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, a “themed” system, or an Ampico reproducing system, which was often paired with the Knabe piano. Willis had an exclusive agreement in Canada to use and sell the Ampico system.
The Antique Piano Shop has a sales catalogue from c.1920 which shows the different models offered that year. From what I could tell my piano would probably correspond to what they label as a “model X”.
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 read before posting a comment or question: 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!
While I am gratified about the interest in my blog, I am not in a position to respond to age inquiries of all the thousands of Willis pianos out there across the country. As mentioned in the comments, the age is simply a point of interest but does not determine resale value in any way: the hard truth is that your old Willis piano is not worth very much money at all — sorry about that!
Call your local tech, your piano will thank you!
I will however give a rough timeline of serial numbers as space permits here. Keeping in mind that this information is incomplete and approximate:
|Year of Manufacture||Serial Number|
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.
54 thoughts on “Willis & Company”
My grandfather William James Summerton worked for Mr. Willis as a coachman. In the 1911 Canada Census it says he was a coachman for a private family. My aunt still has a Willis piano. Would there be any records of employees going back a few years. My grand father died in 1951.
I’m afraid I don’t have any information like that, I don’t believe any such records would still be in existence, unfortunately!
This is great resource hunting to piece this all together, fantastic job. I actually reached out to the Jacob clothing company who owns one of he old Willis and Co buildings on Sainte Catherine street (1220 Sainte-Catherine). They mentioned that when they took it over there was nothing of any historical reference at all in the building. I believe all of those records were probably discarded after the company closed which is unfortunate. I always admired the architectural beauty of that building and you can still see the old “Willis Pianos” ad on the opposite side of the building.
Thank you, Michael Klein!
I would tend to agree that the only remaining legacy of the Willis & Co business is their many pianos which still remain in homes and institutions in Canada and abroad. If you wish to submit a photo of the old Willis building, I would be happy to repost here! Kind Regards
I just acquired a 1919 willis player piano. I’m wondering if the player mechanism has to be removed in order to get to the keys (leveling the keys for instance), or is there an easier way?
Hi Mikhaila, congratulations!
Yes, some case parts and also the player action (top section) will have to be removed in order to access the keys, for cleaning, leveling, etc.
You can read on the blog about how to do this (if you feel confident), or you can hire a qualified piano technician who is familiar with player pianos. Good luck!
Hello, I am wondering if I could find out the year of manufacture on a piano with serial number 18909? Thank you!
Assume you’re talking about a Willis?
This would likely be 1918
I just purchased a willis piano that I think is quite old ,spinet style made of wood.
I think it is 40…50 vintage.
Excellent condition awesome sound.
Would the serial number identify it’s history?
The serial number does not really give any actual historical details about the piano, save one: the approximate year of manufacture.
While knowing this piece of information may certainly be of interest, it is a small detail in the entire history of the piano.
Hi there, I’ve just discovered a Willis piano in an old shed on some property my 2xgreat grandfather owned in Ontario. I’m trying to figure out how old it is, so we’ll have to try to get to the serial number somehow. Just wondering if you know of any photos that may be around of some of the oldest Willis pianos made?
Yeah the serial number is really the best and most accurate way to date the piano, definitively.
If you can get at the piano, lift the lid and peer inside with a light.
The serial number is usually found above the tuning pins, near the inside top of the piano.
My Willis has serial number 16085. When would that have been built?
That serial number would correspond pretty closely to manufacturing run of beginning of 1917, probably would have been one of the first off the line that year.
Hello we have a Willis baby grand. The only numbers we can seem to fine are. 3T165…the T looks upside down and I can’t do it on the key board…the other number is 42632. Any help would really be appreciated…we are wondering the age as we are going to sell it ..thank you so much.
Well, hard to say based on description alone but if it were say “31,000” series, it would date to 1927.
If the serial number were “42,000” series, it would be closer to 1950 but I don’t think Willis was making nearly as many grand pianos at that time, there was far less market for them.
As I have said above in the post, the serial number and age are not so important when it comes to sale, it’s for historical interest only.
All Willis pianos are old now, and people are not so interested in paying money for older pianos which means that you likely won’t be able to command a high price, unfortunately!
I recommend you contact your local piano technician to come and evaluate the piano if you are considering selling or donating your old piano.
Do you have a scheme of pneumatic connection.
I have an automatic Willis piano with Theme valve, soft box and Governor
Yes I have something I made for my own piano, I will find it and send to you.
I was just given a Willis & Co. piano, a Handel model with the Serial No. 9394. Would that make the year or manufacture around 1912? The piano needs work, but it will be a labour of love if I can restore it. Thanks in advance.
Yes, I think you are right on the money with 1912, according to the Pierce Piano Atlas.
I’m sure after 107 years the piano needs an awful lot of work indeed!
Good luck with it and have fun!
I was just given a Willis & Co. piano, a Handel model with the Serial No. 4669 … Would that make the year or manufacture around 1905-1909… I would like to know how much this piano can cost in the market…
As you can see from previous comments, a piano this old has next to no market value, unless it has been fully restored in recent years.
I was recently given (this past weekend) a Willis & Company upright piano with a serial number of 9394 and the model name Handel. Would you be able to tell me the approximate age when this piano was manufactured? Thanking you in advance!
There is a Willis upright piano in the museum at Massey, Ontario, serial number in the 23,000 range. I tuned it to A = 440 in August 2019 and it plays beautifully.
We have a Willis “Alexandra” model with the serial number 7069. It is in remarkable shape and we are trying to decide what to do with it. No one in our family plays piano but I also hate to part with it as the previous owner was 102 when he died and a good friend. Is there a market for these old pianos? I was always under the understanding that they weren’t worth very much? Anyway, it is a lovely instrument!!
I’m afraid that there is not much of a “market” for old pianos, no.
If you know the piano is still playing, you may try to give it away, but even this can be a challenge.
With a serial number in the 7000 series, the piano is well over 100 years old at this point.
If you have the space you may continue to enjoy it as an object, or hire a technician to give it a tune up for when you have musical friends visiting.
Other than that, not much else to be done.
I wish you the best with the piano.
We sold ours this year for 2000 Canadian. The buyers were really happy with it. They spent over 4000 doing it up inside. It will be much worth more in the years to come. They also have decided to refinish it , so they are worth it. If yours is in good shape you will get more.
Thanks for your comment.
I’m glad you had a good experience selling your old piano.
Of course results will vary depending on location and each individual instrument, however in my experience pianos never actually appreciate in value.
The main thing is the personal satisfaction you get from your piano.
Hello… We have a very nice and well used Willis and Co upright…. but the serial number is 7319010 and it does not show up on the list for year of manufacture… can you elaborate? Thanks….Dave
Hmm…I do not know for sure, but I would imagine that such a high seven digit number would be indicative of the final period of production for Willis, meaning the mid to late 1970s.
There must have been a break in the serial number sequence, as the Pierce Atlas records only to 1965 ending in 47K series numbers.
Therefore safe to say at least that it would have been made in the final decade of production at Willis.
We have a Wills &Co piano Ser # 8970 in good condition, Could you send info as to the year and what I should insure it for? Thank You! George
Year of manufacture approximately 1912…I wouldn’t say it makes sense economically to insure such an old piano, very little market value
Hi, I have inherited the family piano. My mother purchased this piano from an older lady in Vancouver. It has good time and lovely curvy sculpted legs; it is an upright and in excellent condition. Most of my family has passed so I am the only one left to accept it and I played for years on it.My kids do not want it as they have inherited two family pianos, as well.
I have three questions:
1.Are the keys ivory?(Husband says no, but Mom thought they were.)
2.When was it made? It is too hard for us to pull the piano away from the wall at our age. It says Willis and Co. In black and gold William Morris style writing under the hinged lid. My guess the late twenties due to the curvy well crafted legs. It is quite lovely, I cannot understand why it will not have a home after I am gone.
3. Can you give me an estimate what it is worth and a dealer who will sell it to an appreciative buyer in Vancouver?(It will most likely be tossed to the nearest thrift store, otherwise.)
Again, if you read my responses to previous questions, you will see that old pianos have very little value in today’s society.
You can post it in the classifieds for a couple hundred dollars, but sometimes people have trouble giving them away, sadly no one really wants them!
If it is a large old upright it was probably made between 1900-1930.
The exact year is not really important for sale purposes, just a point of interest.
If you open the top lid and check the serial number, this will give you an idea.
A piano like this would have had ivory keys originally, they may have been replaced at some point, hard to say without seeing the piano.
You may want to check with the thrift store that they have room to accept a donation like a large piano, it’s not something you just “toss” them!
It costs time and money to move a large upright, no matter where it’s going, plan accordingly!
I hope you find a good solution.
We got 2500 for ours and it needed to be refinished. and some work on the inside , the buyer paid for a truck to come and take it. They were so happy to have it. ( Canadian dollars )
Sorry , more info … we were told that no one wants those pianos anymore , and we put it up for sale anyway. There are still a lot of folks who don’t want digital pianos. Three folks were interested and each one sent a guy to check the piano out .. one said it sounded like an older piano and would not offer much for it ( he even asked that we not sit and watch him do His work ) , the next said ( he did a proper check and took Well over half an hour ) And he was really pleased at the inside and a bit of work needed to be done , he said he would recommend that his client buy it. The third came and checked it over quickly and left saying that he would send his client the info. We were asking 3000 and took less of course .. we only had it posted for about three weeks. Good luck and please don’t be discouraged and be positive , it worked for us ..
Hi again Hilda, as we previously discussed, there are certainly variables to each piano and each situation. Grand pianos like yours would tend to command a higher price than an upright, because they are more desirable.
If you are in an area where there are fewer pianos available, this is also helpful. It all follows the rule of supply and demand.
Age and condition are factors in resale as well.
In general terms, however, the market for very old upright pianos in original condition is poor, particularly in larger centers where there is an abundance of them.
These are my own opinions, but they are based on my experience and observations.
Although it may be perceived as negativity, I feel it is important to be forthright about how things are.
Thanks again for your comments.
CBC radio produced a short radio documentary for the Sunday Edition show, a few years ago. It is worth a listen:
Oh no. So sorry. I didn’t mean to sound that you were being negative. So sorry if it did sound like that. I also didn’t realize that it was an upright. Again so sorry , my intention was just to help the seller feel better about it all. Be safe my Darling. Take good care.
No apology needed Hilda, no harm no foul 🙂
Each person’s experience is different, and I am glad yours was a good one.
My fiancé and I just bought a house and it came with a Willis and Co piano, serial number is 7392. Opened the bottom part by the Peddle’s and a date is wrote onto the wood on the inside, 23/05/11. Just curious about value as nine of us play piano unfortunately
Those “came with the house pianos” are becoming more common as people downsize and move out, and leave their old pianos behind for the next person.
The date does correspond to 1911, so that sounds right.
Unfortunately the old piano has little financial value, you may be able to give it away, or get a few bucks for it if you’re lucky.
You could have a tuner come and look at it, but realistically after 109 years, the piano has probably reached the end of the line.
Hi serial 7643 what would the age be please? It was also painted at some point would these have been solid wood or veneers? Thanks
Usually it was fine quality hardwood veneer over a plainer structural wood, then shellacked or lacquered.
I just came across a Willis & Co. Player Piano with the serial number ‘19203’. Would I be correct in assuming this piano is from approximately 1919?
Yes, that’s right
I have an upright Willis and the numbers on the plate read “7710 0026.” It looks as though there’s a space between the first and second set of four numbers.
Where might I find info on that?
I think when the numbers are that high it is a late model piano (1970s), made in the time leading up to bankruptcy and closure.
When I work on these pianos it is not uncommon to find issues with them, in the bridges or pinblock, so they do not stay in tune very long.
It really depends on the individual piano.
Parson me. The numbers are “7710 026.”
I am having trouble determining the age of our Willis piano. What I believe to be the serial number, found above the tuning pins, centre, top is 17509.
Can you help?
Probably about 1918 or so, for what it’s worth
Just came across your website while researching our Willis & Co player piano #28228. It was given to us by a distant family member and our children enjoyed it growing up. The player mechanism appears to be intact but is in serious need of refurbishment and it stopped working long before we got it. At some point in its life, the air lines were actually replaced with old style hollow plastic skipping rope I think. While the neon lime and orange lines are pretty, they too have turned brittle and cracked over the years. Recently selling our large family home and moving to the cottage, there was a lot of pressure to dispose of it but as an engineer, I have always been fascinated with the player mechanism. It’s really a thing of beauty and I could just not bare to send it to be dismantled. It now sits in my workshop next to my car restoration project and I have added it to my retirement projects list. I am not a musically inclined person but I am looking forward to the challenge of a full mechanical restoration. I first need to do much more research and I am wondering if you know of any sources for documentation on my piano model? While the web is vast, I am thinking I may have to aquire some books with drawings to kick start my piano education. Any help or suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Regards Graham
Sounds like you have been smitten, many engineers love old player pianos!
They are indeed fascinating creations.
While it’s true my website has many postings over several years, I don’t know that it is “vast”; I have tried to put each topic in bite sized pieces to make it manageable.
If you go toward the beginning and work your way back to the more recent posts, it may start to make more sense.
With regard to books, I strongly recommend that you acquire and read Reblitz’s book, information here:
This will give you solid information about player pianos in general, and much of it will apply to your Willis piano.
There were variations in action design and construction from year to year, but by and large it will follow established norms common to most players.
Your action is most probably a Canadian made Higel, which would be modeled on a Standard/Auto Pneumatic template.
I suggest, before dismantling anything, that you take many photos and make notes, diagrams, etc.
That old tubing will definitely have to be replaced with new neoprene tubing.
If you are stuck on figuring out the tubing line runs or other functions, I am happy to try and assist you in understanding that.
Thanks for the feedback and resource links, I am sure they will me most helpful. Yes, I agree about documenting everything. Luckily my OCD will come in handy finally. 🙂
I will keep you up to date as I progress as I am sure I will be picking your brain a little more.
Best regards and thanks again for your quick and helpful response.