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The Piano In The Parlor

May 2024
15min read

For a century the piano was America’s radio, phonograph, and television set, as well as its finishing school and its supreme status symbol

When the historian James Parton declared in 1867 that the piano was only less important to the American home than the kitchen stove, he was pointing to a significant social phenomenon, if not necessarily an artistic one. The sale of twenty-five thousand pianos a year at the time, not counting imported ones, clearly indicated that the piano was the basic instrument for introducing musical knowledge to the new country. Its influence in the shaping of the genteel tradition appears very early.

“Almost every home included between the Delaware and the Schuylkill,” said the Philadelphia Mirror of Taste and Dramatic Censor in 1810, “has its piano or harpsichord. … Almost every young lady … can make a noise upon some instrument or other … we take it for granted that we are a very musical people.” Even at that date the perceptive commentator set forth a truth which has stood fast for all the generations when he noted that the attractions of amateur pianism among marriageable young ladies dropped oft sharply after mating. Or, as Grover Cleveland put it, more sentimentally: “In many an humble home throughout our land the piano has gathered about it the most sacred and tender association … with its music each daughter … touched … the heart of her future husband. …” Even when it stood silent in the parlor the piano had a dynamism about it which set the glossy instrument apart from the other furnishings—the carved love seats, the ottomans, the marble-topped tables, and the slippery horsehair-and-walnut sofas. The piano, the first luxury item to reach the mass market, epitomized family values and social aims. Its significance as one of the indicia of a “nice” family lasted until well within living memory.

The pianoforte made the transit to America in the eighteenth century. Thomas Jefferson saw a forte piano in 1771 and was charmed with it. The French journalist Brissot de Warville recorded that he saw an occasional piano in Boston drawing rooms in 1788. All were London-made. By 1840 the American “piano girl” was a recognizable type. To the democratic conviction that every nubile maiden had the potentiality for at least a partial conquest of the instrument was added the Christian conception of man as a free agent, moving ever closer to perfection; although the diarist Philip V. Fithian termed what he heard from a good many harpsichords in Virginia country houses “the musical phase of original sin.” As a girl, precocious Margaret Fuller began her formidable day with a brisk walk between five and six in the morning, then piano practice from six to seven. More piano later, between philosophy and Greek. In the evening, after studying Italian, she sang to her own accompaniment, then wrote in her journal, and called it a day.

“A lady,” commented Florence Hartley, in The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette , published in 1860 and frequently reissued for the next twenty years, “a lady without her piano, or her pencil, her library of French, German, or Italian authors, her fancy work and tasteful embroideries, is now rarely met with. …”

American inventiveness and technology contributed many improvements to piano design and construction, notably the solution of the problem of metal bracing through the introduction of a one-piece cast-iron frame which gave the instrument a higher tension than had been known before. This development also made possible a successful resistance to the extremes of our climate and the pounding of healthy American girls who were working out on one of the popular battle pieces, a genre represented typically in James Hewitt’s “The Battle of Trenton.” This quaint composition was a test for any instrument. It undertook to depict musically such matters as Attack, Cannonading, Flight of the Hessians, General Confusion, Trumpets of Victory, and Articles of Capitulation Signed.

A composition of similar character which enjoyed an even greater vogue was Franz Kotzwara’s “Battle of Prague,” a showpiece largely responsible for making a pianophobe out of Mark Twain. This is the noisy, descriptive music which Huck Finn heard with astonishment when the young ladies of a distinguished military family—Colonel Grangerford’s—performed on the “little old piano … that had tin pans in it, I reckon.” The American piano became, indeed, so rugged that it appeared in the gold diggings when Leadville, Colorado, was still a tent city. It also, in numerous authenticated instances, withstood Kansas cyclones.

By 1886, seven out of ten pupils in the public schools of the United States were being taught to read music. According to a professional estimate made the next year, there were half a million piano pupils in the country. This meant that about eight per cent of American youth was engaging in this compulsory accomplishment, allowing for those who had “taken” but stopped.

The more serious or well-heeled students read the advertisements of German conservatories of music. A few of the piano girls actually made it to Berlin, living decorously in Königgrätzer Strasse, practicing five and six hours a day, searching for the magic touch, the passages that purl, the octaves performed from the lightly held wrist. “Let the fingers fall naturally,” Der Musiker roared, “ Spielen Sie mit dem Gewicht .” There was so much to think of—the chord, the well-sustained trill, the broken octaves and sixths, the chromatics, pedal work, the delicacy and refinement to be mastered in the kleine Passagen . The climax of four years of hard work and the expenditure of several thousands of dollars was a modest debut in the salle of a quiet hotel at some spa, the folding chairs occupied by an audience whose attendance the maestro could command. There was a pretty bouquet, a little champagne supper, congratulations, and Fräulein returned to Ohio to disappear forever from the pages of history. She had, at least, strolled in the Tiergarten, heard Clara Schumann play, glimpsed Bismarck, and attended Mrs. George Bancroft’s Washington’s Birthday parties at the American legation.

Amateur performers have ever been charged with coyness. “All singers,” Horace wrote, “have this fault, that they never can be found ready to sing.” As the diffusion of music through American society increased, the books on decorum took notice of the problems in behavior involved. Lady singers were admonished to sing or not to sing, but they were never to complain about their cold or hint that acquiescence might place an intolerable strain upon delicate vocal chords. If they did sing, songs “descriptive of masculine passion” were to be avoided. The piano girl was advised not to show up at a party with her music, or indicate that she expected to be asked to perform. Do not give evidence of anxiety to play, the etiquette writers said, yet do not insist upon being coaxed. If it is your unalterable intention to play—play. The nearest gentleman offers his arm, escorts the pianist to the instrument, holds her bouquet and gloves while she plays, and turns her music if he is a good sight reader. The musician is further informed that it is impolite to compare the hostess’ piano unfavorably with another or to point out what was probably true—that it needed tuning. In her playing she should avoid dramatic tricks or whimsicalities. Oddly enough, a search through an extensive collection of books dealing with the conduct of life does not produce any counsel on the important topic of when to stop, although Jane Austen touched upon it with her own special irony when she had Mr. Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice , dissuade his daughter from further performance on the ground that she had “delighted us long enough.”

Between 1890 and 1900 the number of pianos in use in American homes increased more than five times as fast as the population, and at the beginning of the new century the public owned a million pianos. One must see the deep yearning for a piano in the context of the life of the rural family. Few Americans living within even a hundred miles of a metropolitan center visited the city in the course of a year. There was no telephone, no phonograph, no radio, no automobile, no newspaper except the local weekly. Amusement, then, was generally confined to the short time between supper and bedtime, when the kerosene lamps were lighted and the daughter of the house played on the “pump organ” or the piano. What did she play? She ran through the well-loved hymns and such parlor pieces as “Hearts and Flowers” or Ethelbert Nevin’s lyrical “A Day in Venice,” out of which popped, when the music was first opened, a supply of fancy doilies.

In the cities of the eastern seaboard pianos of the highest quality continued to be produced, as they always had been since there was an American piano industry. But factories to turn out pianos in the medium price range were springing up closer to the mass market, in such furniture centers as Jamestown, New York, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Rockford, Illinois.

Rest the fingers lightly …

The great inland center for the manufacture of the $200 piano was Chicago, home of the Bush & Gerts, the Crown, the Washburn (“That’s my Washburn!”), and the Kimball, whose name was said to be as well known in the granger states as General Grant’s. These were the pianos, together with numerous others in the same price range—the Wing, the Everett, the Vose, the Fisher, the A. B. Chase, the Weber—which became the pivot of parlor life. There was a “Piano Row” in most large cities—New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago. Here the dignified showrooms were all serenity and red brocade. Grands with noble names on the fallboard—Steinway, Chickering, Henry F. Miller—were displayed and dramatized like Cartier necklaces. There were busts of Rachmaninoff, Liszt, and Hofmann on pedestals, and a painting of Schubert in the very frenzy of musical creation. Imitating this atmosphere as much as possible, most piano dealers in smaller communities acted as though they sold objets d’art . (Many of them also ran undertaking businesses oil the side.)

… 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.

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?”

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.

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