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The Great Chicago Piano War
The battle between eastern and midwestern manufacturers hit fortissimo when the world’s most famous wizard of the keyboard turned up for the opening concert of the Columbian Exposition
October 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 6
On February 1 the venerable Boston house of Chickering formally announced its withdrawal from participation in the Chicago fair. Within two weeks all sixteen New York firms and nearly every other important piano house in the East had followed its lead.
The judging system to which the easterners objected so violently was a ludicrously simple process. Instead of the usual panel of distinguished judges from various neutral parts of the world, the Chicago method called for one lone judge, Dr. Florence Ziegfeld, to rule on the merits of the entries. As head of the Chicago Musical College he was known as a man of stature and sound judgment (as his son Florenz would be in later years, in another field). But he wasChicagoanto the core, and W. W. Kimball, whose firm was the biggest of the Chicago piano manufacturers, was on the board of directors of his school. Would eastern pianos stand a chance against this transparent conflict of interest? The eastern manufacturers seriously doubted that they would.
A fair official rushed to New York to arbitrate. Perhaps, he suggested tentatively, the eastern manufacturers would prefer to rent space and exhibit their pianos without entering them in actual competition? This possibility brought a howl from the westerners. Nothing doing, they said in effect, for what good would it do a Chicago piano to win the gold medal of the Columbian Exposition if everyone knew that it had been won against local competition only and not by beating out a Steinway or a Chickering, a Knabe or a Weber, or another of the bigname pianos of the East? The Chicago piano men, moreover, were hurt that anyone would suspect the purity of their intent. “The members of this association are fraternal and cordial,” they announced in print, “and we were disposed to treat all alike, whether from East or West.”
Within a week a full-scale paper war was raging between Chicago and New York. The free-swinging journalism of the day made not the slightest effort to conceal the basic antagonism existing between easterners and westerners. The New York Times took off after the Chicago piano makers with an editorial sledge hammer: “The Western piano maker does not, so far as is publicly known, know how to make pianos, but he does, in his capacity of Western man of business, know how to extract the utmost amount of advertising from any given situation. . . . The pianos of Peoria and Keokuk and Oshkosh will sound much better when they are not compared with the pianos of Boston and Baltimore and New York. In the absence of these effete instruments the wild and woolly piano of the West will take all the prizes and its makers may persuade the farmers’ daughters of the Northwest that it is ‘equally as good’ as the instruments preferred by pianists.”
Mr. John Thacher, the unlucky official who had devised the one-man, one-vote system of judging, struck back in a Chicago press conference. The eastern manufacturers, he said, were afraid to have their products compared with the greater and cheaper western models and had simply been looking for a way out of the competition all along. Rumors flew in both directions: Chickering was being bribed to return by an offer of Steinway’s floor space; the roof of the Liberal Arts Building was leaking so badly that nobody’s pianos would be safe in it; the easterners were planning to exhibit illegally by placing pianos in their individual state pavilions.
It was just about here that the Chicago piano men, now collectively termed the Loyal Exhibitors, were struck by a most unpalatable thought. They called upon Theodore Thomas, at the Music Bureau, and informed him that they would take it unkindly if any piano made by any absent manufacturer should be heard in any concert given in any concert hall of the World’s Columbian Exposition. It was only fitting, they said, that the loyal pianos that were helping to foot the bill should reap the benefits of advertising in the concert halls. Thomas replied, in his usual straightforward roar, that he saw absolutely no connection between what went on in the manufacturers’ displays and what went on in his concert halls. He had already engaged several artists known to favor certain brands of piano, he added, and saw no reason to inconvenience them just for the sake of upholding local pride. The piano men next applied to the director-general of the fair, who announced unequivocally that no piano unrepresented in the exhibit halls would be heard in the concert halls. Business and Art had met in a head-on collision, and the piano war now escalated from a newspaper skirmish to a national issue.
It was definitely not the relative merits of Chicago and New York pianos that worried the American public. What mattered was the involvement of only one man- an innocent bystander who had stumbled onto the battlefield more or less by accident and now found himself caught in the cross fire. His name was Ignace Jan Paderewski, and in this, his second season in America, he was the most adored, the most adulated, the most discussed, and the most interviewed pianist who had ever come to the New World to seek his fortune.