The popular Piano - evolution of the upright
The Great Exhibition of 1851
The demand for the piano became quite phenomenal during the nineteenth century. This led to a consumer boom of a type that had not been seen before. There were few other luxury goods to purchase and the piano was a status symbol, towards which the large proportion of the population could aspire. Many homes acquired a piano for show, with little intention that anyone in the family should learn to play it. For this reason some manufacturers produced pianos that looked better than they sounded – tone and playability took second place to appearance.
The great exhibitions of the second half of the nineteenth century were the shop windows for the piano houses. Our twentieth century equivalent to these could be said to be the motor show and the ideal home exhibitions. They also demonstrated their latest technical developments, and competed for prizes to acknowledge the advances they had made.
The Great Exhibition of 1851, held in London, was the first of the true World’s Fairs. It was sponsored by a national government. It was planned by Prince Albert, and it was intended to show the technical supremacy of Britain. There were 178 pianos on display by 102 different makers: this gives some idea of the piano’s importance as a commercial product. During the ensuing years other fairs followed in Europe and in the USA.
In technical terms, the second half of the nineteenth century saw few dramatic changes to the mechanics of the piano. The grand piano had almost completed its evolution from the delicate instrument that Mozart knew to the powerful piano of today. The upright piano was also beginning to complete its evolution, and improvements were in the manufacturing process rather than in the instrument’s design.
In Europe in the 1850s the piano industry was small and inefficient; Broadwood, the largest piano maker in the world employed fewer than 350 men. In the following sixty years world production grew from under 50,000 pianos a year to more than 500,000.
Despite the pioneering work of Babcock and Hawkins, the Americans were still lagging behind the European manufacturers as the nineteenth century began. However, during the second half of the century, American makers, led by Steinway and Chickering, swept in to the European market. They shocked the established piano houses by winning many prizes at important exhibitions and with their advanced production techniques.
Another important ingredient leading to the success of the piano was the “Three Year Plan” – basically a hire purchase scheme introduced during the 1850s. This boosted piano sales dramatically.
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