The Steinway Story
Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg
At around age 8, Heinrich’s family was torn apart as the French invaded Germany. The Steinweg family house and land were confiscated by Napoleon’s forces while Heinrich’s father and two older brothers were fighting the French on a distant front. The remaining family members fled to the mountains where Heinrich watched his mother and siblings (except for one sister) die from exposure and starvation. Heinrich and his sister returned home later that spring and were reunited with their father and brothers. Together, they worked for the Duke of Brunswick - repairing roads, planting trees, and gathering wood to make charcoal (which they sold as fuel). Heinrich’s father remarried and had more children.
One summer, Heinrich, his father, and two of his brothers were out in the woods, when a severe storm arose. They sought shelter in an abandoned hut, but lightning struck the hut and set it on fire. The blast left Heinrich unconscious, and when he came to, he found the bodies of his father and two brothers strewn about the burned shack. He fled to a nearby town for help. At age 15, Heinrich found himself alone and penniless.
Heinrich decided to join the army and, two years later, he found himself fighting against Napoleon under the Duke of Brunswick’s flag at the Battle of Waterloo. According to family legend, when the charge began that fateful day of June, 1815, it was signaled by a lone bugler: Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg.
Heinrich then apprenticed with a craftsman to learn the woodworking trade and began working for an organ builder in Goslar. Heinrich married the daughter of a glove maker and property owner in Seesen. Together they raised 10 children and, in 1835, Heinrich started a piano business attaching his name plate “H. Steinweg, Instrumentenmacher” to every instrument.
By 1848, Steinweg had produced over 400 pianos in Germany, but the economy there was not good. Due to the rising costs of supplies, Germany’s feudal social structure and high border tariffs, the Steinweg economic prospects were bleak. Finally, in 1850, The Steinweg family decided to move to the New World based in no small part to their son, Carl’s enthusiastic depiction of life in New York. Heinrich (then 53) and Julianna (46) sold their home, paid off their debts and, together with three daughters and five sons, moved to New York. Their eldest son, Theodore, decided to stay in Germany where he repaired violins and tuned pianos.
The Steinweg family spent three years in New York, learning the American business world. Finally, on March 5, 1853, the Steinwegs established an informal partnership with an initial investment of $6000.00. In an effort to make their name sound more appealing to Americans they decided to name their partnership “Steinway & Sons.”
Henry E. Steinway worked with his sons (and, eventually, most of his family) to develop the Steinway & Sons name (and its world-famous piano) in America until his death in 1871. Henry most likely never saw the Hamburg, Germany “Steinway & Sons” business, which was started that year by his sons, William and Theodore Steinway.
Steinway & Sons: An American Story
Thus began Steinway & Sons, one of 204 piano building companies in America at that time, with the partnership between Heinrich E. Steinweg (who became Henry E. Steinway), Carl Steinweg (who became Charles Steinway), Wilhelm Steinweg (who became William Steinway), and Heinrich Jr. (Henry Jr.).
Over the next forty years Henry Steinway and his sons developed the modern piano. Roughly half of the company's more than 120 patented inventions were made during that period.
By 1860 Steinway & Sons had outgrown its rented quarters and opened a “pianoforte manufactory” at Park Avenue and 53rd Street. Ten years later, with no more room available for expansion, the company moved to its present location in Queens, New York.
The Steinway family purchased 400 acres, in what is now the Astoria section of the Borough of Queens, and built Steinway Village. Virtually its own town, Steinway Village not only had its own foundries, factory and housing for employees but also its own post office, kindergarten, library, parks, a ferry company and an amusement park.
In 1866 Steinway & Sons opened Steinway Hall, its retail showroom, on 14th Street, then the hub of New York's cultural life. For nearly 25 years (1865-1890) the Concert Hall within Steinway Hall was among the city's leading concert venues.
The Mercedes Connection
In 1888, Theodore Steinway signed an agreement with Gottlieb Daimler (who built the first four-wheeled car) to produce engine parts for the new Daimler Motor Company in America. Daimler and Steinway collaborated on a number of vehicles, including light trucks, passenger cars and Steinway yachts. Some years later, a French car dealer named Jellinek petitioned the German Daimler company to build a car named after his daughter. Eventually, the German and American companies decided to avoid legal troubles with the widely-used “Daimler” name and rename their companies “Mercedes.” Relations between Steinway and Mercedes remained warm even after a 1907 fire shut down engine parts production in Long Island.
The Piano by Which All Others are Judged
To earn the respect of the international community, Steinway & Sons entered and won gold medals at several U.S. and European exhibitions. The Steinway piano captured prizes in London in 1862 and Philadelphia in 1876. But it was at the Paris Exhibition in 1867 that the company was thrust to international fame. Steinway & Sons was the first American company to receive the Exhibition's prestigious “Grand Medal of Honor”, for excellence in manufacturing and engineering. The recognition of Steinway's innovative techniques sparked a revolution in the industry that altered the trade of piano manufacturing. The Steinway piano became the piano of choice for many members of royalty and won the respect and admiration of the world's great pianists.
The Instrument of the Immortals
In 1920, Raymond Rubicam, a young copywriter of the firm N. W. Ayer and Son, convinced Steinway & Sons to begin a national advertising campaign which would feature paintings of world famous pianists and would label Steinway as “The Instrument of the Immortals.”
The result was incredible. People began to recognize the vast number of world-famous artists who chose the Steinway piano as their performance instrument. Such famous names as Franz Liszt, Ignace Paderewski, Vladimir Horiwitz, Richard Wagner, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Josef Hofmann, Anton Rubenstein, Rudolph Serkin, Glenn Gould, Cole Porter, Van Cliburn, and George Gershwin filled magazines, newspapers, and programs across the nation.
Today, Steinway & Sons continues its close association with the world's greatest pianists. Over 1500 prominent concert artists and ensembles worldwide bear the title Steinway Artist. No artist or ensemble is a paid endorser of the piano. Each Steinway Artist personally owns a Steinway model 'B' or 'D' and has chosen to perform on the Steinway piano professionally.
The Steinway piano is the overwhelming choice of today's concert artists. More than 98% of solo artists performing with major symphony orchestras use a Steinway piano.
World War II
The Second World War wrought havoc at Steinway & Sons. Up to this time, Rationing of iron, copper, felt, brass and other war materials forced Steinway out of the piano business – both in the United States and in Hamburg. With their primarily male workforce fighting in the war and all their raw materials frozen by the government, Steinway struggled to keep the factory open. By 1942, the American Steinway plant began to produce wooden CG-4A gliders for the Allied military while the Hamburg plant was seized by the German government and forced to produce airplane decoys, bunk beds and rifle butts. Women entered the factory for the first time as laborers – building gliders or decoys where their male predecessors had built beautiful musical instruments.
In Hamburg, Steinway & Sons faced additional obstacles: Hitler had declared Bechstein “The Official Piano of the Third Reich” and put the Steinway factory under the direct control of a German custodian for the duration of the war. Allied bombings destroyed the Steinway showroom in Berlin and wiped out nearly two million dollars of pianos in Steinway’s administrative offices. Workers picked up the pieces and set to work salvaging the pianos they could – often using parts from several pianos to complete one. Despite the destruction, Steinway & Sons survived.