Course Correction

Well…this has been an informative day.  I began today with the intention of mapping out the plan, visually,  of the restoration process. I realized I had made a couple of assumptions. The first is that I would remember all the details of my piano, but alas it was not to be and I had to go inspect the actions again.

The second assumption was that the few sketchy details I had seen to date in old periodicals convinced me in a cursory fashion that I had a Standard player action on my hands.  But there were some things that didn’t jive – the action did not all match up and there was a “Theme” function that was never mentioned in Standard literature. The Theme was a creation of the Aeolian Company.

So, I took the path of least resistance and crowdsourced some answers on the Facebook. There was not a consensus, except that most had not seen a player action quite like this.  Some folks in the Player Piano Talk group recognized some features an “Autopiano” action, particularly with respect to the motor, tracking device and other details of the pump. However others, including John Tuttle, pointed out that the governor and transmission were not an exact match to the Autopiano archetype. Tony Law of Ottawa mentioned that it was similar to an action he had seen in a Weber brand piano, which may have been a Sterling Action & Keys brand player.

Upon opening the valve chest, there are further clues which point back to Autopiano, or in fact “Auto Deluxe” (the former being the piano brand name, the latter being the action brand name).  The screw on, stem-style secondary valves were used almost exclusively by Auto Deluxe, and not at all by Standard, at least this is my understanding. So until further notice, the working organology is “Auto Deluxe variant”!

At this point it is really academic; the main goal now is to plan and move forward. I need to figure out all the features this action has, how it works and map it, before complete disassembly.

To be continued!


First Look


Admit it, the suspense was just killing you, wasn’t it?

Let’s have a peek at this beast, shall we? It is pretty “Standard” fare (yea, pun intended) as far as player pianos go: there were hundreds of thousands of pianos almost identical to this one manufactured in Canada and the US. (If you want to read a blurb about where I got the piano, go back here to the start.) In this sense I am fortunate, as the more common the player system, the more reference material there is available. So, we open the lid, take off the front panel, and here we are!

Willis player piano #21029
Willis player piano #21029

Where to begin? The first time I opened up the piano and got a good look, that was the question I asked myself. I was reminded of the old question “How does one eat an elephant?” to which the answer is “One bite at a time!” In other words, we will have to break it down into organized, bite-sized tasks, in order to avoid being overwhelmed. For this, we will need a plan (forthcoming).

In the meantime, let’s see what’s under the hood. I am not really going to retread over well-worn ground, so if you want to see how to open up the piano and remove the player action, check out John Tuttle’s video here.

I will just show a few important steps to watch out for, when removing the top player action. Both the top and bottom actions are an unfortunate combination of large, heavy, awkward and yet breakable, so in my case I have help when extracting the player action.

The following photos illustrate (on my particular model of player action) what to disconnect before attempting to extract. Your piano may not be as illustrated!

hose feed to air motor (circled in red)
hose feed to air motor (circled in red)
transmission linkages (2, circled in red)
transmission linkages (2, circled in red)
treble side stack screws (x4, red diamond), may not be same on your piano
treble side stack screws (x4, red diamond), may not be same on your piano!
spoolbox strut support screw (red circle, you get the idea...)
spoolbox strut support screw (red circle, you get the idea…)
bass side stack screws, x4
bass side stack screws, x4
control hoses to manifold
control hoses to manifold

There may even be another control hose connection, hiding around the back somewhere, you will have to look. When you think everything is disconnected, pull the action forward a bit, and check that there is a gap between the player fingers and the piano action wippens (shown in John Tuttle’s video above). The action must be clear of any obstacles, for a smooth extraction (which is obviously what we are after here).

Some of these hoses are tough to get off, if they are old and decrepit. There will be some wiggling involved, which may end up just severing the hose at the nipple or junction point. They will be replaced, in my case.*

The condition of hoses and pneumatics can be deceptive. Here is another picture, showing the interior condition of one of the main feed hoses. The exterior of the twill hose didn’t look so bad, but inside it is compromised –dry and crumbly.

Feed Hose, inspection
Feed Hose, inspection

Once the player action has been extracted, we can get a better look at both the “stack” and the piano action, to see what we’ve got.

On top of the stack, for example, there is the spoolbox which is where the piano roll goes when you want to play. Normally there is player brand identification here, but in this case that is no longer present. This is a kind of clue that tells me that there has been some past intervention in the piano, and that it is not all-original. That may (or may not) be a good sign; it all depends on what work was previously undertaken, and to what standard of care and competence.

Dusty McNasty!
Dusty McNasty!

Speaking of clues, it is fun to look for little visual “easter eggs” and try and interpret what they are telling you (I was an avid reader of Sherlock Holmes as a boy!). For instance, let’s look at the following picture. What do you see?

Control rail detail
Control rail detail

What I extrapolate from this picture is that the scratching on the control cover is caused by someone (presumably right-handed) who was playing at the control levers with their right hand, while hanging on to the cover with their left hand, and over time scratching the finish (and the wood!) with their fingernails.

That’s a pretty obvious one, but sometimes these clues can tell you useful things about the instrument, if you keep your eyes open.

Also, here is a detail shot of the bottom action, seen after removing bottom door of piano. The same rules of extraction apply for this part; after disconnection of hose feeds and linkages, it should come out as one unit as well. Refer to John Tuttle’s video.

Bottom action, in situ
Bottom action, in situ

Now that we have more access, we need to make a plan of attack. To be continued!


*If one were just doing this extraction procedure for the purposes of, say, replacing a broken string, then things become more complicated. I can tell you from experience that working on a really old piano, with really old original parts (brittle, stiff, and otherwise fragile) can be a minefield; parts may be damaged inadvertently, with despite one’s best efforts, and the owner of the piano may try to hold you responsible for these broken parts, which are well past their best-before date. It is advantageous to give a general disclaimer before digging in and taking everything apart.


Where does one get information and materials about an arcane subject like player piano restoration?

Here are some of the sources I have found, so far, which have helped in my understanding in undertaking this task:


Piano Player Servicing and Rebuilding by Art Reblitz. This is generally referred to as the “Bible” of player piano information. While not the only book about the subject, it is the most prevalent and complete single volume thereupon, to my knowledge. It is still in print and fairly widely available, here and at the usual online giant booksellers, for a modest price.  Heck, if you’re curious, you can probably even borrow a copy from your local public library! The book is a great resource for those (like me) who are starting to get their hands dirty for the first time (where players are concerned). My only criticism of the book is that the photography is somewhat dated and sometimes lacking in detail. This is greatly exacerbated in the more recent editions, which are produced “on demand” by online retailers, from inferior source material. According to Arthur Reblitz, somewhere along the line the original plates for the book were lost and Vestal Press made the decision to allow continued publishing with lesser quality, to keep costs down. While I do see the importance of keeping the book in print (and at a modest price), it is nonetheless an unfortunate tradeoff to sacrifice the visual quality of the book. Therefore I would recommend finding a good used copy with an edition dating from the mid 1990s or earlier. I am unsure exactly in which edition the quality diminished, however by examining the photo plates it should be obvious; if the pictures have the “photocopied” look, then it is an inferior edition. The better edition should have “Vestal Press” written below the author’s name, as pictured here:

Difference in edition wording on cover of Reblitz player piano book

Obviously my point of reference is now the Internet, where there the quantity and size of photographs are not an issue in the way they are in a physical book. It’s part of the reason for my creation of this docu-blog. Having said that, having the “better” edition does make a difference, and to be clear this book is an invaluable resource for new and experienced rebuilders alike. Get yourself a copy!

Piano Servicing, Tuning and Rebuilding, by Reblitz as well. This is a companion book which deals with the piano itself (not the player mechanism). If you are trying to discover and figure out the piano, as well as the player, then this is a good book to have as well. In 2019 the 3rd edition was released.

Online: A site purveyed by John Tuttle, who seems to be a one-man industry unto himself. His site is jam-packed with info and tips, although obviously one still has to pay for specific manuals and information on certain pianos, quite understandably. John also sells supplies and sundries for player pianos, which is handy for the hobbyist, as most supply firms will only sell to professionals (a policy with which I happen to agree). In addition to his website, he also has a Youtube channel with many good videos on a range of player topics. Thank goodness for people like him!

AMICA is an organization dedicated to all collectors of “Automatic Music”; in addition to organizing meetings and publishing a journal, they have a website which includes documents that I have found valuable, such as the Billings Rollography, and some technical papers as well. You need to be a full member (e.g. paid membership) to access this section of the website; I recommend joining. Many of the documents have been collected and codified by Terry Smythe; here is an example I gleaned from his personal page, before he migrated the content to the AMICA site.

The following is a publication from Standard Pneumatic Player Action Co; it is part marketing literature, part technical primer and part parts catalogue. It has some nice line drawings (page 13 is a great cross-sectional scale drawing of the entire piano) and explanations of how the mechanism works, so even salesmen can understand 😀

(This is a PDF format with a size of about 4 megs, persons with slow connections may be frustrated)


Mechanical Music Digest: another group for the purpose of dissemination and discussion of all topics related mechanical music. Although sometimes a bit generalized (when you are after player piano information specifically), there are many knowledgeable people who will take time to answer questions. The feature of the group I find useful is the daily email list, which covers a range of topics, including relevant information on player pianos. Membership and subscription to the list are currently free, although they gratefully accept donations!

Facebook: if you are on social media (and who isn’t these days?), there is a group for AMICA and another titled “player piano talk”. Interesting photographs, videos and commentary can be seen here periodically.

I am probably omitting some other obvious ones, but that should get you started!

Roll Storage

When I acquired the piano, I also got a lot of rolls at the same time. The conditions vary somewhat; although almost all of them are originals (as opposed to “recuts” or newer rolls), so my personal opinion would be to rate them from fair to poor, based on this fact alone.

Rolls are made of mostly of paper, and as such suffer from environmental and mechanical hazards. Poor or rough handling or playback can result in rips, tears or severe creases. Excessive sustained humidity (or dryness) can lead to mould or stiffness/cracking. Pest infiltration can also have a deleterious effect on rolls.

It is therefore advantageous to properly store piano rolls, in order to mitigate these factors. Beyond these considerations, however, it is simply more convenient and aesthetically pleasing to have the rolls organized and out of the way (these latter points are especially germane and appurtenant,  where my wife is concerned).

So, what to do? The options are to purchase or fabricate. Around these parts, there are not a wide variety of suitable “off the shelf” furniture options. As an occupational by-product I have some experience with woodworking, although I am not within the realm of fine cabinet-making.
I have a basic set of tools — some manual hand tools and power hand tools. I am primarily concerned with function and utility, less with cosmetics and flair (although I do not wish the finished project to look unnecessarily slapdash). I also do not wish to spend an excessive amount of hours on this particular project — there is still a lot of work ahead!

Considering all the foregoing, I decided to proceed using contemporary DIY techniques: the cabinet is made from one standard 4’x8′ sheet of decent quality ¾” plywood (no surface gaps or blemishes), three 8′ lengths of ¾” trim for edge banding. That’s it! Well, there is also the backing. In my case I had some pieces of ¼” ply leftover from a previous project, but you can use hardboard or just about and similar material. In my case the materials cost me around $75 (to the best of my recollection).

As I don’t have a furnished wood shop, I also do not have means to make precise cuts on a large sheet of plywood (for which ideally you need a table saw with panel supports). There are jigs and such out there that work in conjunction with smaller hand saws, but for my money the best solution is just to have the local home center (where you purchase the wood) do this for you, at minimal additional cost.

The cabinet design is my own, tailored to measure; taking into consideration the space in which the cabinet will live, and the volume inside each shelf cavity to hold rolls. Most of my rolls are standard 88-note rolls (e.g. QRS), the boxes of which measure 2 ¼” x 2 1/8″ x 12 ½”.

The first thing I needed to decide was the depth of the cabinet, which I chose at 13″. Knowing this, I had the guys at the home center cut three 13″ strips (lengthwise, each the full 96″ length), off the panel. This left a cutoff of approximately 8″x96″ for which I will find another use. Two of the cut panels will be for each side, the third will be resawn into pieces for the shelves and top.

The one tabletop tool I do have is a radial chop saw. It has a 14″ sawing capacity, so this is perfectly adequate to process my 13″ wide panels which I have had cut. I want each cavity in the cabinet to have a 12 ¾ high x 13 ¾ wide dimension . This provides a space for 6 x 6 standard rolls (or 36 per cavity), while ensuring the scale of the cabinet fits where I need it to go.

So, based on my fixed dimensions of the cavities, I will be able to fit 5 of these in the height of the cabinet (which I have fixed at 73 ¼” overall), with a little left over on the bottom (which I actually prefer, to not have the rolls on the bottom shelf nearly touching the floor). This meas cutting each shelf at 13 ¾”, they will be butt-joined into the cabinet sides (to be explained soon). The top as well will be butt-joined down onto the sides, so it needs to be ( 2 x ¾”) longer to accommodate this. Therefore, our cutlist for the cabinet looks like this:

• 2 sides @ 72 ½ inches
• 1 top @ 15 ¼ inches
• 5 shelves @ 13 ¾ inches
• 2 spacers @ 12 ¾ inches (to be explained)

Keeping in mind that we are using the pre-cut 13″ strips for all these cuts; the planning aspect is minimal but still necessary. We just need to realize that the cutoffs from each side panel will be used as a shelf (or spacer – does not matter in this case), and we will have enough wood to spare without running out! Some projects require very meticulous cut planning, when specific wood is rare (valuable) or simply in limited supply.

Now that the cuts are done, it is joinery time. The way I conceived the design of the assembly makes use of pocket hole joinery. This is obviously not the traditional “purist” way to make cabinets, but for this project that is not my concern — as I have explained.*

What I need for this project is my Kreg Jig, and some finishing nails for the trim. No glue required! Glue really only works well on face joints, and there are none of those to be found in my design.

These pocket holes need to be drilled (in my design) in the inside top of each side panel (to fit the top), and on the sides of each shelf piece. Some pictures, to save me 1000 words:

Drilling process with Kreg Jig
Drilling process with Kreg Jig
pocket holes in shelf
pocket holes in shelf

Assembly consists of fitting the top to one side panel, then using the spacers (mentioned above) to lock in the position of each succeeding shelf, working your way down from the top. When the first side of each shelf has been completed, gingerly flip the assembly onto the inside of the second side panel (pay attention to orientation!), secure the other side of the top, then proceed with the spacers again to finalize the assembly of the case.

Partially assembled cabinet
Partially assembled cabinet

To complete the cabinet you can trim it out with a ¾” wide trim of your choice. I used finishing nails to fasten them, with no wood filler. Since I am using stain and not paint, wood filler really sticks out as much as nail holes, so I didn’t bother. A light sanding to smooth down any rough spots and then finishing as per your taste. I chose a two-tone approach, as I had a little of two jars (golden oak and natural) leftover, once again from another project. Such a cheapskate I am! (thrifty Scottish heritage, methinks).

The “finished” project:

Finished cabinet, drying
Finished cabinet, drying
Chock full of good stuff
Chock full of good stuff

Now that this diversion is complete, on to the main event!

*If you wish to see true historic cabinetmaking, a good point of reference is Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. At Hay’s cabinet shop a master and his journeymen labour the days away making fine furniture using strictly traditional techniques. Of particular interest to me is harpsichord making (mostly done by Ed Wright). Between time taken to manually attend to each detail, and constantly answering tourists’ questions, I frankly don’t know how they manage to build anything at all!

1919 Part III: Refugees and Reproducers

Thus far I haven’t really gotten into reproducing pianos too much, as they are a rather different animal than the instrument I have.

However, there are certainly a few relevant things worth mentioning, again pertaining to the 1919 era.

Picking up where we left off in the last post (WWI); one of the smaller silver linings of war (for the winners of course), is the absorption of desirable immigrants fleeing conflict zones. We are generally talking scientists, political or religious figures, intellectuals, and sometimes even artists. In the 20th Century, as the Allied powers came out on top (at least in the first half), they therefore benefited from such émigrés in large numbers. One specific example, for the purposes of this post: Sergei Rachmaninoff. For those who are not familiar, Rachmaninoff was a late-Romantic Russian composer and pianist, one of the towering musical talents of the early 20th Century. He was one of the many notable “first wave” or “White émigrés” to leave Russia in the wake of the Revolution, and subsequent Civil War.

So, what exactly does this have to do with player pianos? I’m glad you asked!

As nicely summarized here by Mike Springer, Rachmaninoff arrived in America in late 1918. Like many refugees he was not exactly flush with cash, despite his fearsome talents and abilities. In order to make money, Rachmaninoff eschewed composition and reembarked on the life of a virtuoso concert pianist. In addition to maintaining a demanding touring piano schedule (his first tour was 40 concerts in 4 months – undertaken in his late 40’s), he also recorded (in a conventional acoustic fashion) for Edison and Victor (later RCA/HMV) AND in the fledgling format of reproducing pianos, for the American Piano Company (AKA Ampico).

Sergei Rachmaninoff (date/source unknown)
Sergei Rachmaninoff (date/source unknown)

This is probably a good time to mention that Ampico was a type of reproducing system for the piano. Reproducing pianos were superior to standard player pianos, in the sense that they were capable of more nuances, including pedal expression and tempo articulations, which were recorded directly in the encoding of the piano roll. This is a critical distinction; because although it meant sacrificing some of the interactive aspects of the musical rendering (for the pianola player), the gains were in having a superior level of expression by great artists, built in to their interpretations of the piano music. Listening to a good playback on a reproducing piano is a surprisingly accurate approximation of listening to the piano masters of the past, at the piano. Along with Duo-Art and Welte, Ampico made up the the lion’s share of the reproducing piano market.

Ampico Magazine, June 1927, featuring Rachmaninoff  (courtesy Terry Smythe/Joel Cluskey/AMICA)
Ampico Magazine, June 1927, featuring Rachmaninoff
(courtesy Terry Smythe/Joel Cluskey/AMICA)

At any rate, apparently Rachmaninoff was sufficiently impressed with the process (upon hearing the reproduction of his first Ampico performance played back to him) that he is quoted as saying to Ampico executives: “Gentlemen, I have just heard myself”! Whether he was just being polite or not, who can say? In another promotional quotation, he is recorded as stating, in 1919 : “I have played my own works for the reproducing piano because of its absolute faithfulness and capacity to preserve beautiful tone painting”. (This quote and those of other famous contemporary pianists can be seen here).

While quotes like this may just seem like self-serving marketing, it is important to keep in mind as well (again paraphrasing Springer, who may or may not be paraphrasing Good) that the sound of a nicely maintained piano was actually better than that which contemporary recording technology could offer at the time.
In other words: given the choice, why pick a live, relatively unedited recording which was primitively captured and played on a pitiful “lo-fi” speaker; when you could have a polished performance played back on an actual piano, the instrument for which it was specifically encoded?

I think that in 1919, it probably would not have been a difficult choice at all!

This concludes the history portion of the blog 😀

1919 Part II: The Widening Gyre

I will get to the “meat and potatoes” of the project soon (promise!), but in the meantime I wish to continue to wax historic — in the big picture — about the world in which this instrument was created. I have already given an overview of the industry-specific context in Canada and USA; so what else can we learn about our society nearly a century ago?

A quick and handy overview of 1919, courtesy of Wikipedia, reveals some events which seem far-removed, and other trends which are tragically familiar (looking at you, Middle East). All in all, 1919 was quite a monumental year.

In some ways, it was a very different world:

A world in which a concert pianist could be elected Prime Minister of a democratic country.

A world in which it took a transcontinental convoy of the US Army (including a young Major, D.D. Eisenhower) months to traverse the country by road, because there wasn’t to be an Interstate highway system for another 30 years. Average convoy speed (Washington D.C. to Oakland, CA): 5 mph.

A world in which a nationwide constitutional ban on the sale, production, importation, and transportation of alcohol is approved in the United States (this was almost immediately reflected in the popular music of the day, becoming fodder for song lyrics).

A world in which there transpired a bizarre (albeit tragic) flood of molasses (yes-molasses!) in the streets of Boston.

A world in which several players of the Chicago White Sox conspired to lose the World Series, in what became known as the “Black Sox scandal”. Thereafter the mythology of a curse was born, and the team did not win the series until 2005.

There are several notable firsts in 1919 such as the first transatlantic flight, and confirmation of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. There are also slightly-less notable firsts, such as first appearance of Felix the Cat.

In music, enduring pieces such as de Falla’s El Sombrero de tres picos, Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Milhaud’s Le boeuf sur le toit and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite #1 are all premiered.

Future stars of the jazz world including Nat “king” Cole, George Shearing, Art Blakey and Anita O’Day are born, as well as folk legend Pete Seeger and the one and only…Liberace!

And, much like today, it was an intense period of strife, social unrest, and above all appalling violence.

1919 heralded some terrible natural disasters, such as the Florida Keys Hurricane, and eruption of the Kelud volcano in Java.

1919 Also marked the end of the Spanish Influenza pandemic, which had killed an estimated 3-5% of the world’s population.

A burgeoning movement of women’s rights and suffrage gained measurable traction, in Europe and in North America.

A continuing battle for worker’s rights, with major strikes and riots in Winnipeg, Seattle, Cleveland, and throughout Europe as well. Predictably these events ended in conflict with police forces, with violent results (even by today’s standards). Ironically, in London and Liverpool, the police themselves went on strike in 1919, in an effort to improve collective bargaining.

The labour movement suffered many setbacks this year as US government forces, fearing the spread of Bolshevism, suspended civil rights and due process, imprisoning many citizens without charge. Non-citizens were deported en masse back to Europe and other parts of the world. As part of a reaction to this climate of repression, Galleanist anarchists mailed a series of bombs to authorities and prominent businessmen. Also during this “Red Summer” there were numerous race riots across the country, with terrible violence visited against the African-American population of the United States. It is sad to write this almost a century later, and realize that with the recent federal election a return to that world is more possible than ever.

1919 was a time of transition for political and social movements.

In the Middle East, the newly-signed Faisal–Weizmann Agreement promoted Arab-Jewish cooperation in Palestine, and the creation of a Jewish homeland. In Egypt there is revolution against British rule; the British government sends various envoys (including T.E. Lawrence) to intervene and eventually launch the Milner Mission, which ultimately leads to Egyptian independence. Afghanistan gains independence from Britain in 1919.

Wars of independence also begin in Ireland, as well as Estonia and Latvia. Many books have been written about events in the impending Soviet sphere at this time.

As a portent of events to come, Mussolini founds the Fascist party in Milan, and Hitler infiltrates and gives his first address to the German Worker’s party; the party which he will eventually lead and transform into the Nationalist Socialist Party.

Of course the major event in the minds of most in the Western world is the Great War. These four years of madness and trauma which had left up to an estimated 18M people dead, well over a third of these being civilian.  The war finally formally ends with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28th (without ratification from USA). The first Remembrance Day is observed this year, on November 11 (obviously!).

The aftermath of the war will be felt for years, and, due to the Treaty’s punishing and humiliating terms for Germany, it essentially sows the seeds of malignancy which inexorably lead to WW2.

This aftermath is expressed in Western culture in many manifestations; one of the most memorable (for me personally) is W.B Yeats’ poem The Second Coming, which contains allusions to the war and that period of time in general. Some specific lines of the poem (and the overall feeling of the prose) are every bit as relevant today as when they were penned. It too was written in 1919.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?


1919, Part I: A Year in Pianos

I came across a couple of articles from the New York Times, circa 1919 (the year our protagonist-piano was built). The articles are short, but some interesting things can still be gleaned from these snippets.

The first article (August 29th) makes mention of the fact that more piano workers are trying to organize and become unionized, demanding better conditions and wages, and that a strike may be imminent:

"Piano Workers May Strike" from NYT, 1919
“Piano Workers May Strike” from NYT, 1919

The numbers mentioned here offer some fascinating reference points. 5000 men employed in 63 different factories, in the Bronx alone. 20,000 potential workers would walk off the job in NYC. This is hard to imagine now; so many people employed in the domestic piano industry!

The second article, (October 2nd), confirms that there had indeed been a strike, which was continuing at at least two factories, namely Steinway and Sohmer (these would have been two of the largest in the city):

NYT Strikes in Two Piano Factories
Strikes in Two Piano Factories

There are some numbers pertaining to wages which are mentioned as well. The first article states that the workers were looking to get “a standard minimum wage of $6 for eight hours’ work”, while the second article says that the unionized workers “demand $36 a week and $42 for piecework, and a forty-four-hour week”. In other words, it is not simply about the hourly wage, but also a guaranteed amount of hours. At 75 cents per hour, this would be approximately $10.31 in 2015 dollars. While this is actually above the current NY State minimum wage ($8.75), it is still fairly below the entry-level wage at the Steinway factory in Astoria (roughly $17 in 2012).

It is also interesting to note that in 1919, Steinway New York could have 1000 workers walk off the floor, which was likely a sizeable (but not complete) portion of their labor workforce.
In 1985, at the end of the CBS era, they had only about 500 total, and this was cut nearly in half after the 2008 recession (several of the above numbers I gleaned from the Last American Grand blog). To its credit, Steinway is the last original holdout in the American piano manufacturing story.

I believe the unionization boom and strike of 1919 may be seen in the larger context of the 1920-21 recession. During the war, it would have been easier to find factory work as so many (men) were tied up in the war effort. The major piano factories of the Northeast had to compete with other industries for workers (some manufacturers even had to resort to hiring women! This article states that Sherlock-Manning of London, ON paid their female employees the same wages as the men, the first employer to do so) .

As the war ended, and the economy transitioned into peacetime, the supply of workers increased and there were not enough jobs to go around, at least for a time. This slowdown affected the piano industry in particular; a third story from NYT, dated Jan 3, 1921, gives the grim news that 80% of the domestic piano workforce is idle, and that wage cuts of 25% are threatened.

These dire straits are corroborated when we look at the production numbers of pianos for those years, as shown here: 338,000 pianos produced in 1919, reduced to 128,000 in 1921! The numbers had rebounded  by the mid-1920’s, only to finally plummet to a low of 51,000 by 1931.

Few Piano Men at Work
Few Piano Men at Work

A further interesting fact to be understood from the production numbers (noted by Good, p. 275) is that 1919 is the first year in which there are more player pianos produced (approximately 180,000) as compared with conventional pianos (approximately 156,000 – there is a slight discrepancy with the trade production numbers). From this point on, until the stock market crash at the end of the decade, player pianos outnumber “ordinary” pianos because that is what is in style. It is a question of keeping up with the Joneses: the piano is the major household item (along with automobile –the average cost for each is about the same*), it is a status symbol and the source of family entertainment. It is also the preeminent example of mechanical engineering for the consumer market!

[* this site has other tidbits of trivia from 1919, mostly auto-oriented. I am going to follow up this post with another about 1919, with a wider scope]

The Standard Pneumatic Action Company of New York was one of the largest players in the 88-note player piano market. It was more than just a clever name: their player actions were used in many, many brands of pianos, becoming rather ubiquitous. They advertised incessantly and even had their own branded trade magazine “Standard Player Monthly”. The following ad is from the October 1919 (Vol. 04 No. 10) issue, trumpeting a milestone of 200,000 player actions made to date!

Advertisement from Standard Player Monthly, Oct. 1919
Advertisement from Standard Player Monthly, Oct. 1919 Courtesy Terry Smythe


The Standard company rode the player wave of the roaring ’20’s, but after the party ended with the Wall Street Crash, so too did business come to a halt.  The company went bust and their assets were auctioned off.

Advertisement for Standard liquidation auction
Advertisement for Standard liquidation auction

A news bulletin of the time indicates that  the Aeolian Co. purchased much of the assets of Standard, along with other player companies. (I sourced the above and following ad from Bryan Cather on the Facebook Player Piano Talk group. I don’t know the original source).

Aeolian buys Player Concerns
Aeolian buys Player Concerns


These kinds of gratuitous acquisitions would eventually sink Aeolian, as well…


Good, Edwin:  Giraffes, Black Dragons and other Pianos.  2nd ed. 2001, Stanford U. press

Kallmann, Helmut and Florence Hayes. Piano Building (in Canada)

Howard, Roy: Marketing History of the Piano.

Neudorf, Paula and Weilun Soon: Recession’s Impact.