- 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
In more settled country, the piano traveller cut quite a dashing social figure. He wore muttonchop whiskers and a high celluloid collar, a frock coat with a great linen handkerchief billowing from his breast pocket, and a silk hat. He was a liberal patron of the livery stables, appreciated a good Havana, and was reputed to have a sweetheart in every town. After a brisk game of croquet with the girls, his photos found their way into countless plush albums. Sometimes the piano traveller liked to adjourn to an alcoholic shrine and raise a tumbler of whiskey. A western piano retailer once said to a well-known drummer, Colonel Edward Saxton Payson, later president of the Emerson Piano Company, “Do you drink whiskey?” To which the Colonel replied genially: “Well, well, is this a trial or an invitation?”
An important segment of the industry sold direct, factory-to-family, and vigorously attacked both the sedentary retailer and the wayfaring canvasser, playing heavily upon the rural hostility to the “middleman’s profit.” The Cornish piano was shipped, it was proclaimed, at the dealer’s “inside price.” The Larkin Company of Buffalo not only sold soap and toilet supplies but also handled a Symphonic Player-Piano, with bench, scarf, and music book, at a special price to all who bought their toiletries from Larkin. The advertising columns of the “story papers” not only urged the reader to buy a hair grower, stop that stammering, patent that invention, or develop that bust, but also offered the Meister piano at $195, no cash down, no interest, no extras.
In 1905, before the bathroom emerged as the shrine of the American home, there were more pianos and organs in this country than bathtubs. In that year, Sears, Roebuck & Company offered in its catalogue four versions of the Beckwith. The big “wish book” reserved its most extravagant hyperbole for the Beckwith Acme Grand Concert Piano at $165, which a regular retailer would have to sell, if he could get one, for about $200. Despite the grandeur of its name, this piano was an upright, and it looked like a wedding cake, with its heavily-carved music desk and its keyhoard supported by four Grand Rapids caryatids. Montgomery Ward & Company proudly placed the name Windsor on the fall-board of its instrument. These pianos were all of the class known as “stencils.” This was a merchandising device, the conception of Joseph P. Hale, of Worcester, Massachusetts. He supplied an unlabelled piano to any wholesale buyer who might wish to stencil a name of his own choosing upon it and, if his conscience permitted, advertise himself as the manufacturer.
The piano, the girl, and the aspiration for the graces of life called into being an army of music teachers, usually women. The teachers burned to find another Liszt. But more often than not they had to settle for a pupil with little aptitude who repeated the same clinker ad infinitum, always playing the downbeat of the fourth bar one-half tone too high. Such an instructor must have been Miss Louise Forest, who charged fifty cents a lesson and eventually taught the late Fred Allen to play “Pitter, Patter, Little Rain Drops” on his Aunt Lizzie’s Emerson upright. Allen, in an adolescent detour before his climb to fame, became the scourge of delinquent installment purchasers for a piano store on Boylston Street in Boston. Allen was cast as the star in a theatrical performance staged at the front door of reluctant payers deemed to have “stolen” a piano. The production involved two husky piano movers, a one horse wagon, a large coil of rope, a block and tackle—and Fred Allen to cue the action, which consisted of an elaborate pretense that the Colonial Piano Company wanted its piano back.
Teresa Carreño, the Venezuelan piano virtuoso, could at the age of fourteen read any music placed before her; but what most girls hoped for was no more than the ability to cross hands with nonchalance in the Miserere section of a medley of arias from Il Trovatore . When the weather was warm for May and vacation fever set in, the wise teacher bowed to the inevitable, made the season’s last lesson a review of what was optimistically called the pupil’s “repertoire,” and Junior Miss departed joyfully for the summer hiatus with nothing to do musically for three months. It was the hope of dedicated teachers like Miss Taletta Williamson, of Quincy, Illinois, that the young artiste would at least keep up her finger exercises, with fingers curved as nice and high as possible, and pass the leisure hours of the good old summertime reading the lives of the great composers.
Well, if you insist …
Miss Taletta never knew the joy of turning up another Madame Bloomfield-Zeisler. But she does figure in an authenticated incident not without pathos when she explained, with some titillation upon her own part, “Perhaps I shouldn’t give you this piece, the barcarolle from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann , because the music is often considered to be passionate.”
To which Miss Braids replied, with round eyes: “What is ‘passionate,’ Miss Taletta?”