By Bruce Clark
The Great Depression
The golden age of Mason & Hamlin, and of pianos in general, ended with the Great Depression. Though the Depression is generally thought of as beginning with the stock-market crash of October 1929, it was not fully under way until 1932.
In the previous three years, more than a third of American banks had failed. Today, when a bank fails, the FDIC bails out its customers. But before 1932, depositors in a failed bank lost much of their savings. In that year the unemployment rate was 24%, and the underemployment rate was close to 50%. The economic crash was followed closely by the Dust Bowl, which devastated farming in the Midwest. Many people starved, and images of disheveled citizens standing in soup lines became common. Times then were harder than any of us born since have experienced.
For most people, a piano is the ultimate deferrable purchase. Piano sales had peaked in 1923 at nearly 350,000 units, but by 1929 had already sunk to only 131,000, due to the widespread abandonment of the player piano in favor of the newly improved radio, phonograph, and other forms of home entertainment. By 1932, sales had dropped to only 27,000 pianos. The overhead required to maintain a factory means that no manufacturing company can financially survive a 90% drop in sales. As a result, a great consolidation took place in the American piano industry. Before the Depression, there were hundreds of piano makers in the U.S. In the next few years, most went out of business or were bought up by larger companies. Few survived as separate business entities.
While there was a 90% drop in sales of pianos overall, grand-piano sales dropped quite a bit less — many of those who, before the Depression, could afford to buy a grand were still able to. Of the 27,000 pianos sold in 1932, nearly 18,000 were grands. It’s no accident that most of the piano makers that survived the Depression had respected lines of grands.
Going into the Depression, there were two large piano conglomerates: the American Piano Company, and the Aeolian, Weber Piano & Pianola Company.
An aerial view of the Aeolian American factory complex in East Rochester, NY, in the 1930s
The American Piano Co. had been established as the Foster-Armstrong Co. in 1894, when George G. Foster and W. B. Armstrong together began to manufacture Foster and Armstrong pianos. In 1902, a fire destroyed their manufacturing facilities, and in 1906, in what is now East Rochester, New York, a new building was completed that was, at the time, the largest piano-manufacturing plant in the world. (Interestingly, the structure was the first large-scale facility to use the Ransome-Smith method of reinforced-concrete construction.) Foster-Armstrong bought Chickering and Knabe in 1908, and the parent company’s name was changed to the American Piano Company. As mentioned in Part 1, Mason & Hamlin became part of American in 1924.
Finance companies, as such, did not exist in the early 1900s. However, George Foster saw the need to provide financing to dealers in order for them to stock pianos in their retail showrooms. To that end he formed the Bankers Commercial Corporation, to provide financing to piano dealers. Eventually this finance company became larger than the manufacturing company, and was managed by Foster until his death, in 1953.
The American Piano Company also designed and manufactured the Ampico reproducing mechanism, an advanced type of player piano, based on licensed patents originally held by the German maker Welte, whose financial interests had been seized by the U.S. government during World War I.
The Aeolian Company was founded by William B. Tremaine in 1887, to manufacture reed organs and, later, automatic-playing musical instruments. Aeolian established the perforated-paper piano roll as the standard way to record piano music. Later, Aeolian created the Duo-Art reproducing mechanism, also based on Welte patents, which became the standard for Steinway and many others. In 1903, Aeolian combined with the Weber Piano Company to become the Aeolian, Weber Piano & Pianola Company. The company owned retail stores in the U.S. and around the world.
Although American and Aeolian were fierce competitors, the financial stresses of the Depression caused American, in 1930, first to sell Mason & Hamlin to Aeolian, and then, in 1932, to merge with Aeolian to form a new company, the Aeolian American Corporation. Mason & Hamlin’s factory, in Boston, was closed, and in June 1932 its operations were moved to the complex in East Rochester originally constructed by American. There it joined Chickering, which had been moved from Boston in 1927, and Knabe, which had been moved from Baltimore in 1929. Mason & Hamlin was able to bring most of its skilled workforce from Boston; the historical record is unclear about the Chickering and Knabe workforces. Most of the cheaper brands made in Rochester by American were discontinued, there being little market for them during the Depression. (Two exceptions appear to have been the George Steck and J. & C. Fischer lines, which continued to be made in East Rochester for some time.)
After the merger, Mason & Hamlin, Chickering, and Knabe — as well as Ampico and somewhat later, Duo-Art — were all manufactured in the same East Rochester complex, in which each company, in effect, had its own factory. Supporting these factories were a common parts plant, veneer shop, finish shop, and plate foundry. In terms of volume and dollar output of production, this facility was not eclipsed until after World War II, when companies such as Baldwin and Wurlitzer began making inexpensive pianos in very large numbers.
Mason & Hamlin’s Long Decline
What few outside the piano industry appreciate is that when Mason & Hamlin moved into the Rochester plant, the basic way the pianos were assembled changed completely — and for the worse.
The Brambach Method and Other Changes
In the 1910s, the Brambach Piano Company invented a method of assembling a grand piano that was much cheaper than the traditional methods employed by Mason & Hamlin, Chickering, and Knabe. Up till then, manufacturing a grand had been a laborious, from-the-ground-up undertaking. The piano was first built entirely in unfinished wood, then the rim and case parts were finished, and finally the piano was strung. But the Brambach method is similar to that used in making upright pianos.
An upright is constructed in straightforward modular fashion. The first assembly to be made is the strung back — a wooden structure comprising the pinblock, plate, soundboard, bridges, tuning pins, and strings, but no cabinet (case) or action. The strung back can even be tuned by plucking the strings while turning the tuning pins. Separately, the case is machined, assembled, and finished, and the key-and-action assembly is built. (In some of today’s high-production factories, the action can even be regulated outside the piano.) After the back is strung, the case and action are attached, to create an upright piano. Today, nearly all upright pianos are made this way.
Brambach invented a method for making grands in which the maker assembled a strung inner-rim assembly, called a skeleton, that was much like an upright strung back. Independently, an outer rim was manufactured and finished. After the skeleton was strung, the finished rim was attached to it, and then the action and the other finished case parts were added. Today, most of the world’s cheaper grand pianos are made using some variant of this method. Before the arrival of Mason & Hamlin, Chickering, and Knabe, the Rochester factory made inexpensive uprights and grands for the American Piano Co.; by the time the three new brands arrived, the Brambach method would have been well understood and fully implemented.
While the Brambach method reduced the cost of building a grand piano, it has inherent problems. A good grand requires precision construction in a number of places, without which the instrument won’t work as intended. The Brambach method doesn’t permit the precision required to build a great instrument. Specifically, the precise positioning relative to one another of a piano’s major components — bridges, soundboard, plate, hammer strike line, end of the cabinet arm — is crucial. While precision varies between factories, without the full case and action attached, from which coordinates can be established, the Brambach method is inherently less accurate in the positioning of these elements than the older method.
In a piano made by the traditional method, the positioning of important elements can be established by a fine craftsperson to within very fine tolerances; with the Brambach method and typical factory labor, they could be off by enough to create serious mechanical and tonal problems. Typically, through compromises made at the end of the production process or in the field, such pianos can be made to work well enough for the average consumer, but they’ll rarely work optimally, so this method is not generally used for performance-quality instruments.
With the development in the last few decades of computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), the accuracy of the Brambach method has improved. However, an additional reason for preferring the traditional method is that it’s structurally more sound, because it allows the pinblock to be attached not only to the inner rim but also to the cornice, or stretcher (part of the cabinet structure). This can’t be easily done if the cabinet parts are prefinished and glued on at the end of the manufacturing process, as they must be in the Brambach method, whether or not CAM is used.
The Brambach method is essentially a method for building less-expensive pianos. Such instruments are important to the piano industry as starter or intermediate instruments, without which there would rarely be customers to upgrade to better ones. For this reason, the Brambach method was a valuable development in manufacturing — but it can’t result in a high-end instrument. Today, the best pianos — Steinway, Mason & Hamlin, Bösendorfer, Bechstein — are made using the older, more traditional method.
The changes Aeolian American made to the instruments were far more profound than just the production method. Almost immediately, maple was removed from the rims and replaced with softer, cheaper mahogany. While mahogany is easier to bend and machine, rims made of this wood are less reflective and rigid, and degrade the instrument’s sound. Richard Gertz’s Centripetal Tension Resonator remained, but, while still functional, it was, like many other aspects of the pianos, cheapened by reducing the size of its components. (After 2000, the restoration of the Tension Resonator components to their original sizes resulted in an immediate increase in the pianos’ bass response.)
Before the Depression, Wessell, Nickel & Gross (WNG) was the finest maker of piano actions in the U.S. Unfortunately, when piano manufacturers go out of business, they don’t pay their bills, and they tend to take their suppliers with them. Aeolian took advantage of this, and bought WNG’s action-making equipment from the bankruptcy court. While Aeolian never used the WNG brand name, the former company’s equipment and designs formed the basis for the action shop in the Rochester plant.
Though not a great piano factory, the Rochester plant was an outstanding furniture factory — their veneering, panel stocks, and finishes were among the best. Because of this, the WNG-designed actions, and Gertz’s outstanding scale designs, Mason & Hamlin pianos of this period, though no longer the best, were still pretty good — but the acoustical and structural cores of the instruments were not the same.
The Rochester changes were mostly about lowering production costs in the face of the Great Depression. Throughout the piano industry, thinking was dominated by mere survival. Production of large uprights virtually ceased. Spinet pianos — too small to be anything other than abominations as instruments — came into widespread production. Pianos that ten years earlier no one in their right mind would have considered became the norm.
During World War II, most American piano makers became part of the war effort. Aeolian, in Rochester, made gliders and glider parts, as well as auxiliary fuel tanks for powered aircraft. After the war, they resumed making pianos.
My own introduction to Mason & Hamlin came during this period. Both of my parents were pianists. My father was a piano dealer in Kansas, and among the lines he carried was Mason & Hamlin. My earliest childhood memories are of sitting on a piano bench singing with my parents. Though I was blissfully unaware of such things at the time, the piano was a Mason & Hamlin AA.
The Postwar Period
After War II, sales of pianos — and everything else — took off again, but those who ran piano companies remained traumatically shaped by the Depression. Cost reduction ruled the industry. Baldwin, Wurlitzer, Story & Clark, and Winter & Co. all focused on making cheap uprights — products that looked enough like a piano to warrant the name, yet were made as cheaply as possible. Much later, such products would come to be derisively called by piano technicians “piano-shaped objects.” Sales of high-end pianos also increased, but the quality of even these instruments was not what it had been. This is not to say that they became terrible, or changed overnight, but they weren’t the same as before the Depression. Even Steinway was not immune.
American piano companies remained profitable throughout the 1950s, but leadership in design and quality was ceded to Europe. As U.S. pianos declined in quality, Continental makers improved as they rebuilt from scratch a bombed-out industry and adopted the latest manufacturing techniques and machinery. The Europeans didn’t find the Americans hard to beat. In the 1950s, Mason & Hamlin could be described as “great design, solid and decent execution” — quite a comedown from their previous high. Still, Rochester was able to sell its pianos. Up into the late 1970s, the daily total production of the various lines was 12 grands and 24 uprights.
In 1953, the majority owner of the Aeolian American Corporation, George Foster, died — shockingly, I’m told, without a will. The company was placed in receivership with Bank of Boston, which was tasked with managing it and preparing it for sale. Deciding that Aeolian American was not profitable enough to sell, Bank of Boston laid off all engineers, pattern makers, and anyone else not involved in actually building pianos. As a result, beginning in 1955, Mason & Hamlin, Chickering, and Knabe, were run without technical direction. When I arrived there, in 1984, I saw a stringing scale scrawled in pencil on the lid of a box of tuning pins. There was no engineering department.
In 1959, the Aeolian American Corporation was purchased by the Heller family, owners of Winter & Co. Winter promptly changed its name to Aeolian Corporation. The new company consisted of two divisions: the Aeolian-American division, still based in East Rochester, New York, where the more expensive pianos were made; and the division in Memphis, Tennessee, where Winter’s cheaper pianos had been made since the early 1950s under a variety of brand names Winter had acquired over the years. (Originally based in New York City, in the 1950s Winter had, like many other manufacturers, moved to the South to find cheaper labor and to escape union activities.)
Winter had made its way by constantly testing the limits of just how cheaply a piano can be made and still sell. One would not expect a company with these values to want to own Mason & Hamlin, but from 1959 to 1983 it did. Although Aeolian kept Rochester as a separate division, make no mistake — the company was run by the Memphis office, which considered the extra effort required to make a fine instrument to be unnecessary nonsense. And so Mason & Hamlin, Knabe, and Chickering — three of the greatest names in American piano making — continued their long, steady decline in quality.
Around 1967, Aeolian sold the Rochester property, then leased back part of it for piano production. Manufacture of all three brands was consolidated into the building formerly used for making Chickerings. Before this, each line of pianos had had its own workforce and manufacturing processes. Now, the Knabe and Chickering lines were to some extent cross-bred; that is, they began to lose their distinctive identities, and their names were used somewhat interchangeably on the same or similar pianos. Though Mason & Hamlin used the common workforce, Aeolian considered it their flagship brand, and so its models retained their individual identities.
By the 1970s, the quality of the Rochester pianos was disgracing the names on their fallboards. Poplar, a cheaper, softer hardwood, replaced mahogany in the rims (which had already replaced maple). Mason & Hamlins no longer even looked like high-quality pianos anymore. While the furniture remained respectable, the fit and finish of the plate and soundboard were dreadful. Action making, which in Rochester had been at least respectable, was moved to Aeolian’s Memphis factory, which produced the worst-quality piano actions ever made in America and perhaps the world, as any piano technician who has serviced Aeolian pianos from this period can attest.
By this time, Steinway had long since surpassed Mason & Hamlin as the best piano maker in the U.S. Though the quality of Steinway and Baldwin grands in the 1970s was also problematic, it’s fair to say that they never fell as far as Mason & Hamlin. Despite this, because of the quality of the scale designs, Mason & Hamlin pianos could often still sound quite good once the bugs had been worked out. This was a testament to the quality of the original Gertz designs — even with dreadful execution, the designs still worked.