All posts by Ian

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…

Sources:

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

 

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

Willis & Company

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.

A.P. Willis, via Mark. W. Gallop
A.P. Willis, 1912, via Mark. W. Gallop

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.

From Montreal Gazette, 01-09-1910
Another Extension to Willis Piano Factory – Montreal Gazette, 01-09-1910
Willis piano ad stitched gazette nov 25 1912
Where Willis Pianos are made – Montreal Gazette 25-11-1912
willis 10000 Montreal Daily Witness May 17 1913
Willis Piano, No. 10,000 – Montreal Daily Witness, 17-05-1913

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”.

Warranty Statement on piano plate
Warranty Certificate gilded on piano plate – long since expired!

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.

The end of Willis Piano Company Montreal Gazette 17-10-1978
The end of Willis Piano Company
Montreal Gazette 17-10-1978

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 
1905 2000
1909 5000
1913 10000
1917 16000
1922 25000
1926 30000
1930 34000
1940 37000
1952 43000

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.

Prelude

I don’t know at exactly what point I decided I was interested in pianolas (also known as player pianos). When I first started learning piano technology, such as basics of tuning, regulation, repair and so on, I was not really encouraged by any of my succeeding teachers to learn about players. Which was probably fair, at least at the time.

Player pianos are essentially a regular piano, but with a second integrated mechanism inside which plays the piano for you, using either human power (you pumping pedals) or electricity. If you want to know more right this second, before continuing with the blog, you can check out some of the many online resources here or here, or here.

So I learned the fundamentals of being a pianotech, concentrating on first doing the basic things well, then learning more as I went along. Truth be told, there is a lot to know about regular pianos without getting into how player pianos work! The player action adds a considerable level of complexity.

When I got back out in the real world, after my studies, and started working, I would occasionally come across the odd player piano. Most of them were in a dilapidated state, and the player action no longer functioned properly. I would just take care to avoid touching the player mechanism, and tuned around it. If there were repairs needed that required the extraction of the player mechanism, I would balk at doing this and refuse the job.

Over time this started to bother me, and I did some armchair research online. I started to become rather more interested in players, and thought I needed to gain some hands-on experience.

This brings me to last year, when clicking through the classifieds (a guilty pleasure), I spotted an ad for a “FREE PLAYER PIANO”. I clicked for details and recognized that the ad was likely placed by a lady who had contacted me some months prior, trying to sell the piano in question. I had responded with an answer in which I tried to balance both positivity and reality. Yes, a buyer might be found, but it would take time, and there would probably be some serious haggling involved.

The reality of the current piano market, in this area (Maritime Canada) as well as elsewhere, is that there are many more old pianos available, than there are people that still want them. These things were often well-designed and constructed, and therefore often still play well enough to basically work, but at the same time are worn down and at a much-reduced level of performance. This is especially true for player pianos, because the player action is more complex and has more things that can go wrong with it. If one element of the propulsion chain (for example) is compromised, usually with air leaks, there will be insufficient power to drive the music roll, and therefore no music will play!

And so I went to see the piano in the ad. I first made sure that the piano structure was fundamentally sound: that the case was intact, that the sounding board and particularly the bridges were not compromised, and most importantly that the pinblock still had sufficient grip on the pins to ensure enough torque resistance, and therefore a reasonably stable tuning, at pitch. I was happy to find all these things seemed to check out.  (Note that I am a professional; if you are going to invest more than 0$ in any piano, have it looked over by someone who knows, before making a commitment!)

This inspection is important, because an obvious (but sometimes overlooked) detail is that the instrument must be viable in all its components, including the piano (e.g. the strength of a chain depends on the weakest link). If the instrument has a wonderful, fancy player action, but the piano action or structure has a significant defect, then the complete package will not deliver. While nearly any problem can be surmounted with sufficient resources (time and money), the instrument must be worth it — but this is a topic for another post.

I then checked the player mechanism for completeness, and while it did “work”, you would essentially have to be an Olympic-class athlete to make music on this piano for any length of time. As described above, the seals around the various bellows and pneumatics were no longer tight, so pumping the pedals was an exercise in inefficiency and it was necessary to pump like a madman just to get the roll to move in a slow manner.

Acknowledging that I would have to rebuild the player action completely, I agreed to take on the piano. I called my movers, who professionally and safely transported the piano to its destination – my place! I now had a new, old, Willis player piano!

NB: it is really fairly important to have professionals move a piano. These large full-sized uprights (also known as upright grands) often weigh in the 800 lb. range. When it is a player piano, with the weight of the extra action they can get up to a whopping 1100 lbs! It usually costs several hundred dollars (no, there is no such thing as a “FREE” piano!), but worth it to avoid nasty surprises to people and property.

In the beginning

Well..hooray, if it isn’t another blog! I have never really had a particular inclination or motivation to write a blog. I only follow a couple online, which are regularly updated and contain useful information — to me.

I find in general that most blogs fail on both these counts. Either the last posting was over a year ago, or people just prattle on about one thing or another. Although I may eventually fall into one or both of these traps, I am at least cognizant of them, and I will endeavor to keep it informative, with the occasional diversion.

So I will straight up admit that I brought this page online almost a year ago (that didn’t take long, did it?); life has a way of adjusting priorities and a player piano project tends to stay on the back burner…until now! We will pretend that I am just starting fresh, and after a few introductory articles, I will get to the meat and potatoes stuff, as I have time.

I hope you will follow along!

Read on!