From a Recent History of Steinway & Sons
A Fine Way: How it all Began

As Professor of American History at LaGuardia Community College, Richard K. Lieberman is also Director of its LaGuardia and Wagner Archives, which houses historical papers of the master piano-building Steinway family. Last fall he published Steinway & Sons (Yale), a combined family-and-company history of the nearly 150-year-old firm. But for two terrible fires, the Steinway name might never have been attached to pianos. The following is adapted from the book.

As guests dined on succulent roasted fowl and mouth-watering marinated oysters, washing their palates with ice-cold champagne, piano music was in the air. The occasion was the opening of the new Steinway factory in New York. In a remarkably short period of time, between March 5, 1853, when they went into business, and April 1, 1860, when they opened their new factory, the Steinway family had triumphed in America. According to R.G. Dun & Co., Steinway & Sons was "doing a larger business in their line (piano making) than any other on this continent" and was worth more than $360,000--a substantial amount when compared to the $500 a year average pay of its workers.

The main attraction at the celebration was not the champagne or the oysters, however. It was the 300 workers who would manufacture 1,180 pianos that year. The guests, "literary, musical and artistic gentlemen" (women were invited only to the showroom), were taken on a tour of the factory. Counting screws, some 40,000 pieces went into making a Steinway, and each piano took about a year to assemble. To the visitors ambling through the factory that summer afternoon, the transformation of lumber into graceful, eight-foot rosewood pianos must have seemed like magic. The 90-minute tour was followed by more champagne, music played on three Steinway grands, a demonstration of the private telegraph line connecting the factory to the showrooms three and a half miles away on Walker Street, and speeches.

One speaker compared the new factory, "with its hundred altars of mechanism," to a temple. Charles, one of the Steinway sons, praised the "progressive spirit of America," which aroused in him the irresistible desire to push ahead and come out first in the race for improvements. Editors from more than 60 newspapers covered the event, and, according to one family member, "all the lads were so enthused that we received long laudatory reports in almost all the newspapers, which made our name immensely popular."

One local correspondent declared that there was "no manufactory in the world which combines so perfectly all the elements of creation in so simple working order. It is this gift of arrangement and combination which has placed Steinway, senior, and his four sons at the head of an establishment so complete in the short term of eight years. It is conceded that the Steinway Piano in make, tone, sweetness, precision, and durability, is the most perfect specimen of that class to be had anywhere in the world."

The road to victory had begun 63 years earlier, in Wolfshagen, a small forest hamlet nestled on the slopes of the Harz Mountains in northwest Germany. Here Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg, founder of Steinway & Sons, was born....

One summer Heinrich, his father, and his half brothers were out in the woods, far from home, when a storm suddenly arose, accompanied by ferocious winds and lightning--typical Harz Mountains weather. They sought shelter in an abandoned hut, huddling together for warmth and comfort. But lightning struck the hut, setting it on fire. Heinrich was knocked out by the blast, and when he came to, he found the dead bodies of his father and two brothers lying strewn around the shack. Aged barely 15, Heinrich was both an orphan and penniless. He sought refuge in the army. Two years later, he was fighting against Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.

Heinrich stayed in the military until he was 21, which meant that he was too old to embark on the traditional woodworking apprenticeship of five years. Instead, he worked for a so-called wild boss, who agreed to teach him for a shorter term. He then served an apprenticeship with an organ builder, the prerequisites for this being less rigid than for the cabinetmaking guild. His introduction to the piano was through his Jewish friend Karl Brand, a cantor's son. Steinweg learned to build a piano by copying Brand's.

In 1825 he married the daughter of a property-owner and well- established glove-maker. Heinrich, a cabinet-maker without property, a Beiwohner (boarder), was marrying up. He and his wife raised 10 children in the small nearby city of Seesen, a few miles from his birthplace. Here Heinrich once again found himself up against the guild system's regulations, this time their stipulation that members could start a business only in the town of their birth. But the very year he moved to Seesen it was destroyed by a fierce fire, and the chief justice decreed that master builders like Steinweg be permitted to establish businesses there and so rebuild the town.

Recognized as a burgher, or citizen, a year later, he established an organ business and by 1829 had made enough money to purchase a two-story house with a workshop. In 1835 he started producing pianos, attaching his nameplate "H. Steinweg, Instrumenten-macher, Seesen" to every instrument.

As the German economy staggered in the 1840s and the more business-friendly tariffs of America began to beckon, Heinrich gathered up his family and joined the huge wave of German immigration to New York City (by 1860 one New Yorker in four was German-born). They arrived in the summer of 1850 on the very first steam-propelled ship to cross the Atlantic, and the rest is American musical history.