|The choice of 95% of concert artists, Steinway pianos are found in prestigious venues worldwide.|
The Steinway Story
How a family of German immigrants developed the piano as we know it today, invented the concept of “brand building,” and laid the foundation for an enterprise that, 165 years later, enjoys a unique place in the global market.
STEINWAY IS ARGUABLY the music industry’s most recognized trademark. For even the most musically indifferent, it’s synonymous with a quality piano. How the name achieved such prominence, and why it has retained its luster throughout numerous changes in leadership over the past 165 years, is the story of an enduring corporate culture centered on building superlative instruments. As Ron Losby, Steinway’s current CEO, sums it up, “We have never compromised.” This boast is supported by the more than 95% of concert artists who choose to perform on a Steinway.
The story of this renowned piano began on Saturday March 5, 1853. Bacon & Raven, New York’s largest piano maker, was on strike, and four of its best workmen, Heinrich Englehardt Steinweg and his three sons, chose that day to start their own piano business in a small storefront in lower Manhattan. With energy and ingenuity, they transformed a four-person workshop into a globally recognized firm within a decade.
“Even the non-musical
could readily distinguish
its superior resonance."
-Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 1855
Heinrich E. Steinweg (the name was later anglicized to Steinway), his wife Julianne, and five of his seven children (Doretta, Heinrich Jr., Wilhelmina, Wilhelm, and Albrecht) had arrived in New York City three years earlier in 1850. Their instrument making shop in Seesen, Germany had provided them a comfortable living, producing about 10 pianos a year along with zithers, guitars, and the occasional pipe organ. However, Heinrich chafed at oppressive instrument making guilds and steep taxes that limited his opportunity. When a violent democratic uprising in 1848 convulsed Europe, effectively shut his business down for a year, he sent his son Charles to New York to explore possible opportunities in what he called the “new world.”
Charles Steinway, then a young man of 20, reached New York in 1849 and quickly parlayed his instrument making skills into a job as a fine tuner and tone regulator with Bacon & Raven. The city was gripped in a typhoid epidemic at the time, horse manure was piled high on the streets, and immigrants were crowded into tenement housing, yet Charles still persuaded his father to emigrate, citing the tremendous commercial opportunity. The family sailed for New York in 1850, but eldest son C.F. Theodor stayed behind to continue the family business.
In 1850, piano manufacturing was one of the largest industries in America. With the exception of the Singer sewing machine, a piano was the only product in which the name of the manufacturer had nationwide recognition. In 1853, the U.S. Patent Office estimated that American piano manufacturers employed some 1,900 workers to produce 9,000 pianos with an aggregate value of $2.1 million.
Upon arriving in New York, the Steinway family moved into cramped quarters in lower Manhattan. Henry Sr., Henry Jr., and Albert joined Charles at the Bacon & Raven factory, while William Steinway went to work at William Nunns & Co. In his meticulous diaries, William later explained that they went to work in different factories to “familiarize themselves with the requirements and tastes of the American musical community. Though possessing a reasonable amount of capital, we did not start in business for ourselves until three years later.”
|Steinway & Sons started in a small workshop on Walker Street in lower Manhattan in 1853.
In 1853, the first World’s Fair in America opened in the Crystal Palace on New York’s 42nd St. and 6th Ave. The enormous facility had been financed by civic minded patrons who wanted to shake off New York’s reputation as a provincial backwater. In an age without any mass methods of communication, it provided a primary vehicle for enabling the consumer, the shopkeeper, and the manufacturer to learn about new products.
Millions of New Yorkers, including the Steinways, saw the new wonders of art, mechanics, and science that led The New York Times to declare it “The Age of Improvement.” Among the items on display were an interesting collection of European and American pianos, including instruments by Pleyel of France, Broadwood of England, and Chickering and Hallet & Davis of the United States. William R. Steinway, the most driven and energetic of Heinrich’s children, was quick to appreciate the commercial value of the awards handed out and vowed that at the next opportunity, Steinway would participate and win.
The following year, William placed a Steinway & Sons piano on display at the Metropolitan Fair in Washington, D.C. It was a conventional square grand, then the most popular type of piano, and contained no noteworthy innovations. However, it received a first prize for “superior workmanship,” which the family began touting at their showroom on Walker Street.
From the day Batholomeo Cristofori invented the pianoforte around 1700, designers and manufacturers began working to make the instrument more powerful and resonant. One of the first major design breakthroughs came in 1823 when Sebastian Erard, the French piano maker, reinforced his piano case with four iron bars. The iron supports increased the strength of the piano case, which made it possible to more than triple string tension to 9,000 pounds, delivering significantly increased dynamic range.
A New Way To Advertise
Exactly 15 years later, Jonas Chickering, the Boston piano maker, developed the one-piece cast iron plate that allowed for 40,000 pounds of string tension, setting a new standard for power and volume. Only U.S. foundries had the expertise to cast a large iron piano plate, as European technology lagged. As a result, U.S. piano makers enjoyed a competitive advantage. While Chickering’s revolutionary grand was lauded for its power, several contemporary reviews complained of its “thin and metallic tone.”
The Steinways recognized the merits of Chickering’s one-piece plate and set about improving it. They used a different iron alloy and modified the flange where it fastened to the frame. Then they took the added step of overlapping the bass and treble strings, making it possible to utilize longer strings. Their resulting square grand matched the Chickering’s power, but with superior tone. Displayed at the Crystal Palace in 1855, the resulting piano received the highest honors: first prize for “All Mechanical Devices” exhibited. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper wrote, “Even the non-musical could readily distinguish its superior resonance.” Hundreds of thousands saw the piano at the Crystal Palace, elevating both Steinway’s reputation and its sales.
Early Steinway innovator C.F. Theodor
"commenced those revolutionary improvements
which have made the Steinway
a synonym of perfection in piano building."
Steinway’s prowess in constructing pianos of distinction was matched by an equally creative approach to marketing. In the pre-Civil War era, ads in The New York Times and other papers were type-set and appeared in the last pages, much like a classified section. Piano ads focused almost exclusively on price. John Jacob Astor, who eventually became one of the world’s richest men, perhaps set the tone with an 1816 ad that offered “slightly water damaged” pianos at a “sacrifice price.” William Steinway took a decidedly different tack, downplaying price to highlight the growing number of awards bestowed upon the Steinway.
This new marketing approach fueled demand and by 1860, Steinway & Sons had outgrown its workshop on Walker Street. That year, the company broke ground for a sprawling new factory on 52nd Street and Park Avenue (the present site of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel). Most of Steinway’s customers still lived downtown, so the Walker Street showroom was maintained.
At the opening of the new factory, a reporter from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper wrote that “about 350 men were constantly employed for a production of thirty square and five grand pianos every week. A splendid engine of 50 horsepower, situated outside the building in the yard, is used to drive all the machinery in the building.” He also noted, “the Harlem & New Haven railway cars pass directly in front, making hundreds of thousands of people acquainted with the name of Steinway...the factory forming a standing advertisement of incalculable value and not to be overlooked.”
With the new factory, Steinway applied its overstringing principles to grand pianos, receiving a patent in 1860. When S.B. Mills performed on the new piano with the New York Philharmonic, The New York Times music critic enthused, “This was one of the most majestic instruments we have ever heard in the concert room.” In 1862, the overstrung grand took first prize at the London World’s Fair, a victory that confirmed the wisdom of the design. Further affirmation came when every other European piano quickly copied what became referred to as “The Steinway System.” It also proved that U.S. producers could more than hold their own against more established European rivals.
Virtually every grand piano
offered today is based on
Steinway's Centennial Grand.
In 1865, a double tragedy befell the Steinway family. On March 11th, as the Civil War drew to a close, Henry Steinway Jr. died at the age of 34. Two weeks later, Charles Steinway died while visiting his brother Theodor in Germany. The sudden loss of two sons, while a third, Colonel Albert Steinway, was serving with the 6th Regiment of the Union Army, crippled the company management. Responding to the needs of his family, C.F. Theodor immediately sold the German piano business and sailed to New York to come to the aid of his father and younger brother William.
C.F. Theodor was 39 when he arrived in New York. An accomplished pianist, he had also studied acoustics in Germany. Once at the Steinway factory, he took charge of the construction department and began applying his acoustical knowledge to further the advancement of the piano. Through most of the 19th century, piano design and construction was more intuitive than scientific. C.F. Theodor broke new ground with his use of a more disciplined analytic approach. At a laboratory in his house, he constantly experimented with various materials and designs. In addition, he collaborated with the renowned German physicist and acoustician Hermann von Helmholtz. (Helmholtz’s most notable accomplishment was the first scientific analysis of overtones and how they affect tonal quality.)
Between 1865 and 1875, C.F. Theodor personally developed the most important series of piano inventions ever patented by a single individual. Alfred Dolge, the leading supplier of raw materials to the industry, said of him that “he commenced those revolutionary improvements which have made the Steinway a synonym of perfection in piano building.”
The first Steinway overstrung grand had been well received on the concert stage and by piano buyers. However, as concert halls grew larger and composers created more technically challenging music, the demand arose for an even more powerful instrument. C.F. Theodor addressed this demand with a patented one-piece rim made from 18 layers of maple veneer. He reasoned correctly that a heavier, more rigid rim would absorb less of the soundboard’s vibration, allowing for greater resonance and sustain. In 1876, in conjunction with the U.S. Centennial, the one-piece rim was integrated into the “Centennial Grand.” Measuring 8'9" long with 88 keys, the new grand boasted an unprecedented 70,000 pounds of string tension and firmly established Steinway & Sons as the most technically advanced piano maker. While there have been hundreds of subsequent refinements in design and construction techniques, virtually every grand piano offered today is based on the Centennial grand.