Day of the Player Piano

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The player piano came of age in America ninety years ago, and it caused an almighty stir. Within four decades it appeared to be dead. The craze dwindled, and in 1932 not a single player was shipped from the factories. But although player pianos have been manufactured only desultorily since, the machine established itself so firmly during its brief lifetime that it is impossible to find someone today who doesn’t know what a player piano is, who doesn’t remember what fun they were. Rolls for the pianos have been manufactured continuously since the 1890s, and new ones are still being made. The Vestal Press has long had a successful book in print on how to restore player pianos, and an enterprising firm in Kansas is busy supplying spare parts for them. People still find them a great pleasure, repairing them, rebuilding them, adding more piano rolls to their libraries (the market in secondhand rolls is brisk).

Many of the pianos themselves fetch high prices, for so many of the hundreds of thousands made are gone. Some simply were discarded, but thousands of others suffered an ignominious surgery. Lost in a limbo brought on by the growing popularity of radio before the Second World War, they were bought by the freight carloads for peanuts, divested of their automatic innards, and shipped to Southern states, where they were resold as ordinary upright pianos to people for whom the ownership of a piano was still an emblem of middle-class dignity but who had never been able to afford one before. A piano that worked, bought for as little as thirty dollars, was heaven, whether you could play it or not.

 

Piano ownership had connoted gentility for generations before the arrival of the player piano. Throughout the nineteenth century, well-bred young women “took.” “Taking” meant piano lessons: learning to arch the fingers properly not to stoop the back, and to master all the crossing of the hands necessary to accomplish such dainty and showy works as Ethelbert Nevin’s “Narcissus,” surely one of the world’s most insipid compositions.

But learning to play was never easy. Those of us who are not musicians, offered a sight of any mildly elaborate piano score, recoil in shock from a sheaf of coded material so dense that the page seems almost black; this must somehow be transferred from the printed score to the keyboard, to be played with both hands. It is small wonder, then, that the advent of the self-playing piano seemed miraculous. The years of hard study and endless practice were replaced in a moment by the marvel of a machine that could play a piano far better than any amateur and, moreover, play it again and again for as long as anyone could stand it.

 

The machine that blew across the country, starting in the late 1890s, like a blizzard over a Nebraska plain was not, in fact, a player piano. It was called a “piano player,” and it was on wheels. You rolled it up to your piano keyboard, adjusted several knobs for height, then sat in front of it (some distance by now from the piano itself) and pumped two treadles that worked its pneumatic insides. A traveling perforated paper roll of anything from forty-four to sixty-five notes’ compass actuated felt-tipped wooden rods that dropped down on the piano keys and played them.

There were a number of early attempts at mechanical piano players, including a fine one called a “Pianista” invented by a Frenchman named Fourneaux, which was introduced at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876, but it was very expensive. The Italians had for many years exhibited the street piano, a rudimentary instrument on a wheeled cart, worked by a wood cylinder turned by a crank; pins in the cylinder slammed hammers loudly against the strings. Mussolini, furious over the erosion of Italian dignity by the hordes of Italian operators of street pianos in several countries, attempted to recall them all to Italy and tried to abolish the trade. He didn’t succeed. In 1944, about the time he was being hanged by his heels, an enterprising fellow with a street piano and a wide grin greeted Allied troops arriving in Naples with a bloodcurdling homemade version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

 

In 1891 a Texas newspaper described a wheel-up player and remarked that it “enables the cook to furnish music for her mistress’s guests with exactly the same technic that is required to mash up coffee for their dinner delectation.” There was no dearth of such instruments throughout the latter years of the nineteenth century. A lot of people were bent on producing a piano that could play by itself, and a number of machines were built to do just that. But it took a special combination of skill, timing, perspicacity, and a certain Barnum-like quality to bring the self-playing piano into its own.

These all occurred when a man named Edwin S. Votey developed a pretty good pneumatic piano player, applied for a patent in 1897, and interested the Aeolian Company in it. The company put the instrument on the market in 1898. It became one of the great success stories of advertising.