Steinway & Sons
In the early nineteenth century, the banjo was considered to be the instrument of enslaved people and the acoustic guitar was the instrument of the rising middle class while the piano was the instrument of the social elites. In the 1870s, however, piano companies began expanding their market both socially and geographically by manufacturing cheaper pianos, offering payment plans and mail-order instruments, and producing globally distributable piano lesson books. While several factors influenced the instrument’s market expansion, two products are particularly vital to the piano’s commercialization.
First, in 1859, Henry Steinway, Jr. of Steinway & Sons changed the market for upright pianos by incorporating several different past inventions and standards into his design: a one-piece iron frame (invented in 1825), a split bridge (invented in 1790), felt-tipped hammers to strike the string when the key is played (invented in 1830), securing strings at the tuning pin (invented in 1808), and a full seven octaves and a third range of notes to play. Finally, he included his own invention, ‘cross-stringing,’ which criss-crosses the inner strings of the piano so that it can be built vertically instead of horizontally. This new design made the piano more accessible to people who wanted to own one, but did not have the space for a large, horizontal grand piano.
Second, in 1860, a man named Joseph Hale started purchasing piano parts from different manufacturers and began to assemble his own line of pianos, successfully selling them using cheap payment plans. By 1879 he had produced about 7,200 pianos, selling them at one-third the price of his competitors and forcing them to change tactics and to begin marketing towards middle-class customers.
Hale’s ingenuity, Steinway & Son’s designs, and the increase in city living (and thus a decrease in available space to house a larger piano) led to the upright piano becoming the only affordable, reasonable alternative to the grand piano. As a result, commercialization of the piano altered the instrument’s identity as an ‘elite’ instrument and opened up new opportunities for people to access and play a previously unaffordable instrument. By the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, the acoustic guitar became the instrument of the enslaved people, the banjo became the instrument of the elites, and the piano took its place as the instrument of the rising middle class.
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