- 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
There was another approach to the literature of the piano. One could “recite … through the Postoffice” to the Siegel-Myers Correspondence School of Music. Siegel-Myers chivvied its prospective patrons into answering its advertisements with the worrisome question: “Do You Know How Paderewski Holds His Hands at the Piano?” Sears, Roebuck was also in the business of giving piano instruction by mail, as was a Dr. Quinn, who announced from Boston, “I’ll Teach You Piano in Quarer Usual Time.” The Easy Method Music Co. did even better: “Learn to Play the Piano in One Evening.”
It was one of these mail-order concerns, the U.S. School of Music, which published the famous advertisement about Jack, a deceitful little exhibitionist who, after a turn as a social clown, moved and shook his friends with his magical rendering of the “Moonlight Sonata.” As the last notes died away, men were pumping Jack’s hand and beautiful girls were “carrying on” over his artistry at the keyboard. Before the reader knew what had happened, he or she was in the firm grip of the Free Booklet and Demonstration Lesson. You know the enduring words with which the ad introduced us to Jack: “They Laughed When I Sat Down to the Piano—But When I Started to Play …”
Arthur, you will remember, had just finished “The Rosary” when Jack, a cold, calculating type, decided that this was the moment for him to stride confidently over to the piano. Lightly, with mock dignity, he dusted off the keys. Comically, he gave the stool a quarter turn, just as he had seen an imitator of Paderewski do in a vaudeville routine. Parodies of this fantasy appeared for years. A specimen: “They Laughed When I Stepped Up to the Piano. They Didn’t Know I Was from the Finance Company.”
The Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, visited by twelve million people, stimulated piano sales and amateur musicianship and helped send the little reed organ to the attic. Suddenly the family piano became the basis for the melody business, which sold sheet music in enormous quantities after 1900. And most of the music sold was gayer and more vulgar than that which had been played in the parlor a few years before. The new music, introduced at the Exposition by an itinerant clan of piano players from the world of sporting gentlemen and hip-swaying girls, consisted of the syncopated melodies that became ragtime. Almost everybody, it seemed, wanted to learn to rag. Mabel was delighted to discover that she had an instinct for finding keyboard combinations and said good-bye to “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” concentrating thereafter on developing a wicked bass for her interpretation of “Maple Leaf Rag.” Ben R. Harney published his Rag Time Instructor in 1897. Soon after that, Axel Christensen advertised “Ragtime Taught in Ten Lessons,” and opened studios in thirty-five cities. Employing such promotional gimmicks as ragtime contests, Christensen’s had by 1935 become alma mater for half a million syncopated old grads.
As the new music, better agricultural prices, an expanding middle class, and the easy availability of piano music lifted piano sales, helpful changes were taking place in the design of the instrument itself. Before 1900 the upright piano reared up more than five feet in height. By 1920, as a concession to changing taste and shrinking living space, the piano stood only about four feet two inches on its casters. The vigorous industry sold 300,000 units in 1910 and nearly 350,000 in 1923, many of them player pianos.
Edwin S. Votey invented the first practical player piano, which was equipped with such amenities as a phrasing lever, a melody button, a tempo control, and ivory keys made from the tusks of selected ranch-grown Indian elephants. The promotion of the player piano was directed to music lovers who hadn’t the time for the mastery of the hand-played piano; but who did have time to activate the mechanism that produced, say, “The Light Cavalry Overture.” “You,” said the Pianola people, “can play the piano as well as anyone,” thus removing the discussion from the area of self-development to a simpler world where “Even Pop Can Play the Pianola.”
The mechanical player was only one element in a complex of anti-piano influences. Soaring phonograph sales popularized the passive habit of listening. So did the radio—an instrument that provided much more varied entertainment than the player piano could. (By 1932 no player pianos were being shipped from factories at all.) The piano as a social symbol was done for. As one dealer phrased it, “Thousands of American parlors contain that shining monument to a past girlhood—a silent piano.” The parlor was not only silent. It was empty. Everybody had gone to the movies.