The Piano’s Various Forms
The original harpsichord shape of the piano gradually evolved into today’s grand piano shape in order to meet the acoustical needs of concert halls and the musical demands of professionals and dedicated amateur players. In the process, the piano became a status symbol for the upper classes. With the rise of a middle class during the Industrial Revolution, the opportunity to learn to play the piano, and to appreciate and own the finer things in life, became available to large numbers of people for the first time.
In the mid-19th century, the square piano, also known as the square grand, constituted the largest share of the American piano market. Although often a beautiful piece of furniture, the square’s oblong, rectangular shape was a manufacturing and design nightmare due to its limited ability to withstand the tension of the strings. This and other faults, including its large size, contributed to the beginning of its demise, in favor of the upright, soon after the Civil War. Uprights were cheaper to manufacture, which made them more affordable; and, being smaller, they fit better in the narrower dwellings of the middle class, who constituted the new generation of piano owners. By 1890, square pianos had all but disappeared from piano showrooms.
Although not a piano, the reed organ, also known as the pump organ, reigned as the most popular keyboard instrument for the home from 1850 to 1894. It was inexpensive, easy to manufacture, and durable. However, as improved manufacturing methods led to lower piano prices, the public turned away from the reed organ in favor of the piano. Many notable piano manufacturers, including Mason & Hamlin, Baldwin, and Kimball, got their start making reed organs.
Since 1880, the most historically significant form of the piano has been the upright. Eminently affordable, uprights were made by the millions, and countless specimens made between 1880 and 1930 still exist to be admired and studied. The upright, like the grand, reached its current technical design around 1880. Because of this, although the furniture of an 1880s upright may be considered antique, such a piano is considered mechanically modern.
The Industrial Revolution in America
The Industrial Revolution took root in America in the late 1860s, following the Civil War. The biggest technological advancement was the displacement of water power by steam power, which allowed industry to move away from the banks of fast-moving rivers in the Northeast and spread across the nation. Coal was increasingly used to fuel the new steam engines and to heat the factories. These factories were generally located in cities, which were crowded with foreign immigrants and rural Americans seeking the jobs made possible by the Industrial Revolution, and which thus had an abundant supply of cheap labor.
Early in this period, most piano manufacturers were located in Eastern cities such as New York, Boston, and Baltimore. As railroads opened up the West, Chicago retailers supplied the emerging frontier towns with pianos from the East. Eventually, these towns grew large enough to bypass the Chicago merchants and deal directly with Eastern manufacturers. In response, a number of Chicago retail firms, such as Lyon & Healy and W.W. Kimball, began to make their own pianos and thus challenge the dominance of the Eastern makers. Because labor unions had yet to organize there, pianos made in Chicago were cheaper, though many were also of mediocre quality.
By the 1880s, the adoption of mass production and assembly-line techniques led to extraordinary price reductions in goods of all kinds, including pianos. To expand the market, retailers adopted installment sales, a practice pioneered by the Singer Sewing Machine Company; by the 1890s, the vast majority of pianos were sold on installment credit.
During this later period, some piano makers made most of their own parts and kept their quality standards high. Some of the better-known names included Steinway, Chickering, Henry F. Miller, Vose, and Weber. But most of the several hundred piano manufacturers active in this period merely assembled parts supplied by other firms that specialized in making soundboards, plates, actions, hardware, and cabinet components. Some of these assembly shops produced nice pianos, and proudly had their names cast into the plates. Others sold their pianos on a “stencil basis”; that is, the pianos bore no brand name or manufacturer identification. Typically, the dealer would place on the instrument a decal with the name of his store. Sometimes, however, an unscrupulous dealer would use a name nearly identical to that of a high-end piano, in order to dupe customers into believing that, say, a “Stienway” was actually a Steinway. Stenciled pianos were generally of low quality, and were a constant source of aggravation for the makers of high-quality instruments.