“Sudden Mania to Become Pianists …”

August 10, 1867

After a lithograph by "Cham" (Amédée de Noé)

“Sudden Mania to Become Pianists …”

Arts and Entertainment; Celebrations, World’s Fair; New York City, Business;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

France; New York City;

Sudden Mania to become Pianists created upon hearing Steinway's Pianos at the Paris Exposition.

This cartoon conveys the wild popularity of the Steinway piano, the musicality of which has just been demonstrated by famed pianist Desiré Magnus, at the 1867 World's Fair in Paris.

Heinrich Steinweg, the founder of Steinway & Sons, began as a woodworker and organ-maker in Germany before building his first piano in 1835.  Although successful at his trade, he was stifled by economic regulations and a faltering German economy in the 1840s.  In 1849, he sent his son, Charles, to New York City to avoid repercussions from the young man's involvement in the failed liberal revolution of 1848.  Charles reported positively on the opportunities that America offered, so the next year Heinrich Steinweg and his family moved to New York City.

After working three years for various firms, Steinweg established the partnership of Steinway & Sons in March 1853, and the family began building their own pianos in a loft on Varick Street in Manhattan.  (The first one produced can be seen today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)  Heinrich anglicized his last name for business purposes because in the 1850s English-made pianos were considered the best in the world, but the family did not change its name legally until the mid-1860s.

Despite occasional downturns, the American economy had grown and developed tremendously over the first half of the nineteenth century.  The resulting ever-higher standard of living for the expanding middle class meant that many consumers wanted to fill their larger homes with the latest amenities.  By the 1850s, the piano was a symbol of social respectability and refined taste, well suited as a focal point in middle-class parlors.  The rising popularity of the piano also reflected an increased interest in music.  It was played in middle-class homes for sheer pleasure, personal improvement, and family camaraderie.

Thus, Steinway entered the American piano market at an opportune time.  While his company needed and had the skill to build a quality product, they also realized that marketing Steinway pianos was of great importance.  It was the middle son (of five), Henry Jr., who proved to be the prime mover behind both Steinway's technical innovations and marketing success.  

With advertising in its infancy, winning awards at fairs and exhibitions was a major way to earn distinction and publicity for a company and its products.  In 1855, Henry Steinway Jr. entered the Steinway piano at the Metropolitan Mechanics Institute Fair in Washington, D.C., where it won first prize, and at the more prestigious American Institute Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in New York City, where it garnered acclaim from the judges and the press.  

By the end of the next year, the increased awareness of Steinway pianos boosted sales nearly three times higher than in 1854.  The success allowed the company to move into their own 175,000-square-foot factory (at Park and Lexington between 52nd and 53rd) in 1858.  With steam engines powering elevators and much of the woodworking equipment, it was the most mechanized factory in the city at the time.

Henry Steinway Jr. constantly drew up plans for improving the piano, and some of his innovations revolutionized the instrument.  A major problem was that the metal or wood plate holding the strings had to be tuned every hour and limited the octave range, while the sturdier cast-iron substitute resulted in a tinny sound.  By 1859, Henry Jr. had changed the shape of the cast-iron plate, over-strung the soundboard, and altered the hammers. The result was more keys, with a richer sound capable of more nuance in its volume.  He had produced the modern piano that remains, with only minor changes, the same today.

In 1859, Henry Steinway Jr. followed the lead of his firm's chief competitor, Chickering, by soliciting advertising testimonials from renowned pianists.  He also wined and dined influential music critics, newspaper editors, and sheet music publishers.  In later years, he sponsored American tours by the world's top pianists, such as Anton Rubinstein (1872) and Ignace Paderewski (1892), in exchange for their endorsements.  By 1860, Steinway employed 300 workers, was valued at over $360,000, and produced more than 1000 pianos annually.

Henry Steinway Jr., however, was not satisfied with national recognition, but wanted to earn respect in Europe, the music capital of the western world.  In 1862, he entered Steinway pianos at the London Exhibition.  While professional and amateur musicians were enthusiastic about the instrument, the jurors did not fully appreciate the advances made by the "Steinway system," and awarded the grand prize for pianos to Broadwood, the English manufacturer that had previously set the industry standard.  Steinway, though, was judged the best American piano.

In the mid-1860s, William Steinway Jr. oversaw construction of Steinway Hall on East 14th Street near Union Square, the center of New York City's music district.  The ornate, white-marble building opened in 1866 as the second largest concert hall in the city, with a 2000-seat auditorium, a 400-seat annex, music rooms, and studios.  On both sides of the grand entrance hall were open showrooms for Steinway pianos, visible to everyone entering the building to attend a concert of the New York Philharmonic (until Carnegie Hall opened in 1891) or other events (e.g., a magic show).  The marketing strategy helped increase sales by 400 pianos the next year, and sales rarely dipped below 2000 annually for the rest of the century.

The ultimate coup for Henry Steinway Jr., which finally secured his firm's status as the world's best piano-maker, is the subject of this cartoon:  the 1867 World's Fair (or Exposition) in Paris.  For two months prior to its April commencement, Steinway and Chickering each spent $80,000 promoting their pianos through newspaper advertisements, posters, special catalogs, and entertaining VIPs.  Over 400 piano manufacturers exhibited at the competition, and Steinway showed four models.  In May, Steinway & Sons won a gold medal, and in July won another gold medal, the grand testimonial medal, and honorary membership in France's distinguished Société des Beaux Arts.  Steinway & Company had become the first American firm to win top prize in the piano category.

Their chief competitor, Chickering, also won a gold medal and a special "Legion of Honor" award from the French Government (which the company had solicited).  Furthermore, Chickering claimed that Franz Liszt endorsed their piano, when, in fact, he had praised Chickering and Steinway.  Both American companies immediately launched an intense marketing war, saturating newspapers with advertisements highlighting their Paris Exposition awards (one for Steinway appears on the Harper's Weekly page directly under this cartoon, while one for Chickering is printed two columns over).  Chickering erected a huge replica of their Legion medal on top of their 57th Street factory in New York.

Steinway, however, surpassed Chickering's endorsements by using statements from European royalty--Austrian, Russian, Swedish, Spanish, Turkish, and even Queen Victoria of England.  The Paris World's Fair established Steinway & Sons as the leading choice for pianos in Europe, and shortly after the event the company was selling twice as many pianos as its nearest competitor.  Remarkably, the firm stayed in control of the Steinway family until they sold it in 1972 to CBS.  In 1985, it was purchased by Robert and John Birmingham of Boston, and currently produces about 5,000 pianos a year.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Sudden Mania to Become Pianists …”
December 6, 2023

Home | About | Contact || Access | Features 

Website design © 2001-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
All Content © 1998-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
Please submit questions to