Woods & Son Piano Co.

The attractiveness of the instrument as a piece of furniture was also important. The wood, ivory, and artistic detail of a fine instrument lent elegance to a home. And, as a center of attention, it cried out for special enhancements. England's Mrs. Jane Ellen Panton pointed out, in her authoritative From Kitchen to Garret (1888), a bestseller of the era, that it was a good idea to decorate one's piano with material "edged with an appropriate fringe," and to place a big palm in a brass pot into the bend of the instrument, to give it "a finished look." Victorian prudishness also sometimes came into play, with suggestions that coverlets be put over the piano's legs for the sake of modesty.

Some piano makers even designed special models with the homeowner in mind. An "upright grand Piano-forte in the form of a bookcase" was patented by William Stodart in 1795 (there is evidence that Haydn visited Stodart's shop and approved of the device); and the early 19th century saw the introduction of a square piano in the form of a sewing table. Highly decorated upright pianos featured giant lyres, arabesques, and flutings; one extant sample includes a medallion bust of Beethoven.

It didn't take long for the piano to gain a foothold in the New World as well, where it reached beyond the big cities into America's western territories. "'Tis wonderful," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in Civilization (1870), "how soon a piano gets into a log-hut on the frontier." We can glimpse the results in diaries kept by American homesteaders. Living in the mining town of Aurora, Nevada in the 1860s, a Mrs. Rachel Haskell recorded that in the evening, after dinner, her husband would come into the sitting room and place himself near the piano as their daughter, Ella, accompanied the entire family in song. Rachel's daytime regime included instructing Ella at the piano, along with practicing the multiplication tables with her sons, making dinner, and visiting friends.

This trend caught the attention of W.W. Kimball, who settled in Chicago in 1857 and announced that he wanted to sell pianos "within the reach of the farmer on his prairie, the miner in his cabin, the fisherman in his hut, the cultivated mechanic in his neat cottage in the thriving town." He based his new business on the installment plan—as did D.H. Baldwin, a Cincinnati dealer who, in 1872, hired an army of sewing-machine salesmen to recruit new customers.


SPRING 2010 -- page 71

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