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article number 450
article date 05-21-2015
copyright 2015 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
We Make and Export the Best Pianos, 1870
by Horace Greeley, et al.

From the 1873 book, The Great Industries of the United States.

* * *

THE state alike of civilization and education of a people must undoubtedly be measured by the degree in which it cultivates the fine arts.

If these premises be correct, the United States have attained a development of civilization which, but a few years since, would have been regarded as impossible since, notwithstanding the, existence of the most gigantic, sanguinary, and destructive civil war which the world has ever witnessed.

It was a war which caused the American continent to tremble from the St. Lawrence to the Gulf of Mexico, and which raged with uncontrollable fury for the space of four years,—the United States have succeeded in bringing to perfection an art industry, the inventive creations, developments, and culminating results of which are devoted to the Muses.

The true place of this art is at the altar of “home,” where it shines calm and effulgent, animating or soothing, in turn, in the form of domestic musical harmony.

For the elevation and development of this class of music, so genially acceptable, and so intrinsically valuable in the home circle, America received the instrumental medium from Europe — that medium was “The Piano-forte,” to which this educating and ennobling mission was intrusted.

Until the commencement of the present century the attempts at piano-forte making in the United States were few, and the results achieved without any practical significance.

Harpsichord of 1820.

From the year 1825 the first steps of improvement in American piano making may be traced. In that year the first attempts were made to give “the body” of the instrument more durability and increased power of resistance against “the pull” of the strings, by the application of a full frame of cast-iron in place of wood.

These experiments were naturally first tried on Square Pianos, as these instruments were the most used, and those almost exclusively manufactured in America, for the imported “Upright” Pianos did not satisfy even the most moderate requirements under existing circumstances.

Hence there arose a strong and deep-rooted prejudice against this class of piano-forte, and it is only within the past five years that Messrs. Steinway & Son of New York, and one or two other firms, are manufacturing Upright Pianos in large numbers to meet the growing demand for this class of instrument.

In the year 1825 Alpheus Babcock, of Philadelphia, obtained a patent for the construction of a cast-iron ring in a Square Piano, for the purpose of increasing its power of resistance to the pull of the strings. By this invention the principle was first practically introduced of casting the iron hitch pin-plate, together with that portion which supported the wrest-plank, in one piece.

In 1833 Conrad Meyer, of Philadelphia, exhibited at the fair of the Franklin Institute, in that city, a Square Piano, which was constructed with a full cast-iron frame.

The introduction of the full iron frame was aided to a great extent by the excellence of the quality of American iron, and the perfection which the art of casting had already attained at that period.

The fact was indisputable that the pianos thus made stood better in tune than those previously constructed; but one great defect was their thin and disagreeably nasal character of tone. For these salient reasons the new invention soon had quite as many opponents as admirers, so that until the year 1855 a large majority of the American piano-forte manufacturers made no attempt to use it.

The New York piano-makers achieved in their instruments the capacity of standing in tune, at least to a degree not previously accomplished, by great solidity of construction, and a heavy bracing of the case, and more particularly by the use of a solid bottom, or bed (of a thickness of fully five inches), which, however, to some extent marred the elegant appearance of the instrument.

By degrees a new difficulty manifested itself in the instruments thus made, for as their compass gradually extended, and finally reached seven or seven and one third octaves, it was found impossible to obtain the necessary power of resistance against “the pull” of the strings, even by the most solid construction of the case, when wood alone was the material used.

It therefore became necessary to apply the iron frame, but in such a manner, however, as to avoid the deleterious influence, previously ascribed to it as so objectionable, in order that the piano might lose none of its fulness and power of tone.

This successful result was first achieved by the firm of Steinway & Sons, of New York, who in 1855 constructed a piano with a solid front bar and full iron frame, the latter covering the wrest-plank; the wrest-plank bridge, however, being made of wood.

The brace, which in the treble connected the “hitch-pin plate” with the wrest-plank plate, was slightly elevated above the strings, and ran in a different direction to the latter; namely, exactly to the angle at which the wrest-plank had to sustain the pull of the strings.

The bridges of the sounding-board were grouped in such a manner that they were moved considerably nearer to the middle of the latter, and at the same time the lineal length of these bridges was increased by placing the bass strings of the instrument — or over-stringing them — over the others, over three nearly parallel bridges, increasing the length of the latter, over the sounding-board, viz., from forty to sixty-eight inches, their position being removed from the iron-covered edges of the case, nearer to the centre of the sounding-board.

The results achieved from this novel construction were in every way most successful. The first instrument made on this plan received, by a unanimous verdict of the jury, the first prize, a gold medal, at the exhibition of the American Institute, at the Crystal Palace in New York, in 1855.

This new method of construction very soon became the standard for all manufacturers in that and other cities, and as far as can be ascertained all Square Pianos manufactured in the United States at the present time are, to a more or less extent, constructed in accordance with this system.


In 1859 an improvement of great importance was made in Square pianos by Messrs. Steinway & Sons, and patented by them. This consisted of an iron frame with a downward projection, which ran parallel with the wrest-plank, abutting against the same — thus giving it an extraordinary degree of firmness and solidity.

Into this projection “The Agraffes” (invented by the gifted Sebastian Erard, of Paris, and first applied in his Grand Pianos) were screwed — this being the first successful application of Agraffes to the treble of a Square Piano.

This application of the Agraffes only became practically possible after the invention of a drilling machine, peculiarly constructed to achieve the object in view. This new Agraffe arrangement was used in all Grand, and the highest priced Square Pianos, manufactured by Messrs. Steinway & Sons, and subsequently in all their Square Pianos.

This firm has for years past manufactured and sold the average number of forty Square Pianos per week.

The Grand Piano, beyond a doubt the most perfect and magnificent of the three ordinary species of piano-fortes, had, up to a comparatively recent period, received but little attention from either the manufacturers or public of the United States, until towards the year 1840.

The sale of a Grand Piano was an event of rare occurrence, and European pianists, visiting the United States, almost invariably brought their concert instruments with them.

Several piano makers of New York and Boston made Grand Pianos occasionally, but the demand for this class of instruments was so very limited that Messrs. Steinway & Sons, prior to the year 1856, did not deem it advisable to give a new impulse to this class of instruments by commencing its manufacture.

The first Grand Pianos made by this firm were constructed with a straight stringed scale and full iron frame, a treble piece of brass or iron, and with Agraffes in the middle tones and the bass, screwed in the wood.

These Grand Pianos soon became extensively popular, and were so favorably regarded by professional artists and the public, that they were soon brought into extensive use in the concert-room, and large numbers of them were made and sold.

The firm obtained, subsequently, several patents for new Grand Piano actions and improvements; but the most important improvement of all in the construction of these instruments was patented by Messrs. Steinway & Sons on the 20th of December, 1859.

This improvement consisted of the introduction of a complete cast- iron frame, the projection for the Agraffes lapping over and abutting against the wrest-plank, together with an entirely new arrangement of the strings and braces of this iron frame, by which the most important and advantageous results were achieved.

The strings were arranged in such a position, that in the treble register their direction remained parallel with the blow of the hammers, whilst from the centre of the scale the unisons of the strings were gradually spread from right to left in the form of a fan, along the bridge of the sound-board.

The covered strings of the lower octaves being laid a little higher and crossing the other ones (in the same manner as the other strings), and spread from left to right on a lengthened sound-board bass bridge, which ran in a parallel direction to the first bridge.

By this arrangement several important advantages were obtained; by the longer bridges of the sounding-board a greater portion of its surface was covered — the space between the unisons of the strings was increased, by which means the sound was more powerfully developed from the sounding board.

The bridges, being moved from the iron-covered edges nearer to the middle of the sounding-board, producing a larger volume of tone, whilst the oblique position of these strings to the blow of the hammers resulted in obtaining those rotating vibrations which gave to the thicker strings a softness and pliability never previously known.

The new system of bracing was also far more effective, and the power of standing in tune greatly increased.


The first Grand Piano constructed in this novel manner was played on publicly, for the first time, at the New York Academy of Music, on the 8th Of February, 1859, and created a great and marked sensation.

The best proof that can be adduced of the success achieved by these new Grand Pianos (in which many subsequent improvements were introduced) is the fact that Messrs. Steinway & Sons, during the last ten years, have manufactured and sold an average of ten of these instruments every week, and that in 1871 the demand for these pianos became so extensive in America as well as abroad that the firm was unable to manufacture even half of the Grand Pianos demanded by the public.

The valuable improvements in Upright Pianos made by Messrs. Steinway & Sons, the most important of which were patented June 5, 1866 — are essentially as follows, viz.: the introduction of a complete double iron frame the front plate and back brace-frame being connected with each other, and cast in one solid piece.

One side of this double iron frame is left open, and into it the sounding-board is inserted, being received and sustained in its position by an apparatus consisting of a number of screws, which press the outer edges of the sounding-board towards its centre.

A clear, powerful, as well as unusually long and singing tone, of pure and sympathetic quality, combined with unexampled durability and capacity of standing in tune, are the important results obtained by this new invention.

The application of the same species of apparatus to Grand Pianos has resulted, in an equally favorable manner, in largely increasing the “singing” quality and beauty of the tone; for, by its use, the necessary pressure against the inner portion of the sounding-board can be readily regulated to the greatest nicety, and the tension of the sounding-board placed forever under control.

Another most important improvement applied by Messrs. Steinway & Sons to their Grand and Upright Pianos since 1868, is their Patent Metallic Tubular Frame Action, by which the touch of these instruments has been brought to its present perfection.

The sensation which has been created and the demand that has arisen for these new Upright Pianos is so large that the firm has found it impossible to fill the orders received for them; and it is more than probable that Upright Pianos will, in course of time, be as generally used in the United States as this class of instrument is in Europe.


THE Piano-forte Manufactory of Messrs. Steinway & Sons is located on Fourth Avenue, in the City of New York, on which its frontage occupies the entire block between Fifty-second and Fifty-third Streets (201 feet), the depth of the front building being 40 feet.

The wings of the main building, extending down Fifty-second and Fifty-third Streets, are each 165 feet in length by 40 feet in depth; the entire building, including the basement, is six stories high.

Adjoining the Fifty-third Street wing is located a building of 100 feet front and four stories high. These factory buildings have an uninterrupted frontage extent on the avenue and streets named of 631 feet.

The architecture of the building is of the modern Italian style; it is built in the most solidly substantial manner, of the best brick, with lintel arches of the same, and brick dental cornices. The basement walls are two feet thick, set in concrete; the first story walls 20 inches, and the upper walls 16 inches, in thickness.

The factory buildings proper cover seventeen city lots of ground, twelve others being used for seasoning lumber, etc.

The side-wings are separated from the main front building by solid walls, extending from basement to roof, passage-ways running through them, each of which is provided with double iron doors on either side, so that in the event of a fire occurring, only that portion of the building in which it originated can be destroyed.

In the yard, which is surrounded on three sides by the front building and the wings, are two independent buildings, two stories in height, the dimensions of which are respectively 40 by 78 feet and 100 by 20 feet; the lower floors of which are devoted to the steam drying-rooms and the packing-box factory.

In the upper floors of these buildings all the actions and dampers are manufactured by the most skilful workmen to be obtained, and aided by a series of the most perfect and ingenious machinery that exists for the construction of these parts.


The floors of the factory buildings have a surface of 160,480 square feet. In the rear of the buildings there is an open space of ground containing an area of 40,000 square feet, on which 3 million feet of lumber are constantly stored in the open air, for seasoning purposes; each separate piece of which is exposed to all the atmospheric changes for two years, and then kept in the steam drying-rooms for three months, prior to being used.

These drying-rooms are divided into five compartments, each of which contains about 80,000 feet of timber, so that about 400,000 feet are constantly under the process of kiln-drying. Each of the compartments is heated by 2000 feet of steam-pipe.

Beneath the yard alluded to, there are fire-proof vaults for the storage of coal, and here also are placed four steam boilers, of the aggregate power of 320 horses, by which the necessary amount of steam is generated for the 70,000 feet of pipe used in heating the drying-rooms.

The steam also heats the workshops and drives three steam engines of respectively 125, 50, and 25 horse power; these, in turn, putting in motion no less than 102 different machines.

The entire factory is built on a foundation of solid rock, and the largest and heaviest portions of the machinery are placed in the basements of the building, and bedded on this immovable foundation.

Beneath the wing on Fifty-third Street, no less than five planing-machines are located, which prepare the thoroughly seasoned and kiln-dried wood for the use of the workmen.

The largest of these machines (Daniels’s patent) makes 1200 revolutions a minute, and planes a superficial surface of 16 feet in length and 42 inches in width, requiring seven-horse power to drive it this machine alone represents the labor of 27 workmen.

A second machine, of three-horse power, planes boards 16 feet in length and 34 inches in width, making 3200 revolutions a minute, representing the labor of 28 workmen.

It would require the extent of a goodly-sized volume to describe the 102 different planing, sawing, jointing drilling, mortising, turning, and other machines used in this factory, and to elucidate their various objects.

It therefore must suffice to state, that, from careful and moderate estimate, they replace the hand-labor of at least 500 skilful workmen; added to which, they do all the hard and difficult work, which formerly, to so great an extent, endangered the health, and even the lives, of the workmen employed in this description of labor.

On the first floor of the wing on Fifty-third Street, the bottoms, wrest-planks, and other portions of the piano are glued up and shaped by machinery, ready to be put together.

In the second and third stories the finer machinery is located.

The floor above, as well as the wing on Fifty-second Street, is occupied by the case-makers, who fit together all the parts made below, veneer the cases, and prepare them for varnishing. On each floor of the case-makers’ department there are three large heating-boxes, constructed of sheet-iron and lined on the inside with a sufficient amount of steam-pipe to produce a heat of 200 degrees.

The varnishing rooms occupy the entire top floors of the front building and side-wings, and extend a length of 531 feet.


From these last described floors the completely finished and varnished cases are transferred to the floor beneath, in the front building, where the sounding-boards are fitted into the cases; on the next floor below the pianos are strung, and the action and key boards are fitted in, which latter are manufactured on the corresponding floor of the wing on Fifty-second Street.

Here, also, the ready-varnished tops, the legs, and the lyres of the instrument are adjusted and put on; after which, on the next floor, the action and touch are carefully regulated and equalized to the greatest degree of accuracy.

After this is completed, the thoroughly finished Piano is sent to the sales-rooms, where it receives its final polish prior to being delivered to the purchaser.

On the same floor of the building on Fifty-third-Street, the office of the establishment is located, from which, by the medium of a private magnetic telegraph, the manufactory is brought into direct communication with the ware-rooms on Fourteenth Street.

Next to the office is the store-room, where the actions, felt, leather, screws, ivory, strings, tuning-pins, etc., used in the construction of the inner portions of the piano, are stored. Of these articles Messrs. Steinway & Sons invariably keep a vast supply on hand, the average value of which is from $40,000 to $50,000.

The basement of the building contains the iron and the machinery necessary for shaping its use to the various portions of the instrument.

Throughout the entire building no fire is used, every portion of it being heated by steam-pipes, and lighted throughout with gas. Four large steam elevators — two in the front building and one in each wing — are used for the transportation of all heavy articles, either up or down.

In the three extreme points of the building “tell-tale clocks” are placed, for the purpose of testing the trustworthiness of the night-watchman; from these clocks, wires are carried to every floor, which, if not touched at certain prescribed intervals of time, the watcher has neglected his rounds, and the fact is recorded on the face of the dials.

This vast manufacturing business is divided into eighteen departments, each of which is placed under the control and constant personal inspection of a skilled foreman, these, in turn, being controlled by a head foreman.

No workman is permitted to work at more than one branch of the business; thus, from the fact that every workman is continually making only one and the same article, he achieves an absolute perfection in his work, unattainable in small factories, where such strict subdivision of labor cannot exist.

Again, in this great and strictly adhered to division of labor, the article, until it is finally completed, passes through the hands of a number of different workmen, none of whom receive it from the previous workman in that stage of manufacture unless it is perfectly faultless in every respect.

The control of the factory, the warerooms, the various purchases, is under the direct personal supervision of the members of the firm of Messrs. Steinway & Sons.

All inventions and changes in the manufacture of pianos, and all other important business acts, are the result of common consideration and debate among the members of the firm, and to this harmonious cooperation and unanimity of action, a large proportion of the unexampled success which the firm has achieved may be attributed.



This building is located on East Fourteenth Street, between Union Square and the Academy of Music (Italian Opera House). It has a frontage of white marble, four stories high, and 50 feet wide, by a depth of 84 feet; from this point the buildings are 100 feet wide, extending to Fifteenth Street, a distance of 123 feet.

The entire first floor from Fourteenth to Fifteenth Streets, a depth of 207 feet, is exclusively devoted to the exhibition and sale of the piano-fortes manufactured by the firm.

At the left of the entrance on Fourteenth Street is a room for Square Pianos, 17 feet high, 23 feet wide, and 84 feet deep.

Contiguous to this room is the office of the firm, from which a private telegraph extends to the factory, two miles distant.

From this office doors lead to the room devoted to Grand Pianos, which is 17 feet high, 25 feet wide, and 80 feet deep. In connection with this hall are two smaller rooms for the tuning and regulating of Grand Pianos.

On the opposite or westerly side of the building are the ware-rooms for Upright Pianos, rooms for tuners and polishers, and the regulating room, where every piano is carefully examined, prepared for the climate of its destination, and thoroughly regulated, prior to being shipped or sent home.

The main entrance to the warerooms and upper floors of the front building is through an elegant marble portico on Fourteenth Street, 17 feet in width, supported by four Corinthian columns, leading to a large vestibule, from which a door on the left conducts to the warerooms, and one on the right to the ticket office, which is located in a large vestibule with two wide entrances from Fourteenth Street.

From this latter vestibule a staircase, 14 feet wide, and from the other vestibule a staircase 7 feet wide, lead direct to a large vestibule on the next floor above, 42 feet in height, thoroughly lighted and ventilated. From this latter vestibule three large doors lead to the main floor of the Concert Hall, and two separate stairways to each of the two balconies above.

The hall is 123 feet long by 75 feet wide, and 42 feet high, and has 2000 numbered seats. The lighting by two patent sun-burner apparatuses of Defries & Son, London, is brilliant in the extreme.

The hall, as well as the whole building, is heated entirely by steam, and the ventilation is most complete. The hall, with its splendid outfit and frescoing, and its boldly arched galleries, at once creates the impression that it is an opera hall, without its losing the noble simplicity of a grand concert-room.

According to the unanimous verdict of artists, the musical public, and the newspaper press in regard to its perfect acoustic qualities, is admitted to surpass every other music hall in the United States.

In connection with this large hall, which is supplied with an organ of forty-two registers, there is also a smaller hall, on the same floor and level, opposite the stage, 25 feet wide and 84 feet long, which, by means of colossal sliding partitions, can either be opened into the large hall or shut off from it. In this smaller hall 400 persons find comfortable accommodation.



The rapid growth of the manufacture of pianos in the United States is a marvel alike to those who study the industrial resources of our own country, and those European makers who once nearly monopolized the piano trade of America.

Now the reverse is the case: instead of being large importers, we are large exporters of pianos, and since the Paris Universal Exposition of 1867, the fame of American pianos, especially those of Steinway & Sons’ make, has spread throughout the length and breadth of Europe, and large numbers of Steinway Grand and Upright Pianos are now annually sold in Berlin, Stockholm, Madrid, Paris, Odessa, and other Eeropean musical centres.

The following Official Certificate of the international Jury on Musical Instruments (Class X), and extract from the Official Report, will show how complete was the triumph of American Pianos at the Paris Universal Exposition, in competition with over 400 instruments of all the celebrated piano makers of Europe:

“PARIS, JULY 20, 1867.
“I certify that the First Gold Medal for American Pianos has been unanimously awarded to Messrs. Steinway, by the Jury of the International Exposition. First on the List in Class X.
○ Melinet, President of the International Jury.
○ Fetis, Official Reporter,
○ George Kastner, Member of the International Jury.
○ F. A. Gevaert, Member of the International Jury.
○ Ambroise Thomas, Member of the International Jury.
○ Ed. Hanslick, Member of the International Jury.
○ J. Schiedmayer, Member of the International Jury.

The following is art extract from the Official Report of the International Jury on Musical Instruments, published by the Imperial Commission in August, 1868, comparing the relative merits of the pianos exhibited: —

“The Pianos of Messrs. Steinway & Sons are endowed with the splendid sonority, and that seizing largeness and volume of tone hitherto unknown, which fills the greatest space. Brilliant in the treble, singing in the middle, and formidable in the bass, this sonority acts with irresistible power on the organs of hearing.

“In regard to expression, delicate shading, variety of accentuation, the instruments of Messrs. Steinway have over those of their competitors an advantage which cannot be contested. The pianist feels under his hands an action pliant and easy, winch permits him at will to be powerful or light, vehement and graceful.

“These pianos are at the same time the instrument of the virtuoso who wishes to astonish by the eclat of his execution, and of the artist who applies his talent to the music of thought and sentiment bequeathed to us by the illustrious masters; in one word, they are at the same time the pianos for the concert room and the parlor, possessing an exceptionable sonority.”


It will be seen by the list of piano firms given in the table which follows, that they are residents of New York, Boston, arid Baltimore, and that the aggregate total of their sales amounts to $5,248,577.

Besides those given in tabular form, there are a number of small firms in the three cities named, and also several in Philadelphia, Albany, Indianapolis, St. Louis, and even San Francisco, which will increase the total amount of annual production and sales of pianos in the United States to fully 25,000 instruments, netting over seven millions of dollars ($7,000,000).

New York, the Empire City of the Union, possesses in the world-famed mammoth manufactory of Messrs. Steinway & Sons not only the most extensive establishment in the United States, but by far the largest in the world, as shown by the fact of this firm returning, as made and sold during the year 1869, no less than 2200 pianos, for the aggregate sum of $1,205,463, while for the year 1871 Messrs. Steinway & Sons manufactured and sold 2410 piano-fortes, the proceeds of which reached the sum of $1,352,000.

The demand for these celebrated instruments for America, as well as Europe, is so great that Messrs. Steinway are compelled to constantly increase their manufacturing facilities.

Boston, the renowned “Hub,” possesses the second largest piano manufactory in the United States, and Baltimore has the third.

The following statistics of the gross amount of sales of new pianos made and sold by the twenty-six most prominent piano makers in the United States, for and during the year 1869 — the amount being given by each manufacturer under oath, and taxes paid thereon, — were officially published by the ‘New York Tribune’ of March 15, 1870 : —


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