One of the most coveted objects was a piano, which symbolized the middle-class values of the Victorian age — not only the virtues attributed to music, but also of home and family life, respectability, and a woman’s place and duty. Music making and music appreciation became feminized. For a family to own a piano, and to have its daughters play the instrument (whether or not they wanted to or had any musical talent), became an emblem of prosperity. It was a fashionable and convenient way to introduce a young lady to society and, if she was lucky, attract a wealthy husband. This glorification of the piano was no mere fad; the instrument became a moral institution. By 1886, seven out of ten pupils in the U.S. public schools were being taught to read music, and it is estimated that there were a half million piano students in the country.
Although Queen Victoria had little to do with the American furniture style named for her, the association persists, and conveys a meaning. Victorian furniture designers drew inspiration for their work from a variety of other eras; most noteworthy among these were the gothic (12th to early 16th centuries) and the rococo (18th century). The style was eclectic, ornate in design, and, some would say, cluttered. Homes were filled to the brim with big furniture and excessive amounts of ornamentation. Victorian pianos are instantly recognizable: they had lots of curves, glossy finishes with rounded corners, and flamboyant ornamentation — the more the better. American Victorian-era piano design was split into two main phases: the styles of the 1880s and those of the 1890s.*
Styles of the 1880s
An 1880s piano is immediately identifiable by the three-paneled jigsaw scrollwork of its front board. This open filigree scrollwork always has repeated patterns, and is backed with rich, brilliantly colored silk. The fabric’s purpose is twofold: it displays the design of the scrollwork, and permits the music to radiate out from the piano’s interior toward the player, for a much more present sound.
The elaborately turned legs feature a large top and large base dripping with ostentatious ornamentation. Also, Victorian pianos had minuscule fold-down music desks, either attached to the curved fallboard, or located on the bottom edge of the front board’s center panel.
The woods were highly figured veneers, predominately of mahogany and rosewood. Repeating patterns of rococo involute carving extend from the pilaster onto the cheek, appearing as if squeezed from a tube of cake frosting. The sides of these early pianos were also often curved or paneled.
*Although it’s often possible to estimate a piano’s date of manufacture within a few years by its cabinet style, the years in which different styles were introduced to or withdrawn from the market varied both regionally and among manufacturers. The dates cited here are approximate, and provided only to highlight general trends in cabinet styling.