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:
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):
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.
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!
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.
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).
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