Chicago The Great Central Market Magazine, July 1907
CHICAGO AS A PIANO PRODUCING CENTER
By George B. Armstrong.
THREE hundred thousand pianos a year. That was approximately the piano product of the United States during 1906. This year, owing to prevailing conditions, it is likely that the output will be somewhat less, but if so, there will not be any serious falling off. Those who are unacquainted with the piano field and with piano statistics will be inclined to look upon these figures as something enormous. But they are not unreasonable. It must be borne in mind that piano fashions change; that pianos wear out; that thousands of new homes are being established every year in which the love of music is manifest, and the piano is its ordinary means of expression.
DEMANDS OF THE TRADE
If one looks at the situation in the abstract and declares that these 300,000 pianos represent a retail value of something like $90,000,000, then it is that the larger aspect is impressed upon the mind. The yearly percentage of increase in the 85,000,000 population of the United States, the accretion, as it were, is in itself immense. It gives each year a new field to be tilled by the piano manufacturers with profit, and this new field, with the old that is being constantly worker! over, demands a steady output of pianos.
The advent of the player piano, or the piano with the playing mechanism in its interior, is largely augmenting the annual production of pianos, simply because it brings into the homes of the nation, where music is loved but not mastered, the means of gratifying every musical taste. Good judges have reached the conclusion that within the next fifteen years the player piano will bring up the total piano output at least to 500,000 pianos a year.
The Cable Company Building
LEFT: Concept Drawing
RIGHT: 1900 Photograph
WHAT CHICAGO PRODUCES
Let us localize this subject. If in the United States, 300,000 pianos were made last year, it is safe to assume that the Chicago piano manufacturers, those whose headquarters are in Chicago, and who place the name “Chicago” on the fall board of their pianos, produced fully 75,000 pianos. This is the product of the Chicago piano manufacturers alone. Then, within a radius of 100 miles of Chicago, we can very truthfully add to this amount another 30,000 pianos, which will bring the total piano production of the Middle West to 105,000, or over one third of the entire product of the whole country. It is a difficult matter to secure accurate figures in estimating the piano output, because the individual manufacturers are not in the habit of letting outsiders into their confidence in too large a degree.
GROWTH OF THE TRADE
This showing is indeed wonderful when one stops to consider that it is only within recent years that the piano production in the West has amounted to anything at all. It is a historical fact, easily corroborated, that piano making in the West was fairly begun in the year 1887 and that the W. W. Kimball Co., who were then leading manufacturers of organs in this city, were among the first to build pianos on a large scale for the market.
To C. A. Smith, of this city, belongs the honor of first making pianos for the Chicago market. His first instrument was completed in April, 1884. Prior to that date there had been desultory attempts at piano manufacture in Chicago. Goold was one of these piano makers, Gerold was another, and Safford yet another. Granting them their full deserts, even so, they do not rank in any degree with the producers of pianos for the market. What they made they sold at retail by their own efforts in or about Chicago. So they are entirely eliminated from consideration in this connection.
W. W. Kimball Co.’s Piano and Organ Plant
Mr. Smith encountered many difficulties in selling his first piano. The dealers in the West ridiculed the idea that any piano made in Chicago could be worth anything at all, and that it was not even worth the trouble of an examination. But Mr. Smith was a man of courage and persistency, and he determined to make a place for his goods. He wrote letter after letter, and finally a dealer in Kansas City begged him to cease writing and send him a sample piano. Very shortly after this the same Kansas City dealer wrote for the immediate shipment of two more C. A. Smith pianos, with the emphatic proviso that “they must be as good as the first one.” In this way the great piano industry of Chicago laid its foundation.
Bush & Gerts Building
800 N. Clark Street
WHAT AIDED CHICAGO
The progress has been inspiring ever since that year. The geographical situation of Chicago and its position as the great central market of the West, with its magnificent transportation facilities, have given it a commanding influence and made it a formidable rival of the much older piano producing centers of the East. The ratio of progress in the past has been so remarkable that we may look for a much larger development during the next five years. Much of the Western territory is yet to be settled. There is ample room for the location of new towns, while in the East the percentage of growth is comparatively small. The importance of the Chicago-made piano is becoming more and more apparent every year.
The high character of the Chicago piano and, in fact, of the pianos made in the West has been admitted for many years. With quality in the favor of this section, with the benefits that are sure to follow the splendid shipping facilities and with its contiguity to such vast and fast developing territory, Chicago as a piano producing center will go forward by leaps and bounds.
A dozen years ago the Eastern manufacturers were inclined to sneer at the Chicago instrument as being a product that never could attain to a position above mediocrity. But during this interval of ten or twelve years, the Chicago standard of excellence has been greatly improved until to-day the Easterners are forced to recognize the unquestionable merits of the Chicago-built instrument. When a cheap piano — what is termed in trade vernacular a “thump box”— is wanted, it is not toward Chicago that the piano merchant turns his eyes, but toward New York, and it may be added that the merchant never fails to find what he desires in this line. Certain New York manufacturers make pianos at a price underneath any figure that the Chicago piano builders can offer. It is a matter of surprise to the piano men of the City by the Lake, how the Easterners are able to do it.
Cable Piano Company Factory
Key Fitters about 1918
St Charles, IL
LOCAL PRIDE AS A FACTOR
The Chicago piano manufacturer and his colleagues in the West take an honest pride in the excellence of their product. They want it to reach a point where its artistic quality will be quickly seen and appreciated, in fact will plead eloquently in behalf of its own merit. How admirably the manufacturers have succeeded in crystallizing this laudable sentiment is reflected by the high repute in which the Western piano is held. The great concert pianos of the country are yet made in the East but there are Western instruments that have reached that point of artistic excellence where they have the right to claim their share of the highest honors. It is certainly a noble place that the West in general, and Chicago in particular, claims in the industry devoted to piano manufacture.
Thompson Piano Manufacturing Plant
Chicago enjoys the distinction of having the greatest individual piano producers in the world. There are no piano manufacturers either in foreign lands or in the boundaries of this country, that can equal, as producers of pianos and organs, the W. W. Kimball Co., the Cable Company, and the Steger & Sons’ Piano Mfg. Co. The output of each one of these noted establishments is enormous.
Then there are other big producers in Chicago, like the Cable-Nelson Piano Co.; the Bush & Gerts Piano Co.; Geo. P. Bent; the Price & Teeple Piano Co; the Newman Bros. Co; and the Thompson Piano Co., that help to swell the Chicago production to huge figures. No one can understand the piano situation here until an inspection is made of the different leading factories, and the palpable greatness of each one is measured by the eye. Words will not properly define the conditions.
Show Window of Lyon & Healy’s Sales Room
Furthermore, in Chicago is located the greatest manufactory of band instruments in the United States, that of Lyon & Healy. It is doubted if on the other side of the water there is any similar establishment to be compared with it. The Lyon & Healy band and small goods factories employ more men than any other institution of its kind in existence. Its Washburn guitars, mandolins, and banjos rank with the best instmments of the kind in existence. Their excellence is recognized the world over. The Lyon & Healy “own make” band instruments are sold wherever band music is played. There is no limit to the demand for these admirable goods, and some of the world’s best band players have endorsed the instruments in unrestricted terms. Lastly, the Lyon & Healy harp has supplanted in this country the harps made abroad. The greatest harpists in the world use the Lyon & Healy haq), and declare that it is not rivaled by any other.
This brief outline will convey to the mind of the reader a fairly good idea of the importance of the musical industries in Chicago. Only a month or two over twenty- three years of age; from one piano in 1884, to fully 75,000 pianos in 1907! This is progress sure enough — progress that is so colossal that it scarcely can be comprehended. What has been done in the past is a fair augury for future achievement. And to the weight of this assurance must be added the fact that the Western country tributary to Chicago is developing in a grand ratio, which will fix Chicago’s future piano prosperity beyond all reasonable question.
Where Bents Crown Pianos Are Made
At Cincinnati, which may be fairly considered as Western territory, are two of the greatest piano establishments in the country, the John Church Co., who are the Western factors of the Everett piano, and D. H. Baldwin & Co., makers of the Baldwin piano. Both of these noble instruments have been played in concert tours and have awakened the liveliest admiration: the Everett by Gabrilowitsch, the distinguished Russian pianist, and the Baldwin by ‘De Pachmann and others. The famous pianiste Teresa Carrcno will make a tour of the country next year with the Everett. Too many or too hearty words of praise can not be bestowed upon the high-grade Western piano manufacturers, whose ideal achievement in their daily work means the gradual up lift of this great industry. The moral influence of ideal effort in any industry is tremendous.
It is but a step from pianos to other musical instruments. The music trade covers small goods and sheet music as well as pianos and organs. Among the makers, importers and dealers of small goods none stand higher than the William Tonk Bros. Co., one of the oldest houses of its line in the West, and the Rudolph Wurlitzcr Co. of Cincinnati, with a branch house in Chicago, whose instruments enjoy a well-earned popularity all over the country. The Clayton F. Summy Co. is one of the leaders in sheet music, and as music publishers take the lead of the Western houses.
Newman Bros. Company’s Plant
Dix and Chicago Avenue
The Eastern piano men are now quite willing to admit the superior phases of the Western instrument. The fair-minded members of the Eastern industry, I am quite sure, will confess that the place to buy really cheap pianos is New York, and not Chicago. Moreover, the West has become not only a formidable competitor of the East in the manufacture and sale of pianos, and other musical instruments, but it is a most important adjunct in the distribution of the East em made goods. A goodly proportion of the average Eastern pianos is sold in the West, and the Eastern manufacturers are inclined to treat the Western manufacturers in a fair and square manner. Not that self-interes alone is at the bottom of this spirit, for the Easterners are a representative lot of men with an abundance of pride in their business and a desire to promote the welfare of the Western as well at the Eastern section. The piano business, like every other occupation, is governed more or less by the rules of competition and the feelings of self-interest; yet there is an element of hearty friendship and good-will prevailing in it that is of immense advantage in all commercial transactions. Friction is minimized and the ill feeling that follows fierce competition is minimized.
A vast change has come over the industry within the past few years in this respect, and the implement in the hands of Providence that has accomplished this transformation is the National Piano Manufacturers’ Association, which has been in existence for several years, and it has been the means of beating the sword into the plough-share, and the spear into the pruning hook, and has suggested the advisability of the lion abiding in peace with the lamb. It has been a great thing for the piano industry of the nation because it has taught the men engaged in it to know and to respect one another, and has brought the spirit of amity and friendship in its wake.
Owned by Fayette S. Cable
A feature of the piano industry in the west that must not be overlooked is the appearance of the instrument with the elaborate case that is known as the art piano. Quite a number of establishments are putting this class of piano on the market. In the East the art piano has long been a feature in the trade, and some that are both beautiful and costly have been placed upon the market. One art Steinway, known as the Marquand piano, sold for $50,000, and several costing $25,000 have been marketed in both East and West. In this part of the country the Baldwin establishment, of Cincinnati, has introduced the costly instrument with great success, not only making some superb instruments, but selling them for large prices, some of them being masterpieces fair to look upon.
The Rudolph Wurlitzer Company’s Showroom Window Display
266-268 Wabash Ave.
In Chicago a new aspirant for musical honors has recently arisen, the Bush & Gerts Piano Co., whose new concert grand piano has been exploited by a local pianist in both Eastern and Western cities, winning for the instrument much admiration. The W. W. Kimball concert grand has long been known in the musical world.
The piano men of Chicago are loyal to the city and its interests, and do their full share in the upbuilding of the community. They always respond in a quick and hearty way to all demands that may be made upon them for the advancement of the city.
It is doubtful if the piano manufacturers themselves fully realize the colossal worth of the West in its relation to the piano industry. In this term is included all the piano plants west of and including the state of Ohio. There are important piano industries at Cleveland, Norwalk, Monroeville and Cincinnati, Ohio; at Richmond, Newcastle, LaPorte and Ft. Wayne, Ind.; at Muskegon, Grand Haven, South Haven, Holland, Ann Arbor and Detroit, Mich.; at DeKalb, Oregon and Rockford, Ill.
The men who have built up the true Western piano industry, if ever they take a retrospective glance must certainly be proud over the outcome of their labors and their contributions to the wealth of the Western country.
Chicago Tribune, November 16, 1910
Chicago’s growth as a piano manufacturing center has been phenomenal. Men of aggressiveness and foresight were behind the industry here. In spite of the big disadvantages under which they were laboring and the strong prejudice against the west in a musical way, they realized the possibilities the industry offered and kept on. They were struggling toward the realization of a high ideal and they have practically attained it.
Today Chicago is manufacturing a more durable, more artistic, and altogether more satisfactory piano than any other city in the country. The little factories that turned out one or two dubious instruments a month have given place to great concerns making from sixty to seventy-five instruments daily, and these pianos are accepted everywhere as the standard of excellence.
Factories Completely Equipped.
The largest and most completely equipped factories to be found anywhere are located in Chicago. The floor space occupied by the four leaders among these—there are thirty plants in all—is about equal to the area embraced in a hundred acre farm.
Of the 250,000 pianos made annually in the United States, Chicago and other western points produce over 65 per cent. These are sold in all parts of the United States, in the West Indies, Cuba, Mexico, South America, Japan, and Canada.
To overcome the prejudice against Chicago made pianos, to force the attention of the buying public to their output, and to force recognition of the high quality of the instruments, local manufacturers have for years carried on a campaign of exploitation. This campaign, backed by the merit of the goods, has not only established the pianos as among the best produced anywhere but has aided materially in advertising in the city and in convincing the world of the city’s artistic atmosphere.
Organ Center of United States.
Nor is Chicago’s fame as a musical manufacturing center entirely dependent upon pianos. In the manufacture of organs, mechanical piano players, and smaller instruments of all kinds, this city stands preeminent. It isthe organ center of the United States.
Ninety per cent of the organs sold today are made west of the Alleghenys and the American reed organ is in good demand in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Russia, Holland, and other foreign countries, as well as in all parts of this country. While the organ industry has not grown rapidly, there are as many of these instruments sold today as there were twenty years ago.
Music Rooms Pretentious.
All the larger houses have music rooms as pretentious as the ordinary theater where fine artists are employed to demonstrate the merit of the goods. A visitor may become acquainted with the best that is in music through a tour of these stores.
Chicago’s great advantage as a shipping point has been a notable feature in developing the piano industry. This city is the near neighbor of all sections of the country.
Thirty-six railroads have their terminals here, and these, with the belt lines encircling the city and the underground railway, fifty-nine miles in length, covering the entire business section and linking all the big houses with one another and with the railroads, give Chicago freight handling facilities that are unequalled.
Progress in Player Pianos.
In the player piano industry the manufacturers of Chicago have made progress. While the first of the old style cabinet piano players was made and invented in the east, and while the three largest concerns now employed in making the more recent player piano are also located there, they are by no means doing the bulk of the business.
With but a single exception, every important improvement in player piano construction has emanated from Chicago, and it is only within the last two years that improvements used by Chicago manufacturers for a number of years were finally adopted by the conservative east.
The first player piano that played the entire keyboard was made in Chicago. The first that could be installed in any upright was made in Chicago, and so far it is still the only one. Likewise the first player piano of moderate size was made in Chicago, as also the first that could be played without great physical effort.
This centering of the progressive manufacturing spirit in Chicago has year by year increased the prestige and sale of Chicago made instruments. Now Chicago’s manufacturers not only most of the player pianos sold in the great Mississippi valley and westward to the coast, but in many instances her player pianos are marketed in great numbers throughout the east, in competition on quality with instruments backed by generations of reputation. As to the importance of the industry as a whole, it is interesting to note that now about half of the good pianos sold contain players.
Sets Pace in Selling Methods.
In methods of selling player-pianos and in methods of advertising Chicago has recently set the pace. It remained for Chicago manufacturer to be the first to state publicly that “the purpose of a player-piano is not, as many unthinking manufacturers advertise. ‘to give to the person absolutely ignorant of music the ability to play like a master pianist.’ That is utterly impossible on the face of it because it denies the existence of musical intelligence and taste.”
The uproar this simple statement caused in the comments of the trade papers, particularly in the east and among player-piano manufacturers themselves, has not yet subsided. But it is the spirit that will win—the Chicago spirit of making player-pianos as fine as they can be made and then selling them honestly for what they are—instruments which make piano selling an easily acquired accomplishment rather than a difficult and arduous art.
Where Are They Now?
1880 George P. Bent Catalog No. 1
1898 George P. Bent Catalog No. 4
Bent Crown Piano Company—The “Crown” piano was built by the famous George P. Bent Piano Company, one of the most well known piano and organ makers of the late 19th Century in America. Established in 1870, His most famous innovations were his ‘Orchestral Attachment’ and ‘Practice Clavier’, which were special features operated by extra foot pedals. George P. Bent stopped building pianos in about 1929 when the Great Depression hit, but the Crown brand name was produced up until the late 1940s. George P. Bent and ‘Crown’ brand organs were also sold and distributed by Sears Roebuck & Company on a limited basis at the turn-of-the-century.
1903 Bush & Gerts Catalog
1910 Cable Company Piano Advertisement
Bush & Gerts Piano Company—The Bush & Gerts Piano Company was a major player in the American piano industry prior to World War 2. Established in 1884, Bush & Gerts built excellent pianos until 1942 in Rockford, IL, and in Chicago. (After about 1924, their pianos were actually built by the Haddorff Piano Company of Rockford, IL) Bush & Gerts enjoy the reputation of being very well made, and their earlier models are often very elaborate.
Cable Piano Company—The Cable Piano Company was one of the largest piano manufacturers in Chicago. The company was established in 1880 by H.D. Cable, who had originally been with the Western Cottage Organ Company (later changed to Chicago Cottage Organ Company). In 1890, Cable consolidated with the Conover Brothers, as well as his two brothers Fayette S. Cable and Hobart M. Cable (although Fayette S. Cable and Hobart M. Cable continued to build pianos under their own names). Shortly thereafter, the firm acquired the Schiller Piano Company, using Schiller instruments as their ‘top of the line’ models. The Cable Piano Company was widely celebrated as a maker of fine instruments, and they were a major contributor to the American piano industry at large. Cable built a number of brand names including Kingsbury, Wellington, Schiller, Conover, and Euphona player pianos, Palmetto, and others. As a result of the 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing depression, Cable Piano workers faced lay-offs. The first big lay-off occurred during Thanksgiving 1929. By 1936, few employees remained. The factory was torn down in 2000.
1893 Kimball Catalog Catalog
1913 Lyon & Healy Piano Catalog
W. W. Kimball Co—Perhaps the most famous of all piano manufacturers in history was the W.W. Kimball Piano Company of Chicago. William Wallace Kimball founded what was to become one of the largest piano companies in the world in 1857. W.W. Kimball was an amazing entrepreneur and sales genius, and was able to promote his pianos on a nationwide basis that was very much ahead of its time. Prior to about 1880, most pianos sold by Kimball were actually built by other manufacturers such as Hallet & Davis, Emerson, Chickering, and H.P. Hale. By the turn-of-the-century, Kimball was manufacturing around 20,000 pianos annually! Kimball produced a handful of other brand names including Hinze, Dunbar, Whitney, and Harrison. In 1959, Kimball was sold to The Jasper American Corporation under the name of Kimball International. Kimball pianos were discontinued in 1996.
Lyon & Healy—Established in 1864, Lyon & Healy was the leading maker of concert harps in the world. In addition, they built pianos, player pianos, organs, and many other types of musical instruments for several decades. At one time, Lyon & Healy of Chicago claimed to be the largest music house in the entire world! The firm built pianos under the “Washburn Piano Company” name in addition to the “Lyon & Healy Piano Company” name. Lyon & Healy instruments were of superior quality across the board, and they enjoyed a stellar reputation until they were discontinued in the Great Depression. In the late 1980s, the Lyon & Healy name began being produced again in Asian import pianos.
1900 Newman Bros. Catalog
Steger & Sons Advertisement
Newman Brothers—The Newman Brothers Piano & Organ Company was established in 1880 in Chicago, with their factories located at 806 Dix Street. In 1892, the company was incorporated by L.M. Newman as President, and A.B. Newman as Vice President. Newman Brothers were known for building very expensive, elaborate pianos & organs, and they were very successful. Like most makers, Newman Brothers phased out their organ building in the first decade of the 20th Century, putting all of their emphasis in piano manufacturing. There is no mention of Newman Brothers after about 1930, indicating that the firm went out of business with the Great Depression.
P. A. Starck Piano Co.— The P. A. Starck Piano Co. was established in 1891 by P.A. Starck in Chicago. Their factory was located at Ashland Avenue and 39th Street, with warerooms and general offices at 204-206 Wabash Avenue. P. A. Starck was known for building extremely high quality pianos, and they offered a full line of uprights, baby grands, and player pianos. Most musical instruments retailers also sold talking machines. By the 1920’s, the firm was being managed and controlled by P.T. Starck, son of P.A. Starck. The firm sold pianos under the brand names of Starck, P.A. Starck, Starck & Strack, Starckette, Combinette, Kenmore, and Brent. P. A. Stark was one of the few American piano manufacturers to survive the Great Depression without merging with a larger conglomerate. In 1956, Stark started building pianos for the Jesse French Piano Company. The firm went out of business in about 1965.
Steger & Sons—The Steger Piano Company was established in 1879 by John V. Steger. In 1892 the company was incorporated as The Steger & Sons Piano Manufacturing Company. John Steger left Chicago and founded the nearby town of Steger, Illinois, in order to establish the Steger piano factory there. Steger & Sons were known for building very good pianos, and they prospered for several decades. The firm produced pianos under the brand names of Steger & Company, Mellostrello, Crest, Thompson, Singer, and Artemis. Steger & Sons continued to build pianos until about 1959.
Thompson Piano Company—The Thompson Piano Company was established in Chicago in 1870. The original factory was located at 1136 West 14th Street. The firm originally built high quality square pianos, upright pianos, and reed organs. By the turn of the century, Thompson was absorbed into the larger Steger Piano Company of Steger, Ill. Based on surviving instruments, it appears that the majority of instruments built under the Thompson label after the turn of the century were primarily upright and player pianos. Instrument built by Thompson prior to the Steger merge are exceedingly rare today. Steger continued pianos under the Thompson name as well as Artemis and Cassell brand player pianos until sometime around the Great Depression.
Wurlitzer (Sales office only)—The famous Rudolph Wurlitzer Company claimed to be sellers of ‘Everything Musical”, a slogan that was not very far from the truth! Wurlitzer came from a line of famous instrument makers, and he had his sites set on America. In 1856, Rudolph Wurlitzer started his firm in New York City shortly after immigrating from Europe, and by 1861 had been successful enough to build a new factory in Cincinnati, Ohio. An army contract allowed him to expand his business and open an additional retail store in Chicago in 1865. During these early years, Wurlitzer manufactured organs and melodeons, but imported the majority of his other instruments from European makers which were sold under the Wurlitzer label here in America. Wurlitzer actually built his first piano in about 1880, and by the turn-of-the-century Wurlitzer was specializing in some of the first coin-operated player pianos and orchestrions manufactured and sold in the United States.
By the 1920s, Wurlitzer had an endless array of mechanical musical instruments in addition to their traditional pianos and player pianos. There were several names that were controlled by Wurlitzer by the early 20th Century, including Apollo, Bauer, Melville Clark, De Kalb, Ellwood, Farney, Kingston, Merriam, Strad and Underwood. After the Great Depression era, Wurlitzer built several lines of spinets, consoles and baby grand pianos well into the 20th Century. The giant Wurlitzer Company continued to build pianos until the 1990s when the Wurlitzer name was sold to the famous Baldwin Piano & Organ Company.
Wabash and Jackson Streets
Piano Row, 1906
Lyon & Healy, SW Corner Wabash & Adams1
Kimball Hall, SW Corner Wabash & Jackson
Cable Building, 240 Wabash, SE Corner Wabash & Jackson
Baldwin Building, 267 Wabash
1 In 1915 Lyon & Healy moved to the Northeast corner of Jackson boulevard and Wabash avenue.