Business and Labor

When the Music Stopped: Chickering and the Piano Wars of 1850

1852 Chickering Factory Fire (Harper's)

Chickering & Sons Piano Company was always a two-person operation. It needed a technical expert to make the most advanced pianos of the day, and a great salesman with the gumption to propel the company forward. For two generations, it had both.

1852 Chickering Factory Fire (Harper's)

1852 Chickering Factory Fire (Harper's)

The company can trace its roots back to 1823. And for eighty years it prospered. Its pianos were recognized as the best of their day. Chickering was the house piano at Ford’s Theater the night President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The superstar poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow owned one and sang its praises.

Chickering’s acclaim extended well beyond America into the European capitals of classical music. Hungarian piano virtuoso Franz Liszt played one, as did Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg.

The company, meanwhile, survived two shocks that could have easily killed it. First, in 1841, one of its dynamic first owners disappeared (and presumably died). He was the money behind the outfit. Second, in 1852, the skies over Boston were lit up and people crowded the streets to watch the company consumed by fire.

Yet nothing could stop the juggernaut that was Chickering. Nothing but time and Chickering itself.

 Jonas Chickering

The company gets its name from Jonas Chickering, son of a New Hampshire blacksmith. Born in 1798 in Mason, N.H., he was apprenticed to a cabinet maker. In his early days he was hired by a family to repair its piano and he was intrigued. Chickering arrived in Boston in 1818 to pursue his trade and by 1823 he had partnered with James Stewart. The two set up shop on Tremont Street building pianos. The firm of Stewart and Chickering folded in 1827, with Chickering still fascinated with pianos.

Pianos, by this time, had been around for more than 100 years. But they were a niche instrument. They were soft and difficult to keep in tune. Like a guitar, they frequently needed tuning, which made them impractical for many purposes. But by the 1820s, piano makers were experimenting with new technologies.

Iron was more readily available and piano makers saw an opportunity to use it to make their instruments stronger. Building iron frames into pianos meant they would stay in tune longer. They were stronger and could support more and tighter strings which could be played louder and would stand up to faster hammer actions.

Chickering began developing iron frames to hold piano strings and honing his skills. In 1830, Chickering’s piano-making skills collided head-on with one of Boston’s foremost families – the Mackay’s.  John Mackay and Jonas Chickering were both early members of the Handel and Haydn Society, which promoted classical music in Boston.

Chickering & Mackay

Mackay was heir to a shipping fortune earned by his uncle, and was himself tinkering with organ building. He built an organ and gave it on loan to the society as a way for promoting it. In 1830, he formerly partnered with Chickering.

With Chickering & Mackay established, the company began aggressively promoting the improved Chickering piano to a world that fell in love with the better sounding and infinitely more affordable pianos.

As fast as Chickering could turn them out, the pianos were placed into homes up and down the east coast. Mackay the ship captain became Mackay the piano transporter. His ship would leave Boston loaded with pianos for destinations in New York, the American south and down into South America. He would return with the ship’s hull stuffed with rosewood and richly grained mahogany needed for more pianos.

Tragedy in 1841

Jonas Chickering

Jonas Chickering

In 1841 the first tragedy hit the company. Mackay departed Boston for South America – one of his trips to sell pianos and procure wood. Some accounts say it was to be his final trip. He never returned. Mackay was lost at sea.

Jonas Chickering now faced the prospect of raising money to buy out the Mackay family interest in the company. Over the next several years he would accomplish this.

The business practices established by Chickering & Mackay served the company well and its reputation grew. Already well-established in the United States and South America, the European cities were clamoring for the Chickering piano and its steel frame.

At the 1851 World’s Fair at London’s Crystal Palace, Chickering received top honors. By now, Chickering was tuning out 1,000 pianos per year, including one of its top-of-the-line concert grand pianos every week. It was, by some accounts, the most popular piano in the world.

Fire Strikes

But 1852 would be a dark year for Chickering. December 1 of that year the company’s 344 Washington Street factory in Boston would erupt in flames. The four-story brick structure was completely demolished. Jonas Chickering immediately laid plans to rebuild, but within days of the fire, the stress became too much to bear and he died of a stroke.

The fate of Chickering now fell on his two sons and the craftsmen who had made the company such a powerhouse. It was not uncommon for craftsmen to stay with Chickering for decades. Jonas had also wisely diversified the manufacturing operation.  Iron frames were cast in South Boston, the cases were assembled in Lawrence, Mass. and varnished at a facility in Franklin Square. Keys were made in Lancaster, Mass.

Only the final assembly was carried out at the Washington Street factory. While the fire was a major blow, it was not fatal. The company was able to move into temporary quarters while it constructed a new, modern steam-powered factory in Boston’s South End.

Second Generation

Jonas’ two sons were well-suited to step into the shoes of John Mackay and Jonas Chickering. Charles Francis, known as Frank, was the bon vivant. The spirited salesman and promoted who could charm while still closing sales. George was the technician. He had assumed control of the Chickering manufacturing operations at age 23 and was driven by detail, constantly innovating.

Company lore holds that George personally crafted every set of hammers on every Chickering concert grand piano ever sold.

Dominance to Decline

With its new factory operating, Chickering barely missed a beat.

The awards would continue piling up, right through the 1867 International Exhibition at Paris where the piano received a gold medal. Emperor Napoleon III would award Frank Chickering the Imperial Cross of the Legion of Honor for his contributions to the development of the piano.

Meanwhile, the company established concert halls – Chickering Halls – in New York and Boston. They hosted concerts, theater, debates, and other entertainments, all while promoting Chickering pianos. While George kept introducing new variants and improvements on the technical side, Frank kept finding new ways to sell pianos.

He sought out pianists – Franz Liszt, Edvard Grieg, Louis Moreau Gottschalk. They would endorse Chickering pianos in exchange for free instruments. These influencers persuaded the wealthy customers they must have the latest and best piano. For poorer families, the company created a lucrative piano rental scheme.

When a great fire of Boston in 1872 wiped out Chickering again, the company barley flinched. But competition was keen. Weber and Steinway, two younger companies, were vying for market share with Chickering. And trouble was also brewing within the company itself.

In the 1870s and 1880s, competition from Steinway and Weber was hurting the company. Steinway’s output overtook Chickering’s shortly after the Civil War. Franz Liszt defected to Steinway. Further, counterfeit pianos were becoming a problem. The once-advanced technology available to Chickering was becoming more common place. And to a non-sophisticated buyer, a Chichering & Sons or Chickring & Sons counterfeit piano looked and sounded quite like a Chickering & Sons original. And it cost a lot less.

Adding to the troubles, internal stress between Frank and George had broken open. In 1886, the company reorganized. In auditing the books, George charged his brother had overdrawn the company’s accounts by $237,727.  Confronted with the discrepancy, Frank agreed to settle with his brother and repay some of the funds, George would later say.

Though at the time George said he had full faith in his brother’s honesty, he would later say that Frank never made good on his promise to repay. In 1891, when Frank died suddenly another accounting showed that not only had Frank not repaid the company, he had stolen upwards of $300,000 by pocketing money outright.

Steinway and Weber, meanwhile, were embroiled in their own saga. Keen competition had shaped up for prizes at the Philadelphia Centennial International Exhibition of 1876. Henry Van Dyke came forward to charge that he had been hired by Steinway. He was to prove that Weber had paid bribes to win an award at the exhibition. Steinway would use the information to blackmail judges to support Steinway for future awards.

Further, Van Dyke charged that he approached another piano maker to induce him to produce counterfeit Chickerings and Webers to undermine Steinway’s competitors. Van Dyke could not prove his charges in court.

The Final Chapter

In 1891, Frank’s death touched off the final chapter in the company history. Frank’s widow, Garafelia, sued George alleging that he had never paid Frank’s estate for shares in the company. The matter would eventually be settled, but not before the two managed to smear the company name.

George aired his allegations about Frank’s stealing from the company. Garafelia, however, was no shrinking violet. At the age of 12 she had single-handedly rescued her mother and aunt from drowning in the ocean surf at Plum Island in Newburyport, Mass. She would not back down from George.

Garafelia loosed her lawyers on George. Frank, they said, had never stolen a dime from the company. The company bookkeepers and accountants would swear to it in court. His travel expenses were all legitimate.

"Frank Chickering was undoubtedly the brains of the concern,” they said. “George stayed in Boston at the factory. Frank was the inventor, the capable man, the partner who worked outside."

When the firm reorganized in 1886, former counsel to the company testified that George raised the issue of expenses, but accepted that they were legitimate for travel to Europe to obtain prizes.

Frank, meanwhile, acknowledged that he had taken the more glamorous side of the business. While not pleased with George's management of the manufacturing, Frank had accepted that George had been diligent in managing the "hard, unpleasant end of the business."

Moreover, the counsel said, George's corporate accounts were more overdrawn than Frank's, and that both brother readily tapped the corporate till when they needed funds.

Garafelia had one more point to raise in her husband’s defense. Just five years before he died, Frank had contacted the Probate Court in New York over an unusual matter. He had agreed to hold a parcel in his safe that belonged to a friend. The secret arrangement lasted for years, with Frank rarely thinking of the parcel buried in the back of his safe. When the friend died, Frank thought to retrieve the parcel. It contained $400,000. It would have been his to keep, if he wished, since no one knew it existed. Instead, he turned it over to the joyous widow of his friend. Would a dishonest man do that? The lawsuit was settled, but not amicably.

George would plug away at running Chickering until he died in 1899. His achievements included launching a new factory in Chicago. Five after George died, the remains of the company were merged into the American Piano Company in Rochester, N.Y. as the industry consolidated.

Chickering world-class pianos had been the White House piano for presidents Pierce, Buchanan, Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt. But the company would miss out on the final, big boom years for the piano business that ended with the stock market crash of 1929. In 1923, 347,000 pianos were purchased in the United States, only 51,000 units were sold eight years later.

Still, in homes and churches and public buildings from India to South America to Boston, people still ponder the name Chickering on their old, faithful pianos.

Hat tip to: Makers of the Piano: 1820-1860 By Martha Novak Clinkscale

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Brenda Butler McGrath

    Brenda Butler McGrath

    April 30, 2017 at 12:59 pm

    I have a solid walnut Chickering upright piano my husband bought me in 1981 for my college graduation. It has a baby grand harp and the sound is lovely.

  2. Grant Menzies

    Grant Menzies

    May 1, 2017 at 9:06 am

    Glad Mason & Hamlin survived the Piano Wars. Here’s my 1887 M&H upright screwstringer, built at the Boston factory and shipped out to California, where it was first my grandmother’s, now mine.

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