Artifact Corner: Episode 35 – Chickering Piano

Hi Everyone and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today we will be looking at this beautiful square grand piano, made by Chickering & Co. A former museum director in the 1950’s reached out to the Chickering Company to see if they could gather more information on the piano’s origin. They sent the company the serial number on the piano, and the information that Chickering provided was very detailed. The response stated, “was finished and left the Chickering Factory June 17th, 1835, delivered to Jonathan Chapman at #52 Chestnut Street, Boston. The price paid was $400.00.” Jonathan Chapman owned a piano store, and this lovely square grand piano was purchased by John Webb. John was Henry Webb’s brother and the Uncle of Fannie Webb Hall. He bought this piano as a gift for his niece, Fannie. Let’s learn a bit more about the Chickering Company, and the design of the square piano.

The Chickering piano company was founded by Jonas Chickering and James Stewart in Boston, Massachusetts in 1823. In less than 10 years the partnership with Stewart was dissolved, and Jonas Chickering partnered with John Mackay. Mackay was a ships captain, and he helped to export their pianos to South America. In his return trips he brought back stunning South American hardwoods for use in the manufacture of the pianos. Their partnership ended in 1841 when Mackay and his ship were lost at sea. Jonas Chickering brought his three sons into his business in 1852, and less than a year later, Jonas Chickering died. From 1853 onward Jonas’ three sons ran the company which was now known as Chickering and Sons.

Chickering was America’s first piano manufacturer. Prior to Chickering, all piano’s were imported to the United States. Chickering’s pianos became the standard by which all other pianos made in the United States were judged against. In 1850, famed showman P.T. Barnum contracted Chickering to make a piano for a concert that he was planning. Barnum persuaded Jenny Kind, known as the Swedish Nightingale to preform across the US, and her accompaniment was to be a Chickering piano. In the audience for the concert in NYC was Henry E. Steinway, recently arrived in America from Germany. Steinway paid little attention to Jenny Lind, the star of the show, and instead went directly to the piano. He was studying it so intently that he needed to be removed from the stage so that the performance could begin. Steinway was mesmerized by the beauty and quality of the instrument, and thus a rivalry was born. Steinway became Chickering’s biggest competition for piano manufacture and sales.

Our piano is known as a square grand piano. These pianos were also called coffin pianos due to their similarity when the lid was closed. These pianos were good for producing a big sound, but being small enough to fit into most homes.The strings in our piano run parallel to the keyboard as opposed to perpendicular like most modern pianos. The sound that is produced is softer and a bit more muddy than a modern grand piano. Unfortunately, our piano is not able to be played. The soundboard has a large crack in it, rendering it unusable without restoration. Our piece is a beautiful example of the earliest American pianos, and we are so lucky to have it in our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by!

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot,