The Willis & Company Ltd. was a venerable name in the Canadian piano industry, along with the likes of Heintzman, Bell, Nordheimer, Mason & Risch, Sherlock Manning, Lesage, and others.
The company was founded in Montreal by A.P. Willis (a fellow Bluenoser!) in 1884. As a young man Willis was a schoolmaster and would-be minister before deciding to try his hand at business. He became a travelling salesman, and made his way up to Montreal (then the most important city in Canada). A full personal biography by Mark Gallop can be found here. Like other companies, Willis was initially diversified, and started by selling sewing machines before moving into the piano retail market, becoming a dealer for select Canadian and American brands including Knabe and Chickering. In 1907 Willis decided to start making pianos under his own name, and bought out production facilities of a competitor, Damase Lesage, in Ste. Thérèse-de-Blainville, just outside of Montreal (Adélard Lesage reestablished his own business thereafter). From an initial annual production run of about 300, the company expanded to 1500 pianos annually by 1910, to an estimated 3000 annual peak production by the mid-teens (an ad from 1912 – pictured below – boasts 4000, which seems inflated). An important first milestone was reaching the 10,000 mark in 1913.
The Willis Company seems to have followed the overall trends of the piano industry in Canada. A.P. Willis became an adept businessman and the company had flourished under his direction and acumen. He understood the importance of good marketing and branding. Interestingly, Willis also advocated sales terms of barter and installment payments when selling pianos, which were not necessarily commonplace at the time. The firm opened a large new building in 1912 (moving from the old city on Notre-Dame to the corner of Sainte-Catherine St. and Drummond St. downtown), complete with showrooms, offices and a concert hall! Following the lead of companies like Steinway, Willis would engage leading artists to come and give concerts at the hall, which naturally featured the latest Willis piano. As with the rest of the industry, the teens and twenties were very good to the firm; it was a time of popularity and prosperity for piano culture. Willis & Co. made several models of both upright and grand player pianos. These pianos might contain either a Standard player system, or an Ampico reproducing system, which was often paired with the Knabe piano.
A.P. Willis died in 1934, leaving the company in the capable hands of the second and third generation. The company managed to endure the many challenges of the depression, as well as another world war and the introduction of television. The company diversified once again, making high-end furniture and wooden cabinets for radios, televisions and electric organs. On the piano side, however, the production quantity and (arguably) quality continued to decline over the years, as was endemic throughout the Canadian piano industry. Despite the introduction of cheaper and smaller models (e.g. the 36″ spinet), sales continued to decline steadily. The Willis family sold its interest in the company in 1967. Although the company still carried on for some years further, it ultimately met the same ignominious fate as all other Canadian manufacturers, finally closing its operations in October of 1978. It was one of the last holdouts in the domestic piano market.
Please note: I have no direct connection to the Willis piano Company and as such am unable to provide additional information pertaining to the Willis family, the company, their employees, or even their pianos. All the information provided in this article comes from the Internet or sources cited below. It is for informational purposes only.
For those looking to determine the age of their Willis piano, with the serial number, there is (as of early 2017) a free application online called “Online Piano Atlas” for Android and iOS systems. This should give you the information you seek.
Better yet, call your local accredited piano technician for a service visit, and have him or her bring their copy of the “Pierce Piano Atlas”. They will be happy to include this information as part of the service!
Your piano will thank you!
Sources: Canadian Encyclopedia
Downright Upright: A History of the Canadian Piano Industry, by Wayne Kelly. Toronto: Natural Heritage Press, 1991.
Mark W. Gallop, “WILLIS, ALEXANDER PARKER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003.