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Posted By: David Burton Golden Age American Pianos - 05/09/02 10:16 PM
As a service to the folks on this forum I decided to list some of the better names of "Golden Age" American piano makers so that those who own them know what they have and may decide or not to sell or refurbish or rebuild them. The Golden Age (1875-1932) of American piano making was a time when the piano had few competitors in the home entertainment category. There was a confluence of the right materials, craftsmen and market. The result was many fine pianos which over time have worn out and in some cases have been considered for restoring or rebuilding, two words which have very distinct and definite meanings to me.

A restored piano is one that has been made playable, a rebuilt piano is an old piano that looks sounds and plays like it's brand new. The challenge for any genuine rebuilt piano is to outperform its original condition when new and to compete with and hopefully surpass anything that is currently being manufactured as brand new in its size, certainly a tall order, but one I have actually seen realized here and there. Here are a few ground rules:

First thing to remember, ANY piano is basically worth something or nothing as a musical instrument not as an antique. The exceptions are those pianos that are good musical instruments first but happen to be in fancier "art cases." Many of these are so gaudy that they would never fit into any modern decor.

Second thing to remember, ANY piano is going to be valued based on its present condition, similar to mileage on a motor vehicle. Only a competent piano technician can make the evaluation needed to determine the amount of wear and tear on these old pianos.

Third thing to remember, SIZE MATTERS. Big grands, but not necessarily the biggest, make the best candidates for a complete rebuild. But not all of them. There are certain Steinway player pianos with long keys that no matter what will, "play weird." There are other examples that a good piano technician should be HONEST enough about to tell the owner or use those all too rarely heard words, "I don't know."

Fourth thing to remember is that upright pianos have a few disadvantages over grands; their actions are usually less responsive, the market for uprights has been in decline due to the appearance of new cheap (argggh!!!!) baby grands. I know, people will buy them even when they aren't worth it, but that's another subject. Among the old names the makers of upright and player pianos outnumber those that made grands by a factor of at least 10 to 1. Upright pianos were cheaper and easier to make and sell. That's still the case. And it does matter to me whether someone sinks a small fortune into an old piano just for sentimental reasons. I do not approve of it, think it's damn foolish and most should be told they'll never get what they put into it, especially true of the uprights and too small grands.

Fifth thing to remember, the vintage of American Golden Age piano making runs from approximately 1875 to 1932. Anything earlier is probably such an antique that it isn't worth rebuilding and anything after probably isn't what the originals were for a number of reasons. So we are mostly concerned with pianos in this range of dates.

I decided to rate my list with asterisks. This is an informal kind of rating. It very well may be that one of my low scoring brands may be rebuilt to rival a higher scoring one, but name recognition played some role in the rating too.

OK, so here we go.

BALDWIN, * * * Cincinnati, the only major name not associated with a piano designer, still among the top tier, artist grands only, models are numerous, some discontinued, more often found models include the D, F, L and R.
BEHNING, New York, a Kohler & Campbell precursor, mostly big uprights but a few parlor grands may be out there, forget about their baby grands.
BENT, GEO. P., * * Chicago & Louisville, an important piano designer, some of his best work bears his name, most have the name CROWN. Avoid anything but parlor grands (usual size for these is 5'5" to 5'7") and nothing made after 1928.
BJUR BROS., New York, aother Kohler & Campbell precursor, same cautions as for Behning.
BLASIUS & SONS, * * Philadelphia, better reputation than Behning or Bjur, more standard action geometries, nice parlor grands and huge uprights are best candidates.
BOARDMAN & GRAY, * * Albany, NY, the standouts here are the huge uprights made around the turn of the last century (1890-1910).
BRAMBACH, * New York, a Kohler & Campbell precursor, mostly grands. Those that are too small or with odd action geometries must be excluded.
BRIGGS, CHARLES C., * * Boston, an important piano designer, only parlor grands bearing his full name.
CABLE, HOBART M., * Indiana, only a few sturdy grands from the late 20's qualify.
CHASE, A. B. * * * Ohio, another sleeper, excellent parlor grands.
CHICKERING, * * * * Boston, The oldest American piano make, named for Jonas Chickering, one of the pioneer names in American piano building, this firm was at the top of its game when Steinway started in 1853, that same year the first big Chickering factory in Boston burned down and was replaced by the building out of which has been carved a few nice condominiums. Chickering stuck to straight stringing their grands well into the 1870's. The ones to look for are the overstrung kind. Made pianos in Boston into the 1920's (best by some opinions), others made in Rochester, NY. are just as good in my opinion. For a time they also toyed with metal action parts which never worked well. If you run into one of these figure on replacing the action or most of it, which in most instances is a good idea as newer actions have more adjustment advances.
CHRISTMAN, * New York, some people out there like these, nice parlor grands and larger are occasionally found.
CONOVER, * * * Oregon, IL, the only real standouts here are the grands made between 1890 and 1929 after the designs of Frank Conover and Hobart Cable. The big grands can be turned into fairly interesting pianos.
CUNNINGHAM, * * * Philadelphia, yep, the same outfit Rich Gallisini works for, made their own pianos until 1981! The ones that are candidates for rebuilding are their large old uprights and parlor grands.
DAVIS, GEO. H., * * Boston, one of the principals of Hallet & Davis and a pioneer piano designer. A few grands bear his name, most are pre-1900.
DECKER BROS., * * * started in New York, moved to Chicago, great pianos before 1915, especially their grands.
DOLL, JACOB & SON., * * New York, another important designer, made grands in the 1920's that are acceptable for rebuilding.
ESTEY, * * New York, prime years are between about 1890 and 1925 with many nice parlor grands made.
EVERETT, Boston, not by any means all are worthwhile, some rebuilders have rebuilt small grands (not babies) to display their craft rather than how good the original piano was and only those made between 1900 and 1925 should be considered.
FISCHER, J & C, * * * New York and Buffalo, Charles Fischer was the designer, excellent grands and large uprights between 1890 and as late as 1932, made a lot of pianos so there should be plenty still out there.
HADDORFF, Rockford, IL, made a lot of pianos under a score of stencil names, choose carefully, before about 1925, what I like about them is they were controlled during their formative period by a quality maker.
HALLET & DAVIS, * * * Boston, another very old name, best pianos between 1885 and 1930 but choose carefully, best are large uprights and parlor grands.
HARDMAN, * * New York, another pioneer maker was Hugh Hardman, some are under Hardman & Peck, best are the usual suspects; big uprights and grands, some tell me that their products between about 1901 and the outbreak of WWI (1914) are better than the rest.
HAZELTON BROS., * * New York, an artisan family with high standards, their best products are uprights and parlor grands, after about 1890 but before 1920. Some of the gaudiest art cases were made by these folks.
IVERS & POND, * * * * Boston, similar to Hallet & Davis, best between about 1890 and 1925, the usual suspects. Feature a heavy overbuilt style shared with many other good Boston makes. Also made Poole. I find this somewhat humorous and some have suggested that these pianos have some association with water. Another piano make not associated with I & P was Waters, no kidding.
JANSSEN, Elkhart, IN, included for educational purposes only, the precursor to the present Charles R. Walter, but not with as good a reputation (though I still haven't seen or played any Walters), there is sort of a well constructed but limited musical capability with these. They tend to hold up pretty well, which probably accounts for their longevity as a company, but I wouldn't consider them as real good rebuild candidates. I've never run into a Janssen grand, don't think they ever made any.
JEWETT, * * Boston, in its various incarnations, based on the pioneer piano makers Wade Jewett and George Allen, the one's to look for are after about 1895, a Steinert by any other name, see STEINERT
KNABE, * * * * * Baltimore, the third of the big three (Steinway, Chickering and Knabe) and the only make the Steinway family feared, founded a generation before Steinway by pioneer piano maker William Knabe and Henry Gaehle, Knabe had a couple sons who kept it going. There's a story in Dolge's book about how Knabe risked his company on a promotional tour during the Civil War that paid off. Excellent grands and big uprights.
KOHLER & CAMPBELL, New York and North Carolina, one of the first piano conglomerates (1896), choose VERY carefully.
KRAKAUER BROS., * * * New York, This was a maker who stayed in business by concentrating on a producing a smaller quantity of well made pianos. Their parlor grands are quite good.
KURTZMANN, * * Buffalo, NY, 1900-1925 is the best period.
LESTER, * Philadelphia, a vary large company that made a wide variety of pianos of various quality, made a few military pianos for service in the Far East, I've heard of parlor grands made during the 1920's producing surprising results.
LYON & HEALY, * * * Chicago, more of a retailer than a maker but their reputation for what they chose to put their name on still stands in good stead by many. Their output was sporadic, grands made during the 1920's were by Schulz (Chicago area) and good solid Packard (Indiana) made their uprights. They are still in business but confine themselves exclusively to the making and distribution of harps.
MASON & HAMLIN, * * * * * Haverhill, MA, began as a reed organ maker late in the 19th century, then made pianos without pinblocks (screw-stringers). They tried many innovations. Everyone knows them now as the great sleeper of them all, perhaps the best piano scales ever designed. All are worth restoring and rebuilding except the screw stringers which many tuners can't seem to tune.
MATHUSHEK, New Haven, CT, founded by a pioneer maker Frederick Mathushek. A true innovator in the manufacturing of pianos, some like the big uprights and the few grands that exist are often uncommon designs.
McPHAIL, * Boston, another Kohler & Campbell precursor, good huge uprights.
MEHLIN, * * * New York, Paul Mehlin was of the generation of old Englehardt Steinway and did as well quality wise without Steinway's ambition, excellent grand pianos from 1900-1925 or so, some prior to this have gaudy art cases.
MILLER, HENRY F., * * * Boston, named for the founder, a great pioneer piano maker who influenced both Mason & Hamlin and Ivers & Pond, and no doubt influenced their quality caliber and standing as musical instruments. Excellent results with grands going back as far as 1875 but not later than about 1925. Some have gaudy art cases.
PACKARD, Indiana, made good solid strong uprights, best years 1900-1925.
SCHAAF, ADAM, Chicago, some think these are good.
SCHOMACKER, * * * Philadelphia, another sleeper, made some excellent parlor grands, they limped along through the Depression until 1941 before going under but their best products were probably made between 1900 and 1929. The only maker I know of that featured gold plated strings!
SCHULZ, OTTO, * * Chicago, made organs as well as pianos but was known for good workmanship, made grands for Lyon & Healy.
SOHMER, * * * New York, just down the street from Steinway and there were a lot of cross influences, founded by pioneer maker Hugo Sohmer, many art cases made too, lower production, emphasized quality.
STECK, GEO. & CO., * * New York, founded by George Steck, best era is 1900-1929.
STEINERT, * * Boston, but started in Athens, Georgia! was sort of to Boston what Lyon & Healy was to Chicago, Onofrio to Denver or Sherman Clay to the West Coast (Cunningham in Philadelphia made their own); each had pianos made for them and put their name on them. But Steinerts, particularly their parlor grands from just after the end of World War I until Steinway made them stop making them, are sort of special, when and if you can find them.
STEINWAY & SONS, * * * * * New York, of course, but don't bother with the long keyed former player pianos unless you intend on restoring the player mechanisms too.
STIEFF, CHAS. M., * * * Baltimore, the other Knabe, and quite old too, went under the year I was born (1951), fairly good pianos from 1890 on, stick to grands only for best results.
VOSE & SONS, * * Boston, founded by James W. Vose. One finds some very striking modernistic cabinetry on some of these pianos, prefiguring Danish modern. They can be made into much more than they were when new if you choose the right one, grands only, as early as 1890 but no later than about 1925.
WEBER & CO., * * * New York, founded by Albert Weber, whose grands rival the best of their period going back into the 1870's but no later than 1932. Albert Weber was a very talented and ambitious man who pitted his skills against Steinway and lost, virtually working himself to an early death. He left a wonderful legacy as some of his great grand pianos are still out there waiting to live and play again.

I left some names off if to my knowledge they made only uprights as these are not prime candidates for a complete rebuild as the vintage parlor grands certainly would be. There are still things to consider like structural integrity that only a good piano technician could spot which would make such a project not worthwhile, especially cracked plates and split rims. But, If you can get the body of a grand piano with its plate, rim, keyboard and bridges (whether usable or not) for nothing or about the price of hauling it away, you can have everything else replaced and end up with something that can rival or even beat the better new pianos out there IF you have the right rebuilder and are willing to wait about a year for it all to get done and at up to half the cost of something brand new.
Posted By: MichaelP Re: Golden Age American Pianos - 05/09/02 10:33 PM
Thank you very much, Mr. Burton. I enjoyed reading this interesting post.
Posted By: Alex Hernandez Re: Golden Age American Pianos - 05/09/02 10:57 PM
Nice work David
Posted By: Mike Parke Re: Golden Age American Pianos - 05/09/02 11:02 PM
I'd like to see this archived somewhere - maybe there should be a "best of pianoworld" section where newcomers could go for background info?
Posted By: JohnC Re: Golden Age American Pianos - 05/10/02 04:57 AM

In the words of Howard Cosell you are truly a veritable plethora of information. smile

I agree with Mike that this kind of good stuff should be available in some type of educational archive.

Thank you.
Posted By: Steve Miller Re: Golden Age American Pianos - 05/10/02 05:11 AM
Terrific post, David!

Where do you find this stuff?
Posted By: RKVS1 Re: Golden Age American Pianos - 05/10/02 01:45 PM
I agree with MikeP and JohnC on this, though it would put Frank in the somewhat unenviable role of "Grand High Chooser". Good post, I hope to read it more thoroughly later today.
Posted By: Mike Parke Re: Golden Age American Pianos - 05/10/02 03:23 PM
Easy way to choose...have a poll and if 90% or more of at least 20 recognizable members say it should be kept, then keep it. With Frank having some overall discretion, of course.
Posted By: Jolly Re: Golden Age American Pianos - 05/10/02 03:28 PM
A very small quibble over a couple of your rankings, but overall an outstanding post that I agree deserves to be featured in the articles section.

Thank you, David
Posted By: Anonymous Re: Golden Age American Pianos - 05/10/02 03:41 PM
Originally posted by Jolly:
A very small quibble over a couple of your rankings, but overall an outstanding post that I agree deserves to be featured in the articles section.

Thank you, David
Yes, a very fascinating discussion of historical pianos.

I for one would like to know which you would quibble with, Jolly, and why. I would also be interested in hearing what others in the business, especially technicians, think of the opinions expressed.
Posted By: reblder Re: Golden Age American Pianos - 05/10/02 03:53 PM
The Boardman & Gray on the list is interesting. We rebuilt one at the shop( a 7' grand in fact) and "wapinized" it in order to enhance the tone. The result made it sound like a Knabe of that same dimension.

BTW, you can read about this Wapin procedure at www.wapin.com.

Mark Mandell
Posted By: Jolly Re: Golden Age American Pianos - 05/10/02 05:00 PM
Admitting bias: I once owned a Hardman, in their day they were a very nice piano, especially the pre-WWI models as David states. FDR thought enough of them to place one in The White House. I would have bumped them up one star.

Weber - I have only had a chance to play a couple of Webers from the era mentioned. Both impressed me. Again, a bump up of one star.

Both of these are subjective opinions, and of course, YMMV. What I think is most outstanding is the informational aspect of the post, in that the synopisis provided gives owners, or prospective owners, some knowledge of their piano company's history and aproximate quality.

As I said, just a couple of small, subjective points, that I did not agree with, from the perspective of an admittedly bad pianist. smile
Posted By: Steve Miller Re: Golden Age American Pianos - 05/11/02 01:22 AM
Would anyone care to compile a list of real losers fromm the "Golden Age"?
Posted By: reblder Re: Golden Age American Pianos - 05/11/02 03:52 AM

Well for starters I'd mention the H.C. Bay grands(I dunno if they made uprights)and the Brambachs.
They have to rank among the absolute worst PSO's I've ever had the displeasure of encountering in my piano service experience!

Posted By: PhilipInChina Re: Golden Age American Pianos - 01/27/17 07:03 AM
I wonder how many pianos being manufactured now will last as well as the ones made 100 years have done.
Posted By: Mark Cerisano Re: Golden Age American Pianos - 02/24/17 02:49 PM
None. IMHO.
Posted By: Miguel Rey Re: Golden Age American Pianos - 02/27/17 12:45 AM
Originally Posted by PhilipInChina
I wonder how many pianos being manufactured now will last as well as the ones made 100 years have done.

Perhaps Steingraeber Phoenix and Phoenix
Posted By: jane a major Re: Golden Age American Pianos - 07/11/18 04:19 PM
WOW you have provided an important and readable explanation. So happy we found a 1928 Mason.

Jane, piano my therapy
Posted By: Retsacnal Re: Golden Age American Pianos - 07/26/20 03:59 AM
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