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)  http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/piano-building-emc/

Howard, Roy: Marketing History of the Piano.   http://www.cantos.org/Piano/History/marketing.html

Neudorf, Paula and Weilun Soon: Recession’s Impact.  http://www.thelastamericangrand.com/recessionsimpact.html