As popular uprisings spread throughout a discontented Europe in 1848, piano maker Charles Steinway, or as he was known then Charles Steinweg, the 19-year-old son of a German craftsman and piano maker, headed out into the streets to join the fray. It was a decision that would have far-reaching implications as it would lead to the development of the now famous Steinway piano.
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Who was Heinrich Steinweg?
When recriminations and arrests followed the events of 1848, Heinrich Steinweg, who had been making and selling pianos in the small mid-German town of Seesen since 1836, reckoned it might be best if, for his own safety, his son got himself out of the country for a while. But Heinrich also had another motives. With business looking decidedly slow at home, Charles could be sent on a fact-finding mission to see if prospects were any brighter on the other side of the Atlantic.
Not all was rosy in New York when Steinweg Jnr arrived there in June 1849 – the city was polluted, disease-ridden and blighted by civil unrest. However, it was also a place of opportunity. The steady flow of immigrants from Europe had brought about a flourishing music scene, while the increasingly wealthy American middle-class was proving gratifyingly keen to lavish its cash on showpiece possessions – such as pianos. ‘Come and join me,’ was Charles’s message home, carefully omitting mention of the city’s less salubrious side.
Heinrich Steinweg did not set up a new business immediately upon reaching the US in summer 1850, but instead bided his time while working as a craftsman for Leuchte, a German instrument maker. His three sons – Charles, Henry Jnr and William – also found employment with New York piano companies. All were paid a pittance, however, and after three years decided that it was time to go it alone.
When did Steinway & Sons first open?
It was on 5 March 1853 that, in a small building at 85 Varick St on the west side of Manhattan, Steinway & Sons opened for business, the anglicised name adopted to add local appeal. Production was on a small scale and consisted at first entirely of square pianos – the now-famous Steinway grands would have to wait until three years later. The name and location of his company might be new, but Heinrich Steinweg nonetheless gave the first Steinway piano the serial number 483, following on from the 482 instruments that he had made back in Seesen. No. 483 was sold to a New York family for $500.
Business soon boomed, and Steinway & Sons were not at Varick St for long. By 1854, the company was already building two pianos a week and demand was outstripping supply. Assistants were taken on board and new premises found on the nearby Walker St, previously occupied by piano company Pirsson and therefore already set up to manufacture pianos. Rent was provided free for six months – a valuable buffer. And being awarded the gold medal at the 1855 New York American Institute Fair provided an additional boost.
When, in 1860, Steinway & Sons moved again, this time to a large new factory on Fourth Avenue, it was a grand affair, celebrated with champagne, roast fowl and marinated oysters.
When did Steinway Hall open?
Six years after that – and just 13 years since the company’s launch – the 2,000-seat Steinway Hall concert venue opened its doors for the first time. A Steinway sales room and concert hall in London followed in 1875, and a Steinway factory in Hamburg in 1880. Charles Steinway, who died in 1865, didn’t get to enjoy the political revolution he craved in 1848, but his father’s firm undoubtedly did its bit to revolutionise the piano world.
The lead image shows workers at the Steinway factory in 1934. Credit: Getty Images