During the 19th and early 20th centuries, pianos and organs went through an incredible evolution. Pictured below are various styles, models, and descriptions of vintage instruments that can help you determine the type and approximate age of your instrument.
The upright piano didn’t become popular in American culture until the last quarter of the 19th century. Prior to that time, the square grand piano was the preferred choice that dominated the American piano market. Most of our vintage ephemera collection doesn’t show upright pianos until the 1870s, although upright pianos were built on a limited scale all through the early and middle 19th century. It is exceedingly rare that we see an upright piano dating prior to 1870 come through our restoration shop, indicating that the extant models of mid-19th century upright pianos are very scarce today.
As the 20th century approached, makers began shifting their production from the square grand piano to the upright piano, as the public’s tastes were beginning to change and homes were becoming smaller and less suited for large square grand pianos. In the 1880s and 1890s, upright piano production increased substantially and by the last decade of the 19th century, the square grand piano that had dominated the market for the past century had all but vanished. Since this was the height of the Victorian era, manufacturers were building their upright pianos with exotic woods and lavish carvings, often producing incredibly ornate and lavish models to suit the décor of the era. The last decade of the 19th century saw some of the finest craftsmanship and quality ever to be put into piano manufacturing.
After the turn-of-the-century, tastes began to change and piano design began to become a bit more streamlined. The ostentatious styles of the late 19th century gave way for more classic and simple design. The first decade of the 20th century saw a calmer, less radical movement in interior design than the previous decades, and this change was immediately seen in the evolving styles offer by the major piano manufacturers.
From about 1900-1916, the Arts & Crafts Movement was a major force in American design. Although the Arts & Crafts design was very popular during the early 20th century, piano makers were slow to adapt to the Mission/Arts & Crafts design. Furniture manufactures were quick to jump on the new trend of the Craftsman style, but piano makers were slow to recognize just how important the Arts & Crafts Movement really was. A handful of manufactures attempted to build pianos in the Craftsman/Mission style, but because the Movement was so short-lived, most of them didn’t see the significance of the Arts & Crafts Movement until it was too late; the Arts & Crafts Movement was over before 1920. Sadly, very few manufacturers ever offered Craftsman style pianos, and as a result, original specimens are exceedingly rare today.
The 1920s era was considered the “Golden Age” of piano building. By this time makers had streamlined operations and the piano had evolved into a perfect machine. The upright piano had evolved into a very simple basic design, becoming more utilitarian in appearance than ever before. With the exception of period furniture styles like Louis XV and French Provincial, most upright pianos were without ornamentation or frills. Instead, plain square pillars and streamlined moldings resulted in a very “modern” looking upright piano which was considered “uncluttered” and “beautifully simplistic.” These simple-looking upright pianos were generally of excellent quality.
More player pianos were built in America between 1900 and 1930 than any other single type of piano. A conventional player piano is operated via a perforated paper roll inserted above the keyboard, and large pumping pedals below the keyboard. While pumping these pedals, vacuum is created which pulls air through the holes in the paper roll, causing the piano note to play. By 1910, all major manufacturers had at least one line of player pianos. By 1920, player pianos dominated the market place. In the years before the phonograph and radio, the player piano was the only means of musical entertainment for the public at large. They were as common in the household then as our big screen television is today! Thousands of song titles were available for player piano rolls, and rolls were sold by the millions. By the time the Great Depression hit, the radio and phonograph offered a much more affordable means of entertainment, and the player piano seemed to vanish overnight.
SQUARE GRAND PIANOS
In the last part of the 18th century, John Jacob Astor started importing square grand pianos to America from Europe. By the turn of the 19th century, a handful of makers are recorded as having made some of the first square grand pianos in America. For the next 100 years, the square grand piano would evolve into a larger, heavier, and more mechanically refined instrument.
During the 19th century, American piano makers built and sold more square grand pianos than grand pianos or upright pianos! Our vintage ephemera collections show these square grand pianos selling for as much as $800 in the mid 19th century – the cost of a small house! Sadly, however, they are all but forgotten today.
By about 1880-1890, the American upright piano began to win favor as being more fashionable than the square grand piano. Because they were smaller and took up less space, the upright piano caused the square grand piano to become obsolete by 1900.
GRAND & BABY GRAND PIANOS
Prior to the Civil War, the square grand piano was the piano of choice by American manufacturers. There were a limited number of grand pianos built during the early 19th century, but they were few and far between. By the late 1860s and early 1870s, conventional grand piano models began to appear in the sales catalogs of most manufacturers, but were still dominated by the selection of square grands available. These mid-19th entury grand pianos were rarely less than six feet long, and were usually very massive and striking in appearance. Like square grands, they were ususally made of exotic rosewood or mahogany and were beautifully carved. As the 1880s and 1890s approached, the square grand piano began to fade in popularity, and manufacturers started promoting their lines of grand and upright pianos. By the last decade of the 19th century, the square grand piano had all but disappeared in favor of the grand piano.
In the early 20th century the grand piano, like the upright piano, began to become a bit streamlined and simplified in design. By about 1910, smaller baby grand pianos started to become popular. These early baby grand pianos were still a bit larger and more massive than the baby grand pianos produced in the 1920s, but they were a step in the evolution toward the tiny apartment size baby grand pianos of the 1930s and 1940s. These baby grand pianos were offered in a wide variety of styles, often to compliment particular periods in furniture design, but the most popular style by far was the spade-leg classic design that most of us associate with the traditional baby grand piano of today. By the 1930s onward, tiny baby grand pianos, like the tiny spinet upright piano, continued to be popular in the modern American home as people moved into smaller houses and apartments. These tiny pianos were often referred to as “Apartment Size” baby grand pianos, sometimes measuring as little as 52 inches long!
ORGANS & MELODEONS
During the mid to late 19th Century, most major manufacturers were building organs for home use. These were commonly referred to a “Parlor Organs”, “Reed Organs” and “Pump Organs”. These organs were operated via pumping of large foot pedals which would force air across a bank of reeds. Early organs were fairly basic in design and appearance, but the organs built in the last quarter of the 19th Century were some of the most elaborate and lavish instruments money could buy. The organs built during this era often had very high backs with carved panels, shelves, mirrors, etc. They were truly a hallmark in Victorian design! By the-turn-of-the-century, the organ had all but disappeared as the piano became the instrument of choice for the American home.
Designed for institutional and church use, the Chapel Organ was basically the same instrument as the parlor organ. The major difference was in the cabinet. First, the cabinet was usually short so that the organist could see over it to face the choir or congregation. Second, the back of the instrument was usually finished with beautifully carved woodwork or fretwork in case the instrument was to be placed with the back facing the choir or congregation. Often, the more elaborate versions had a greater musical quality than the typical parlor organs built for the home.
PIANO-CASED REED ORGANS
By the turn of the century, the organ had all but vanished in favor of the more popular piano. Organ manufacturers were scrambling to survive, so many of them turned to piano building. A handful of makers built what is referred to as a “Piano-Cased Organ” in hopes that an organ that had the appearance of a piano would help boost sales in the organ market! These were literally reed organs built into piano cabinets, with the piano pedals being converted to pumping pedals to operate the organ bellows. These instruments are exceedingly rare today, and they were only produced for a few years around the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Melodeon was produced in the early to middle 19th century, and was the forerunner to the late 19th century Parlor Organ. Melodeons were usually simple instruments with one set of reeds, and often looked like a miniature square grand piano. They had large iron pumping pedals to move the air across the reeds. Melodeons were built by the thousands prior to the Civil War, but they are very rare today. Because of their age and place in history, most melodeons are of museum caliber today and deserve the finest restoration and preservation possible.
19TH CENTURY ENGLISH UPRIGHT PIANOS
Upright pianos built in England during the 19th century were some of the most lavish and beautiful pianos ever built. American and other European manufacturers held most of patents that aided in the piano’s evolution, and they were taking great strides in design and development. Most English piano builders seemed to stay several decades behind America and the rest of Europe in progress and evolution, not fully catching up until just before the turn of the century.
English upright pianos can usually be identified by their lavishly burled woods, smaller petite size, and their signature silver or brass candle sconces delicately mounted on either side of the front panel. Although these pianos were quite beautiful with their exotic burled wood inlay and candelabras, they were mechanically primitive compared to other instruments being manufactured throughout the world. Many of these instruments were equipped with what is today called a “birdcage action,” an unusual type of upright piano action with the damper wires running in the front of the action with the actual dampers themselves mounted over the tops of the hammers. Pianos with birdcage action are very difficult to service and tune, but not impossible. A restored English piano has a light, mellow tone not unlike that of the American square grand, reflecting Europe’s love affair with the sound of the early pianoforte. Parts for these instruments are scarce, and rebuilding is usually expensive yet justified because of their unusually elaborate cases.
*Note that not all English makers built primitive pianos in the 19th century. Top English brand names like Broadwood, Brinsmead and Collard & Collard built very good quality, advanced instrument during the 19th century era, making an exception to the rule.
During World War II, American piano manufacturers ceased production to assist in the war effort. Rationing made it impossible to build a piano during those years, so piano tuners and rebuilders saw a golden opportunity to keep up with the public’s demands by introducing the “mirror piano.” They simply took a large old upright, often a gutted player piano, cut a step-shelf along the top, and secured a mirror across the exposed back so that the piano had the appearance of being smaller or more modern. These “restyled” pianos became very popular during the war, and unfortunately this trend continued for another 30 years. Hundreds of thousands of heirloom pianos were butchered during these years, and they are still commonly encountered. Because irreparable damage was done to the integrity of the instrument, mirror pianos are seldom worth more than a few hundred dollars at best.
MID-CENTURY MODERN SPINET & CONSOLE PIANOS
Pianos built after the Great Depression are commonly referred to as “Mid-Century Modern” pianos. These pianos are generally not considered to be “antique” pianos, but they are vintage.
The “Golden Age” of piano building in America reached an end by the time the Great Depression hit. After 1929, American piano sales plummeted, never again to reach the volume sold during the ‘teens and ‘twenties. With the radio and photograph being popular and inexpensive means for home entertainment, the high-priced piano had become somewhat of an unaffordable luxury in the American home.
American piano manufacturers suffered greatly during the Great Depression, and builders scrambled to find a way to save the industry. By this time the large full-size upright piano was being discontinued for smaller, less expensive and more “modern-looking” instruments with streamlined design.
Shortly after the Great Depression hit, the piano industry introduced the “Spinet” piano, which was basically an upright piano of very small proportions – often standing no more than 36 inches high! The spinet piano took the public by storm, and all major manufacturers began producing them. Soon the console piano was introduced. Console pianos generally start at about 42 inches high and are slightly taller than a spinet piano. Small uprights, just a bit larger than a console piano, were also introduced and sold as “studio uprights.” These studio upright pianos usually measured from about 46 inches to about 52 inches high. These small “Mid-Century Modern” pianos saved the American piano industry, carrying it through the Great Depression and into the World War II years. Since then, most upright pianos are of the spinet or console type. Although many makers have consistently produced smaller studio uprights, the large upright piano of the early 19th century was never built again.