As Mott Haven becomes increasingly residential, the former Estey Factory is a reminder of the n e i g h b o r h o o d ’ s e a r l y y e a r s o f i n t e n s i v e i n d u s t r i a l g r o w t h . T o d a y , t h e E s t e y b u i l d i n g i s o n e o f t h e o l d e s t l a r g e f a c t o r i e s s t a n d i n g i n M o t t H a v e n , a n d i n t h e e n t i r e a r e a o f t h e s o u t h e r n B r o n x b e l o w 1 4 9 t h S t r e e t . 24
The Rise and Fall of the American Piano Industry25
The piano was virtually unknown in the American colonies in 1771, when Thomas Jefferson asked his agent to have a “forte-piano” sent to him from Europe. By the 1780s, however, piano imports were being supplemented with domestically produced instruments made by a handful of manufacturers in New York and Philadelphia.26 But despite the announcement in New York, in 1791, that one Mr. Kullin “would perform on a
Grand Concert Pianoforte … just finished by Messrs. Dodds & Claus, of this city,”27
were rare creatures at the turn of the nineteenth century. According to one estimate made in the 1790s, only 27 families in the entire city of Boston owned pianos at that time, and all of those instruments had been made in London.
For the first half of the nineteenth century, Boston was “the liveliest American center for the develop- ment of new piano-making ideas,” as its makers pioneered crucial technological advancements that included the one-piece iron frame.28 But other cities were making pianos, too, and by 1829, with the industry on the rise, Philadelphia led the country in piano production, followed by New York, Boston, and Baltimore. By the 1840s and 1850s, with New York’s ascendance as the nation’s cultural and commercial capital, German piano makers began arriving in the city, including Heinrich E. Steinweg, whose name—later changed to Steinway— would become synonymous with the instrument.29 Many of the immigrants from this period—including Fre- derick Mathushek, Ernst Gabler, George Steck, Henry Behning, and Simon Krakauer—founded companies that would ultimately have large piano factories in the Annexed District, and later, the Bronx.
The 1850s “marked the domestic triumph of the American piano,” as the nation’s production doubled
during the decade, and imports from England dwindled to virtually nothing.30
Although the piano would never
become, in the words of pianist and social historian Arthur Loesser, a “possession of the ‘masses,’” its appear- ance in more and more American parlors led one popular writer to remark in 1867 that “almost every couple that sets up housekeeping on a respectable scale considers a piano only less indispensable than a kitchen range.”31 Between 1870 and 1910, and especially, in the latter two decades of this period, the American piano industry boomed; per-capita consumption of pianos skyrocketed, with one American in every 252 purchasing a new piano in 1910, up from one in 1,540 in 1870. Falling prices and the growing availability of inexpensive, low-quality “thump-boxes” were factors in expanding the market for the piano, which was becoming an in- creasingly affordable status symbol.
In the mid-to-late nineteenth century, as the piano became a more common feature of the middle-class home, it began to carry considerable cultural freight. During this period and into the twentieth century, most piano players were women and girls; the ability to play even simple tunes on the instrument was a mark of a “cultivated lady” with good social graces, as piano music had become “an unavoidable feature of the small soiree.”32 The piano was believed to be more suitable for a girl than the harp—which might bring bad pos- ture—or the horn, violin, or cello, which were inappropriate for refined, modest young women and were thought to cause “detriment of their feminine attractions.”33 But more importantly, the piano was viewed as an important feature of a home that was supposed to shelter its family from the uncertainties of an increasingly industrialized society, and to incubate moral and spiritual values that were believed to be under threat. Music
was held to be tertwined with
morally uplifting “medicine for her responsibilities as keeper
a mother’s duty to provide it to
her family was in- of the house also
shouldered this duty. By playing the piano at home, one 1909 article argued, a girl could “lighten the free from the cares of business and household,” acting as “a boon to her father, to her mother, and to her ers.” In the words of historian Craig H. Roell, “The girl musician was not just cultivating a pastime or grace; she was playing her proper role. She provided a musical oasis in a workaday world.” 35
hours broth- social
The peak year for domestic pianos was 1909, when American manufacturers turned out nearly 365,000 of them. Several factors had contributed to the industry’s rapid growth over the previous four decades, includ- ing the rise of the supply business, which provided keys, actions, cases, soundboards, and other ready-made parts to manufacturers that were too small to produce these components in-house.36 The widespread use of