The American Piano Wars

The American Piano Wars

The history of the American piano wars is a forgotten period in American business.

The story of the piano in America as a commodity is quite interesting.

By 1890, the piano had penetrated everywhere in Western culture.

With no electricity, no cars, no radio and no telephone, the ideal was to sit in one’s living room in the evening and listen to someone playing the piano.

There were 150 piano companies in the USA alone, trying to meet the public’s insatiable demand for the instrument.

In fact, the piano industry, always labor intensive, provided jobs for more Americans than any other industry!

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There were to be several shocks, historical forces, really, that were to shake the piano industry and ultimately cripple it.

First was the economic decline around 1900. This started to affect sales. Then came electricity and cars.

Electricity and cars made the ideal of sitting in your living rooms listening to a piano into old news. Americans wanted to be out on the road in their Model T, using all that cheap electricity they had just discovered.

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With less reason to stay home, US piano sales plummeted again.

Then the Aeolian Company, a piano manufacturer, found a way to mass-produce the mechanism for the player piano.

All of a sudden, player pianos were the rage, and sales skyrocketed. For a few years the piano returned to a position of dominance in the instrument marketplace.

Aeolian built a huge new building in Manhattan to take care of the expected permanent surge in sales.

People were intrigued with the idea of not having to play the piano at all, but instead listening to great music reproduced from a piano roll.

Then came the death-knell.

Some bright fellow figured out a way to cheaply mass-produce the radio in 1926, and the radio swept the Americans like a raging fire.

Piano sales of all kinds dropped off the map. The great honeymoon with the American public was over.

In New York City, the Aeolian Piano Company had begun construction on a huge new Manhattan factory and showroom, only to abandon the building entirely when radio swept the nation. The piano was done for, finished, all washed up.

The piano, which had come to embody the accomplishments of the Industrial Revolution since 1800, was relegated to a lower and lower position as inventions poured out such as the television, and then, of course, the computer.

In the 1980s, electonic synthesizers entered the scene, leading to hopes that the market could be rejuvenated, but the demand was not great, although almost all pop music adopted synthesizers and abandoned the acoustic piano.

By the 1950’s the Piano Culture started to wither, and then die, mostly due to television, the computer, and then the internet.

A slight resurgence in the 1970’s and 1980’s was caused by the invention of the digital player piano, a mechanism that could be fitted to any piano much like a player piano.

But then came the PC in the 1980’s, and the piano was finally finished off by the electronic keyboard and synthesizer.

The great piano, once a vehicle for a nation’s dreams, had become just another piece of furniture.

Copyright 2000 Walden Pond Press

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