, an attitude that some of them retained through much of the next century."
Leavitt also trained other later organ builders. Among his pupils were William M. Goodrich, a native of Templeton, Massachusetts, born in 1777. Goodrich himself became an active organ-builder in Boston beginning in 1803. It was Goodrich whom many consider the first advanced American organ manufacturer. In addition to sending out his elegant creations to churches throughout the region, Goodrich trained a number of other makers, including Thomas Appleton, as well as his own brother Ebenezer Goodrich, who later went into business for himself.
Dr. Josiah Leavitt died at his Boston home on February 26, 1804. The golden age of American organ building was still ahead, as New England's increasing prosperity and growing know-how, fostered in part by the early physician turned manufacturer, gave rise to such accomplished organ builders as Hook & Hastings, and the ateliers of Erben, Jardine, and Roosevelt, many of which thrived in Boston and its vicinity, and whose trade was fueled in part by the profits of the large trading firms of Salem and the state capitol.
Dr. Josiah Leavitt, descended from an early Puritan early settler of Hingham, was buried at Hingham, Massachusetts. Leavitt's second wife Azubah  died at Boston in November 1803 at age 44. The Hingham meeting house Old Ship Church did not purchase an organ until 1869. Prior to that the congregants sang unaccompanied.
- Josiah Leavitt's mother Grace Hatch was the second wife of Hezekiah Leavitt, whose brother Caleb Leavitt was married to Mary Hatch, Hannah's sister. Hezekiah Leavitt was a farmer and trader and one of Hingham's wealthiest citizens. In 1753 he built a warehouse near the town's shipyard for the convenience of his lumber, shipping and fishing businesses. He was styled 'Gentleman' in his will of 1768. Hezekiah Leavitt lived on Hingham's Leavitt Street.Google Books Search
- Rev. Ebenezer Gay served as minister of Old Ship Church for 69 years. He was awarded a Doctor of Divinity degree by Harvard College in 1785. The Gay family were Tories, however, and were forced to flee Massachusetts during the Revolutionary War.Google Books Search
- The Benevolent Deity, Robert John Wilson, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1984
- Early Hingham Selectmen's Book of Records show that Dr. Leavitt had a thriving Hingham practice. But, noted Hingham historian George Lincoln, "his inventive perceptions... led him to seek other fields of employment."Ancestry.com
- A Discourse Delivered to the First Parish in Hingham, September 8, 1869, Calvin Lincoln, Published by the Parish, Printed by James F. Cotter & Co., Boston, 1873
- Early Clockmaking in Hingham, Massachusetts, Hingham Historical Society Archived 2009-01-05 at the Wayback Machine.
- Dr. Leavitt sold the home he built on Main Street to Joseph Blake during the American Revolutionary War, when the physician removed to Boston. The home was later occupied by George Bassett and his heirs.Google Books Search
- Hingham, James Pierotti, Arcadia Publishing, 2005 ISBN 0-7385-3781-0
- Town of Sterling, Open Space and Recreation Plan[permanent dead link]
- Music of the Colonial and Revolutionary Era, John Ogasapian, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004 ISBN 0-313-32435-2
- The Popular Science Monthly, Edited by William Jay Youmans, Vol. XL, D. Appleton and Company, New York, 1892
- Some musical instrument scholars also believe that craftsman John Clark built the first American organ for the Episcopal Church of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1743.Google Books Search
- Music of the Colonial and Revolutionary Era, p. 143
- The Popular Science Monthly, p. 628
- Reports and Awards, United States Centennial Commission, 1876, Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott & Co., Philadelphia, Pa., 1877
- Music of the Colonial and Revolutionary Era, p. 144
- History of Berlin, Connecticut, Catharine Melinda North, Adolph Burnett Benson, The Tuttle, Morehouse and Taylor Company, New Haven, Ct., 1916
- The Newburyport meeting house in which Leavitt's organ was installed was torn down 1801, but Leavitt's 1794 instrument was moved to the new meeting house. But it was replaced in 1834 by a larger organ manufactured by Joseph Alley, one of two organ makers who had established themselves by that time in Newburyport.Frsuu.org
- History of Newburyport, Massachusetts, 1764–1905, John James Currier, Published by the Author, Newburyport, Mass., 1906
- The History of the Organ in the United States, Orpha Caroline Ochse, Indiana University Press, 1988 ISBN 0-253-20495-X
- The History of the Organ in the United States, pp 74-75.
- In addition to turning out organs, Leavitt and his apprentices had also repaired organs, such as that in the Christ Episcopal Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an English organ made by John Snetzler in London that arrived in Cambridge in 1764. The organ was later heavily damaged during the Revolutionary War. Leavitt reduced the organ to one keyboard from its initial two, probably because too many pipes were destroyed to accommodate the second keyboard.Si.edu Those who trained under Leavitt also continued to repair, as well as manufacture, organs.
- A Boston census of 1790 shows Josiah Leavitt and his wife and a child under the age of 16 residing together.Google Books Search By 1800 Boston records show Josiah Leavitt "organ builder (barrel)" having removed from Rowe's Landing to Winter Street.Google Books Search
- The Popular Science Monthly, p. 630
- Leavitt's first wife Mary died May 20, 1778, and was interred at Chocksett Burial Ground in the second parish of Lancaster, Massachusetts.Usgwarchives.net Dr. Leavitt was counted among the practicing physicians of Sterling, Massachusetts, as of 1774.Google Books Search It is likely that Leavitt's first wife was from Sterling or Lancaster, Massachusetts.
- History of the Town of Hingham, Massachusetts, Vol. II, Thomas Tracy Bouvé, Published by the Town, University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1893
- Organ at Old Ship Celebrates Milestone, The Hingham Journal and Patriot Ledger, wickedlocal.com[permanent dead link]