Day of the Player Piano

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Arthur Loesser, in his fine social history called Men, Women and Pianos, writes: “Some unnamed poetic genius, however, created a name for it so potent that Americans surrendered to it in battalions and regiments. … ‘Pianola’ was, clearly, a piano and something more … a musical word for a musical object: quite perfect. Used in an aggressive advertising campaign, it was an invincible weapon … the public took it up, spelled it with a small ‘p,’ and made it into a generic name for all player pianos.”

 

By 1914 there were more than forty companies scrambling to get into the player business: Amphion, Auto-Piano, Autotone, Air-O-Player, Manualo, Angelus.Cecilian, Apollo, Euphona, Aristano, Symphonola, Harmonola, Peerless, Simplex, Humana—and a 1906 confection that barely skirted the trademark laws: Pianova. “But,” observed Loesser, “to the man in the street, they were all pianolas.”

Edwin Votey’s connection with the Aeolian Company hadn’t happened accidentally; he’d been associated with it for some time, building pipe organs with mechanisms that could play the keyboards automatically. By 1883, William and Harry Tremaine, the father and son who guided the company through its fifty-four tumultuous years of business, had made an upright parlor reed organ of a type then familiar to everyone, except that this one could also play forty-six notes automatically with a paper roll. This little organ was so successful that its beautiful name, Aeolian, was adopted by the Tremaines’ company. The Aeolian was followed swiftly by a bigger reed organ called the Aeolian Grand, and then, in 1897, by the Aeolian Orchestrelle, which was available in many versions from the size of an upright piano to a magnificent behemoth nine feet high. Mark Twain owned one that he loved and listened to every night. When Twain’s daughter Jean died suddenly in 1909, Albert Bigelow Paine sadly played rolls selected by Mark Twain on the organ at her funeral. (The Orchestrelle is still playing at the Mark Twain Museum in Hannibal, Missouri.)

William Tremaine did so well that he expanded from reed to pipe organs and in time bought part of the Farrand & Votey pipe organ company of Detroit, acquiring Edwin Votey in the deal, and began producing his own organs at Aeolian (now Garwood), New Jersey. When in 1897 Votey came up with his piano player mechanism, Aeolian sensed a coup, made him a vice-president of the company, dreamed up the name Pianola, and directed him to start production in his Detroit workshops. The fad was launched.

Remember that Votey’s player, popular though it was, had to be wheeled up to the piano it played, thereby putting a lot of machinery between the operator and the keyboard. Very soon after its initial success Aeolian realized—as some of its competitors already had—that there was a lot more money to be made if the player could be combined with the piano it played on. This meant that to be in the forefront of things, you had to buy a new piano with the player mechanism built into it. For some odd reason this new combination was called a player piano instead of a piano player, but that didn’t matter; after Aeolian’s fabulous success it was always known as a pianola.

Most of the early player pianos used rolls of not more than sixty-five notes until, in 1910, the piano makers realized once more that they’d all make more money if they standardized their instruments so everybody’s piano could play anybody’s roll. An industry conference that year, in Buffalo, New York, established eighty-eight notes (the full keyboard) as the compass from then on with a roll running from top to bottom.

The machine that took the country by storm was not, in fact, a “player piano“; it was a “piano player.”

In the larger stores you handed your choice of roll to a lady seated at a player piano, and she would obligingly put one in, play enough to give you a sense of the tune, then rewind it and hand it back. The rolls sold briskly. The period before the First World War was the brightest in the piano’s history: in 1909 there were 294 piano makers in the United States. Ten years later, players outsold standard pianos.

A lot of things had coalesced to make all this happen, and Votey’s player was only one of them. At the tail end of the nineteenth century, two kinds of music had become remarkably popular: Sousa’s marches—which gave birth to the ubiquitous two-step—and ragtime. The player organs tried without much success to cope with the new music, but the piano, on which ragtime was composed and which far more people owned than organs, came out the winner. Moreover, with the playing mechanism now hidden in the bowels of the piano, the freed keys fell and rose magically and the music could be seen as if played by a ghostly performer. It was twice as much fun, now, to play faster music. “Kitten on the Keys,” a fast jazz piece written in 1921 by Zez Confrey that had the right hand playing triplets, which was marvelous to watch, and everyone bought a roll.