- Historic Sites
The Piano In The Parlor
For a century the piano was America’s radio, phonograph, and television set, as well as its finishing school and its supreme status symbol
December 1965 | Volume 17, Issue 1
… and practice daily for an hour
The refining influence of music was not evident in the travelling canvassers who peddled pianos through the heartland of America from a platform spring wagon. The piano agent, who often also sold sewing machines, operated in the spirit of salesmanship as it was practiced in the eighteen nineties. Drawn to a prosperous farmer by a kind of tropism, the piano salesman sometimes pretended that his dray had broken down in front of the farm home. Could he just put the piano in the parlor for a few days? He knew it would never leave the house if there were daughters about. Once George P. Bent, who learned the game when he was handling sewing machines exclusively, moved a Crown piano into a farmhouse while the occupants were away. Waiting until he saw the family returning, the crafty agent started to sing reverently, “Lead, Kindly Light,” accompanying himself on the shiny new Crown. Needless to say, under such circumstances, the girls cornered their father and whispered tensely, “Git it, Pa. Git it, Pa.” And so another Kansas hog went into the spring wagon as a down payment, another farmer’s note was quickly discounted at the nearest country bank, while the piano man departed rejoicing:
For a farmer who had money and a girl, we’d unload From our office on our wagon, from our wagon on the road.
In order to get his genuine “Pickering” or “Steinmay” into the home, the piano salesman also made good use of such selling techniques as the “going out of business” gambit, free instruction offers, and testimonials from prominent persons as oddly assorted as A. Conan Doyle and Lillian Russell. Other popular merchandising schemes included the lottery and the auction of the effects—which always included a few pianos—of a fictitious dead person. The Epworth Piano Company sold cheap pianos at a rather high price through the Methodist clergy; lettered in golden Gothic on the fall-board was the magic word, “Epworth.” Music teachers were often retained to push a particular brand of piano or to torpedo the sale of another. In some instances the piano tuner might be the confederate in the background. He could “fix” a rival instrument, placed in a home on trial, even while the buyer was watching. If the parlor already contained an old piano, the teamwork between tuner and salesman worked like this: A few days alter the tuner’s visit, a personable young man would greet the lady of the house at her door by name and compliment her on the remarkable musical prowess of Matilda, aged twelve. Sometimes he gave little brother a musical aptitude test on the spot, invariably uncovering another prodigy of the same caliber as Josef Hofmann. He would then point out how nice it would be, when grandmother came down from Wisconsin at Thanksgiving, for Matilda or little brother to have a new piano worthy of “The Robin’s Return.”
The man who showed the firmest grasp of the fundamental fact that a piano was a piano to a public that could not tell one make from another was William Wallace Kimball. His Kimball Piano Company became the largest American manufacturer. Kimball perfected what was called, not always in admiration, the “Kimball system” of distributing his merchandise. And so successful was he at providing “Music for the Multitudes” that his operation in the trade was compared to that of the Standard Oil Company in the world of petroleum marketing. Kimball lived to join the Chicago millionaires on fashionable Prairie Avenue in his own version of a twelfth-century French château. His death enriched the Chicago Art Institute with works by Rembrandt, Corot, Millet, and leading representatives of eighteenth-century British painting. An admirer, saluting in home-grown verse the great men of all ages, lyricized:
Their lives are a living symbol No greater merchant prince e’er lived Than William Wallace Kimball.
In one instance vouched for by a modern investigator, Mr. Kimball actually refused to sell a piano to a willing buyer obviously able to pay for it. The Everleigh sisters, Miss Minna and Miss Ada, came to Chicago from Omaha, with Miss Minna explaining, “A girl has to start somewhere.” As operators of the most exclusive sporting house in the city, the sisters wished to have a gold-plated piano in their atelier, played by a professor in evening dress. But Mr. Kimball refused their order for the custom job, even though the sisters insisted that their establishment was a “private conservatory of music.” The Everleigh Club had to send to New York for a piano.
The piano agent was as aggressive at collecting as he was at selling, and he knew the law—what constituted a valid order, how to attach a debtor’s property, the United States Bankruptcy Act, the rights and remedies of a holder of a bank check, the statute of limitations. And in parts of the West he travelled with a gun across his knees, as did Chester Ellsworth, who sold sewing machines and pianos out of Boise, Idaho. It was generally known on the piano grapevine that a party of thieving Sioux had once relieved Ben King of his Kimball, and hadn’t even signed the installment contract.