Commercial Revolution: The Home Piano

It is difficult or even impossible to imagine, at any point in time, pop songs without music to accompany lyrics; without musical accompaniment, lyrics would simply be lyric poems and not necessarily songs.  For example, swing tunes from the 1930s would not swing without a band and disco music from the 1970s would not be danceable without a beat.  During the 1890s when the music industry was energetically publishing and promoting pop songs, the choice for musical accompaniment was the piano.  Long before per-recorded music was the norm and decades before radio and television brought music directly into the home, consumers purchased songs in sheet music format to be performed on the home piano.  The importance of the home piano cannot be understated in the development of pop song history, since nearly every home in America that could afford a piano had one as entertainment; if there were no way of producing music at home, I do not think that songs could have obtained commercial success in the way that they did without this innovation.For the pop song to have commercial appeal, people had to learn how to play the piano accompaniment which was paired with the lyrics of the sheet music.  While understanding the piano in modern America, according to Craig Roell, “requires a grasp of the peculiar interaction of the work ethic, domesticity, and the morality of music with the piano industry”[1] it also requires an investigation on how the cultures of piano and domesticity led to the popularity of commercial pop song in America.

            How the piano transitioned from a musical instrument intended for the concert hall into a domestic home appliance in the span of 30 years is itself a study of commercialism, marketing and business.  Through the 1870s and 1880s, a revolution in piano manufacturing created a vast number of less expensive pianos on the market available to consumers.  But like many new inventions in America during the Gilded Age like the telephone or the typewriter, Americans had to be convinced that buying a piano was worth the investment.  “It is difficult to make a piano, but much more difficult to sell it,”[2] observes Alfred Dolge.  In order to use a piano at home, though, the consumer had to learn how to play it and, long before popular song was a popular art form, the music publishing industry found that it could make money producing method books for piano instruction.  The aesthetic tastes of the times reflected the piano techniques of European virtuosi while the social mores of the day dictated that the toil of such domestic work like piano playing was left to the lady of the household.  Consequently, ladies and girls were schooled in technical, virtuosic piano playing.  However, ladies learning these virtuosic techniques at home bored of the constant dexterity practice and “scientific” instruction.  While piano sales increased and with more people playing it at home, a market for the pop song sprang from the market of the home piano.  

            Throughout the nineteenth century, the piano had a meteoric rise in popularity, but took its own distinctly American and marketed form.  In 1842, Charles Dickens, on a visit to America remarked on how the country had fallen in love with the piano.[3]  The piano was a European invention and in Europe, music schools, instruments manufacturers and musicians had the support of royalty and emperors.[4]  In America, however, there was no royal family in existence who could financially support music and so, American piano manufacturers from their infancy had to rely on persistent and constant marketing to showcase their products and encourage people to purchase their instruments.[5]  One such marketing technique that blended entertainment and business was the sponsored tour of America, in which pianists, usually classically trained in Europe, performed well-publicized concerts showing off the pianists’ skills and the piano brand, performing next to an advertisement for the instrument that the audience was hearing.[6]  Steinway for example, sponsored Anton Rubenstein for a tour in 1872, Chickering sponsored Hans von Bulow three years later.  Piano maker William Knabe & Co. even paid the expense of bringing Peter Illych Tchaikovsky to the United States in 1891.[7]  Piano makers had confidence that using such famous European performers to make their pianos popular would encourage people to invest in a piano for the home. 

            Marketing events like these sponsored tours did not, in fact, lead to immediate consumer enthusiasm or brisk sales of pianos made by Steinway or Chickering. There are a number of possibilities why the piano did not fit in the lives of ordinary Americans.  It was expensive,[8] it took up a lot of space in the home, and if ordered from a company by catalogue, it took months to arrive.  Before America’s Industrial Age, piano making in America was more craft and trade than business,[9] with its own system of apprenticeship and technical skill producing and assembling minute parts.  The typical indenture for an apprentice in the piano maker was seven years in fact.[10]  With so many small, complicated mechanisms per key, production costs were astronomically high and piano factories did not produce many instruments annually during the middle of the nineteenth century.  But, American piano manufacturers did gain some European support; in 1862, the Steinway Company had a booth at the London Exposition of that year[11] and the celebrated pianist Sigismund Thalberg was so impressed with the Chickering piano he had played on his sponsored tour of America during the 1850s that he paid for pianos to be shipped back to Europe.[12] By 1867, sales were slowly increasing and reputations of American piano builders were building, just not as brisk a pace as they would in the coming four decades.

            In 1870, a new production method would eventually transform the piano industry in America from artful craft to mass-produced commodity.  The change itself was a purely fiscal decision of a businessman, without any intent involving art of the piano or beauty in music.[13]  Joseph Hale, a businessman who had earned his fortune in crockery, was looking for an investment vehicle for capital to grow an industry and had found one with a piano factory.  For Hale, the piano had the potential to become a household appliance rather than the concert instrument that it had been and this philosophy could consequently earn him a profit.[14]  The first problem was to manufacture a piano quicker and more efficiently, by outsourcing the smaller piano parts involved with actions and keys and simply using his factory to assemble the components of the instrument in a compact upright cabinet form.  New and smaller divisions of labor had been created, individual parts had been outsourced and a lower stock of parts had been inventoried.  Eventually, this process managed to produce over one hundred pianos per week,[15] compared to Steinway’s output, which was roughly thirty per year in 1850, just twenty-five years previous.[16] For Hale, it was not merely an instrument on which to create music, but rather a business opportunity to invest funds and make money and his process resulted in a number of new commercial piano companies, each producing tens of thousands of cheaper pianos per annum.

            With so many pianos now coming onto the market and more commercial piano manufacturers going into business during the 1870s and 1880s, there needed a potential customer to purchase, lease or take out a loan for it. During this era, the piano was a domestic art for and it was the lady of the household who was in charge of learning it.  Women stayed at home, tended to the children, and made the home a refuge from the day’s stresses and music provided an entertaining toil in the household.  Yet, learning to play the piano while also tending to an entire household was hard work, and, according to Craig H Roell, such hard work was “morally purifying because it built character, fortitude, self-control and perseverance,”[17] admirable characteristics for Victorian Age America.  The messages of womanly piano playing were so engrained in society that the piano was often touted as a gateway to courtship and marriage.[18]  If piano manufacturers wanted to sell their products, they needed female consumers to purchase them and advertised aggressively to reach customers.

            However, simply having a home piano did not mean that it was inherently entertaining, ladies of the household had to learn how to play the instrument and make it useful, which required publishing music for instruction.  Before pop song era, music publishers did not publish many popular songs since they were not very successful.  When Stephen Foster’s “Massa’s in de Cold Cold Groun’” sold 75,000 copies, it was considered extremely successful in 1852[19] and so, music publishing was focused instead on instructional methods.  It was business to get more women to learn how to play the instrument and buy instruction methods. During the late nineteenth century, the public had a taste for piano music that was technical, agile and fast; flashy piano pieces showcasing the speed and dexterity of the European school inspired by pianists like Franz Liszt.  Within this musical environment came various methods for the piano, not simple instruction of its play, but rather technical mastery of the keyboard.  Americans purchased such books with enthusiasm at a brisk pace, for example, one such method book, the Method of the German Klavier School, had grown into four volumes and was in its seventeenth printing by 1884.[20]The virtuosic piano mentality was so engrained in America that even ragtime composer Scott Joplin advocated the advanced methods of piano instruction than popular songs of the day.[21]  It seems as though music publishers could sell to a customer who had time for hours of practice daily.

            Such methods of virtuosic piano instruction for women and girls produced ire with female students of the Klavier School.  Women and girls were drilled for hours at a time at speed tests, scales, arpeggi, chords and agility etudes, but these methods do not seem to have had any objectives other than giving women another task to do in the home.  The method of Karl Czerny required three hours of practice everyday.[22]  Most piano teachers did not expect their students to follow the path to concert hall and Roell observes, “Accomplishment was secondary to the dignity, graceful manner, and moral replenishment inherent in learning music.”[23] It seems as though virtuosic piano methods existed for learning’s sake without any further application of the skill outside the home.  Oftentimes, woman found musical exercise for exercise sake boring and without heart and this kind of rigid practicing routine was dull and uninspiring.  For music publishers to create a bigger group of people to purchase their music, the market would have to expand to include more entertaining and even melodic forms of music. 

This is where I think the market for the pop songs truly began, with the boredom of the kind of playing expected from woman and the kind of technical music they were expected to learn.  The virtuosic piano music trade did not last long in the commercial piano era and instead, music publishers began producing popular songs with lyrics and piano accompaniment.  By the time that Tin Pan Alley, so named due to the number of pianos ringing from the windows of music publishers,[24] had gained success in the 1890s, consumers suddenly had an appetite for Romantic Age ballads.  In 1893 for example, waltzes like “O Promise Me,” “Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two),” and “The Fatal Wedding,” soon replaced virtuosic methods as the pop song became a form of home entertainment, selling hundreds of thousands of copies each and making millions of dollars.  It is interesting to note that if such a ballad were played in a saloon, according to one saloon owner, “the customers in my saloon would shatter their beer glasses in derision”[25] and so such popular songs were likely played at home and, if becoming popular enough, incorporated into vaudeville shows and musical theater.  By 1900, pianos and sheet music were nearly everywhere in American consumer society, in department stores where “piano girls” demonstrated the piano.  Publishers even produced folios and advertisements promoting the most popular and sensational songs of the day.[26]

            Eventually the market for piano had become so large that department stores had piano and sheet music departments, large conglomerates of piano manufacturers came into being. In fact, some had grown so large that they debuted on the stock exchange and piano trade groups held posh, lavish conventions.[27]  Marketing the piano was a tremendous success and by 1910, annual piano production reached over three hundred thousand instruments.[28] By 1900, everyone involved with music writing, publishing and piano manufacturing was involved with plugging their products ruthlessly.  All of these developments in the business of the piano and the rise of the pop song were due to its massive commercial success as a domestic appliance and decline of piano method books, leaving music consumers to play the accompanying parts of pop songs instead of the piano method books by which they had been taught.

References

Chase, Gilbert.  America’s Music:  From the Pilgrims to the Present, 2nd ed.  New York:  McGraw-Hill.  1966.

Colles, H.C.  The Growth of Music.  New York:  Oxford University Press. 1978.

Dolge, Alfred.  Pianos and Their Makers:  A Comprehensive History of the Development of the Piano.  New York:  Dover Publications.  1911.

Eyerman, Charlotte N. and James Parakilas. “1820 to 1870s:  The Piano Calls the Tune.”  Contained in James Parakilas, et al.  Piano Roles:  Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano.  New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press. 1999.

Furia, Philip.  Poets of Tin Pan Alley:  A History of America’s Great Lyricists.  New York:  Oxford University Press.  1990.

Hoover, Cynthia Adams.  “Pianos for Sale.”  Contained in James Parakilas, et al.  Piano Roles:  Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano.  New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press. 1999.

——-.  “Promoting the Piano.”  Contained in James Parakilas, et al.  Piano Roles:  Three Hundred Years with the Piano.  New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press.  1999.

——-.  “The Workshop.”  Contained in James Parakilas, et al.   Piano Roles:  Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano.  New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press.  1999.

Lieberman, Richard K.  Steinway & Sons.  New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press.  1995.

Parakilas, James.  “A History of Lessons and Practicing.”  Contained in James Parakilas, et al.  Piano Roles:  Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano.  New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press. 1999.

Roell, Craig H.  The Piano in America:  1890-1940.  Chapel Hill, NC:  The University of North Carolina Press.  1989.


[1] Craig H Roell, The Piano in America:  1890-1940, (Chapel Hill, NC:  The University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 3.

[2] Alfred Dolge, Pianos and Their Makers:  A Comprehensive History of the Development of the Piano, (New York:  Dover Publications, 1911), 165.

[3] Charlotte N Eyerman and James Parakilas, “1820 to 1870s:  The Piano Calls the Tune,” contained in James Parakilas, et al., Piano Roles:  Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano, (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1999), 181.

[4] H.C. Colles, The Growth of Music, (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1978), 192-193.

[5] Dolge, 174.

[6] Gilbert Chase, America’s Music:  from the Pilgrims to the Present, (New York:  McGraw-Hill, 1966), 322.

[7] Roell, 7.

[8] For examples on the price of pianos, see Cynthia Adams Hoover, “Pianos for Sale,” contained in James Parakilas, Piano Roles:  Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano, (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1999), 40.

[9] Dolge, 179.

[10] Cynthia Adams Hoover, “The Workshop,” contained in James Parakilas, Piano Roles:  Three Hundred Year of Life with the Piano, (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1999), 42.

[11] Richard K. Lieberman, Steinway & Sons, (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1995), 31.

[12] ibid, 29.

[13] Cynthia Adams Hoover, “Promoting the Piano,” contained in James Parakilas, et al., Piano Roles:  Three Hundred Years with the Piano, (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1999), 61.

[14] Dolge, 181.

[15] ibid, 180.

[16] Cynthia Adams Hoover, “The Workshop,” contained in James Parakilas, et al, 43.

[17] Roell, 4-5.

[18] ibid, 26.

[19] Furia, 20.

[20] Roell, 8.

[21] ibid, 35.

[22] James Parakilas, “A History of Lessons and Practicing,” contained in James Parakilas, et al., Piano Roles:  Three Hundred Years of Life with the Piano, (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 1999), 140.

[23] Roell, 13.

[24] Furia, 19.

[25] ibid, 23.

[26] Roell, 46.

[27] ibid, 69.

[28] Dolge, 181.

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About morganhowland

I am a recent college graduate with a degree in American History. I am also a music nerd who likes keeping up with current music and knowing anything about pop songs of the past. Combining the two ambitions into a blog of essays on various topics of popular song history seems like an appropriate thing to do.

9 responses to “Commercial Revolution: The Home Piano”

  1. doc says :

    Morgan,

    Interesting article on the place of the home piano in the history of the American popular song. I hadn’t been aware that the home piano was as ubiquitous during the latter part of the 19th century as you suggest. I’d have thought that the expense alone would have made it an exorbitant possession, beyond the means of all but a relatively small class of families and individuals. If music publishers required customers “who had time for hours of practice daily,” and those customers had to study methods which necessitated up to three hours per day to become proficient at playing the piano fashionably, the target market would seem to have been provisionally limited to an elite class accustomed to leisure.

    It is not surprising that the drilling “for hours at a time at speed tests, scales, arpeggi, chords and agility etudes” that would have been, as you indicate, expected of the piano student of the time (especially in the two decades preceding the popular music explosion of the 1890s) might havetypically led to boredom and disenchantment with the instrument and the enterprise, but was such study was so impractical that you can conclude that “these methods do not seem to have had any objectives other than giving women another task to do in the home.” I presume these women would occasionally attempt to entertain with their method-learned virtuosic playing not only their husbands, families, and friends, but perhaps also in larger, more diverse social settings. Wouldn’t the incessant dexterity practice, and “scientific” instruction aiming to produce piano playing that was “technical, agile and fast” tend to develop skills that could be applied to solo piano recitals of classical pieces, hymns and other religious music, traditionals?

    If piano manufacturers were able to flood the market with the home piano in such a preposterous manner as you suggest — to train a woman on it as an athlete performs reps of exercises and drills in order to increase strength, speed, dexterity, endurance, etc., though without the athlete’s advantage of being able to apply the acquired skills in practical ways — then it becomes fascinating to consider that speculators of the 1880s might have been prescient enough to recognize the presence of those tens of thousands of pianos in homes as the seeds of a potentially enormous, yet till then virtually untapped market.

    • morganhowland says :

      Doc,
      Thank you for bringing up these excellent points, I appreciate your feedback.

      Regarding the price of the piano, certainly a new appliance for the home could put financial pressures on some household. But retailers and even piano companies selling directly had a solution: buy now and pay later, the same scheme that allows people to make big purchases here in the twenty-first century. The Sears and Roebuck Catalogue from 1900 offered financing options like $1 down and affordable monthly payments.

      As far as the “scientific method” for piano instruction, it seemed like a publishing craze. Our local music libraries at Cornell and Ithaca College (which started out as a music conservatory) have a number of volumes of these piano books. Scales, arpeggi, drills and etudes, the authors’ own compositions, fill the pages of these instruction manuals.

      The issue of time and class is an interesting question that I haven’t considered. But it makes sense to investigate this topic. I did find examples of annoyed parents who paid good money for lesson, or even sent students to school for music, whose children weren’t keeping up with the gruelling curriculum. It was the Victorian Age, hard work like this was often seen as virtuous. But something must have gone right considering that sheet music with piano accompaniment became a mass media for pop music.

      I hope this answers some questions and clarifies this points. his essay was one of my earliest one and I have intent on adding more information, but I haven’t. I like your insights though and if you have any questions about any of my other essays, feel free to ask.

      –Morgan Howland

      • doc says :

        Hey Morgan,

        Thanks. I imagine the expense was far more prohibitive for some families before the introduction of mass-production methods in 1870 that you describe. After that, with payment plan options, more middle class families would have been able to afford the instrument.

        The upright piano, too, would have presumably been a factor in the expansion of the market. Due to it’s compact construction, an upright would have been easier to transport, and to find a place for in smaller homes, as well as in school rooms, cafes, saloons, etc. but was presumably also less expensive to build. All of these factors would have made it an easier sell to those on relatively tight budgets.

      • morganhowland says :

        Precisely. It’s popularity was not just about price, but also how the upright piano fit within the home. If you can find it (I have been waiting for it to come out on DVD so I can get a hard copy), the documentary “Apocalypse: WWI,” a four or five hour documentary of nothing but archive film footage of the war, there are a very few frames of film that show upright pianos with their own alcoves in the trenches. So, yes, cheap and compact pianos had become very popular indeed.

      • doc says :

        Upright less expensive to build compared to the grand piano, I meant, and therefore less costly to the consumer.

  2. doc says :

    Sorry about the mixed metaphor at the end.

  3. doc says :

    Clarification: By “the place of” the home piano in the history of American popular song, I meant “the significance of” the home piano in that history, or “the importance of.” The WordPress spell check objected to each those phrases (suggesting they might contain “hidden verbs” I later discovered) and without much though I decided to settle for the vague “place” instead of “significance.” I should know better than to be cowed by an automated grammar cop.

  4. doc says :

    P.S. Please check your spelling in the title of this piece. 🙂

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