Pianos: Made in Canada

The Canadian market mirrored the American market, in terms of trends. From humble beginnings, into the first decades of the Twentieth Century, this was a period of steady growth of the piano industry, with  pianos (player pianos in particular) in continual development and refinement.

Although it is impossible to appreciate now, piano manufacturing was once a vibrant industry in this country; there were dozens of factories pumping out tens of thousands of pianos, for the domestic market and for export throughout the Commonwealth and beyond.

A job at a piano factory was a respectable “blue collar” position; where one could earn a living wage. Workmanship was generally of a high quality for the well-known brands.

Of course, as is the case today, there was plenty of marketing hype and sales charlatanism, but still products were well-made, with pride.

The first quarter of the 20th Century was the golden age of piano manufacturing; player pianos became very popular and overall player piano production in North America reached its zenith in the mid twenties (although total piano production peak was earlier,  approximately 1909 and 1913 in the US and Canada respectively).

A peripheral note: although there was some piano trade between the US and Canada during this piano golden age, both countries had protectionist tariffs in place to discourage free trade. As chronicled by Ross, this had the effect of boosting domestic production and sales in Canada, to the benefit of larger manufacturers, such as Heintzman. These firms (e.g. Heintzman and Willis) who could compete did very well for themselves during this time.

Then came the stock market crash in 1929; the subsequent economic depression as well as the development of home radio and phonograph units were a severe blow to the piano industry, which ultimately never recovered its previous stature. People moved on to other “technology”.

World War II and the post-war years further diminished the piano sector;  with the interruption of the manufacturing chain, there were other, more lucrative opportunities  for workers, and the knowledge base was diluted.

As radio had done in the 30’s, the rise of the new popular medium of television was holding audiences in its thrall from the 50’s onward.

People now wanted smaller pianos, to put in the corner of their smaller houses; the piano was no longer the entertainment centerpiece of the home.

Production costs remained fixed in North America, while other competition from Asia was emerging. This new wave of instruments were significantly cheaper, and people often did not discriminate when it came time to buy a new piano.

With this increased competition (particularly from offshore producers) for an ever-dwindling market, and no more government protections like trade tariffs or industry loans, the writing was on the wall.  One by one, the Canadian makers suffered a slow death until the last (Sherlock Manning) closed up shop and auctioned off the factory contents in 1988.

Although domestic manufacturing is gone, and sales of new pianos continue to decline, many thousands of Canadian pianos are still around today; in some ways over time the industry became a victim of own success!  The Canadian pianos were made to last, and piano technicians inadvertently contribute to lower new piano sales by keeping these old, now often dilapidated pianos in playing shape, as is their duty to their clients.

Here is an infographic I made to illustrate the major players in the Canadian market at a glance:

List of Piano Makers in Canada
List of Major Piano Makers in Canada

Note: the colour coding does not have any particular significance. The dates listed are somewhat approximate and arbitrarily reflect period of manufacturing for a given firm, even though they may have previously existed as a sales entity. When a company closed, merged or was acquired, I have tried to indicate this with the green arrows.

Sources:

Ross, J.A. “Ye Olde Firme” Heintzman & Company, Ltd., 1885–1930: A Case Study in Canadian Piano Manufacturing. University of Guelph, 1994.  http://www.uoguelph.ca/~jaross/ma.pdf

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.