The Steinway & Sons Collection at the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives
By Damian Fowler | Photos by Katina Houvouras
it’s the story of an immigrant German family that revolutionized the pianoforte. It’s the story of technological innovation and artistic expression. It’s the story of the American Dream as realized in the shape of a grand piano. It’s the story of Steinway & Sons and how it grew from humble origins in the middle of the nineteenth century to become the world’s most prestigious piano maker.
And it’s a story that is found in a treasure trove of documents in the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives at LaGuardia Community College in New York City, in the Long Island City neighborhood in the borough of Queens. I spent a few hours there, with archivist Douglas DiCarlo as my guide, to look at highlights from the Steinway & Sons Collection, whose chronological scope runs from 1848 through the 1990s. The archive, donated to the college by the late Henry Ziegler Steinway in 1985, spans more than 400 feet of shelf space and contains primary source documents — including family letters, diaries, patents, and employee files — as well as 3,000 prints.
“It’s the only place you can get the complete story,” says Richard K. Lieberman, the director of the archives and a professor of history at LaGuardia Community College. Lieberman, who wrote a 1995 book on Steinway, played an active role in bringing these documents to his college, thanks to his friendship with Henry Z. The Steinway family wanted the archives to remain near its factory in New York, and also liked the idea of students having access to them. “You get the complete record of Steinway: their business record, their real-estate interests, all of the innovations, the patents,” says Lieberman. “It’s one-stop shopping, and that’s what makes it very special.”
In June 1849, at the age of 21, Charles Steinway landed in New York City. He was escaping the political upheavals in Europ at the time, but he also had aspirations to continue the family business established by his father, Heinrich, in Seesen, Germany. New York was already home to several piano makers (nearly all German), and though Charles was in poor health, he quickly found a job moving pianos. He was followed to New York in 1850 by most of the rest of the family: his father (and future Steinway & Sons founder) Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg, Heinrich’s wife, and the rest of the children — all except the eldest son, Theodore, who stayed behind in Germany. Thanks to this decision, we now have the correspondence between the New York side of the Steinway family and Theodore. The letters — all translated and in the LaGuardia archives — reveal much about the early struggles of the family members to establish their lives in New York. In a letter from the autumn of 1852, Charles writes to Theodore of his chronic ill health and his desire to return to Germany “to undergo a radical cure by coming once again to your healthy mountain climate.” He also adds: “I do not advise you to come here, if you are able to make an honest living [in Germany] with diligence and thrift.” But a couple of years later he is in better spirits and tells his brother, “Next year we will try our luck with grands.”
Clockwise from top left: the Steinway family; Steinway & Sons order records for Mr. Hobein, New York, January 30, 1882; Steinway advertisements from the time of World War II; Steinway Immortal Vladimir Horowitz’s 1949–50 season schedule; advertising photograph of piano rims
The letters, especially from Charles and Henry Jr., reveal the remarkable rise of Steinway & Sons in the United States. As Lieberman notes in his book: “Between 1854 and 1860, the company went from struggling to the most successful piano maker in the country.” In a letter dated September 23, 1859, the brothers enthusiastically describe several of Steinway’s important innovations. Charles writes: “Our over-strung grand pianos are quite fabulous; they have a fuller and stronger sound than the ordinary ones. We are no longer making any others. Other piano makers are already imitating us.” Henry picks up the theme later in the same letter, adding a sketch of the over-strung piano (in which the longer bass strings fan out over the top of the upper strings to create more resonance); he also writes enthusiastically about a new action, one of several patents he registered in his name. The archive contains all the Steinway patents, the most important of which (the grand piano action, a better-fitting iron plate, and over-stringing) comprise the key components of the modern piano.
When archivist Douglas DiCarlo shows me the original letter, written in exquisite German cursive and containing Henry Jr.’s technical sketches, it’s easy to see that the Steinway sons were steeped in piano mechanics. The devil truly is in the details. These are the urtext documents of 19th-century tech geeks, scientists of sound who were seeking — and eventually found — their perfect pianoforte. Writing these letters, they were on the cusp of success and they knew it.
DiCarlo moves on, showing me a slightly later artifact: a slim hardback journal that he opens to the first page, revealing the handwritten title “The Diary of Louisa Ziegler.” Curiously, a pressed leaf falls out of the pages. Louisa, the daughter of Doretta Ziegler (née Steinway), was a cousin to the Steinway brothers running the company. Doretta was a central figure in the life of the family, and Louisa chronicled the daily ins and outs of the Steinway clan (then headed by her uncle, William Steinway). When Louisa wrote her diary in 1867, she was 16 years old; her entries, written in English, offer a fascinating glimpse into the life of a newly wealthy immigrant family. She describes a festive scene — Christmas, 1867 — presumably at William Steinway’s house, which was next door to the original Steinway Hall on East 14th Street in Manhattan: “At 7 o’clock the tree was lit and we all received our gifts. The tree was adorned handsomely. I was presented with a pair of gloves, a pair of leggins [sic], three pair of lined stockings, and a real lace collar.… Later in the afternoon I played my Faust Fantasie on the piano and was very much applauded.”
At the time, the Faust legend inspired many a composer — from Berlioz to Liszt to Wagner — but Louisa’s diary entry here hints at something more. “Louisa Ziegler’s diary is significant because in all of American history, it’s very rare that we find anything that reveals the role of women in the history of the family and a company,” says Lieberman. Historical documents suggest that the Steinway women played an important role in the beginnings of the company. Louisa’s mother, Doretta, is said to have worked in the piano “warerooms,” playing the instruments for customers and — as an added inducement — offering free piano lessons to close the sale.
‘Next year we will try our luck with grands.’ —Charles Steinway in a letter to his brother Theodore, mid-1850s
As the business grew, so did the wealth of the Steinway family. This is evident from the glass plate negatives DiCarlo shows me. Donning white gloves, he lays the negative images on a lightbox. In the first, a group of elegantly dressed people stands outside an impressive looking house with large bay windows. This is the Steinway Mansion in Astoria, which was sold to William Steinway in 1870 for the price of $70,000 — the equivalent of $1.2 million today. (In 2014, the 27-room house was sold for $2.65 million.) Another image shows members of the Steinway family on the lawn playing croquet, everyone dressed in their finery. It would be easy to mistake the figures in these pictures for European aristocracy, not newly minted Americans.
At the same time that he bought the mansion, William purchased 400 nearby acres of land in a sparse area of Queens known as Astoria, across the East River from Manhattan. On this land he established a factory and the infrastructure to support his workers. He began to develop the Steinway Village, a community for employees working in the Astoria factory. It would go on to have everything from a library to a school to a church. But if the Steinways now seem like remarkably progressive employers for the 19th century, their purpose-built village also served the company’s interests by keeping the workers away from the previous decade's burgeoning labor movements and the accompanying strikes that had sometimes ended in violence. William Steinway, not exactly enamored of unions, later explained that the decision to find a place outside of the city was “to escape the machinations of the anarchists and the socialists.”
The Steinway & Sons Collection offers a glimpse at these tensions, this upstairs-downstairs story of employer and worker. DiCarlo and I look at employee ledger cards from 1867 to 1875. With beautiful penmanship, the bosses have listed names and details of those on the payroll. Many German names are evident — Rausbacher, Rossel, Röchel, Rautenberg. There is also a sense that these workers were unafraid to talk back or demand more money from a company that was doing well (and well enough, in 1866, to build the opulent Steinway Hall on East 14th Street). One note next to an entry for Mr. Richter, employed as a topmaker, reads, “He cannot stand everyday trips from New York to Astoria.” Another entry next to Mr. Rouer, a keymaker, says, “Discharged Red Socialist.”
DiCarlo returns the employee ledgers to the shelf and we move on. There’s much to see, so we’re cherry-picking from the archive. “Let’s turn to advertising,” says DiCarlo. “You make a great piano, you’re going to have to figure out how to sell it.”
From left: Steinway glass plate photography negatives handled by archivist Douglas DiCarlo; glass plate photography negatives; Steinway & Sons employee roster, 1867–1875
Jumping ahead to the early 20th century, we look at ads from national magazines of the 1920s. Early on, Steinway had balked at the idea of a national advertising campaign, believing it to be distasteful. But when a young copywriter named Raymond Rubicam was assigned to the Steinway account, things changed. (Rubicam went on to found the advertising firm of Young & Rubicam.) It was Rubicam who cultivated the longstanding connection between legendary pianists and composers and the Steinway piano, coining the now famous slogan “The Instrument of the Immortals.” This phrase was the magic ingredient in Rubicam’s ad campaign, which used dramatic paintings of musical celebrities — including Liszt, Paderewski, and Rachmaninoff — to emphasize the instrument’s association with greatness. The LaGuardia archive contains many examples of the ads initially launched in 1919, running in the Saturday Evening Post and other national publications. DiCarlo selects one from the January 1928 issue of Good Housekeeping. It shows a romantic image of Tristan und Isolde (painted for the Steinway collection by Harvey Dunn), with text that reads: “When the fingers of Richard Wagner first touched the keys of a Steinway in 1879, its reputation as the world’s foremost piano was definitely established.” According to Campaign, a global business magazine that covers the advertising industry, Rubicam’s “Immortals” campaign for Steinway was one of the most effective ever devised. It not only made Rubicam’s name, but it forever linked Steinway with the world’s greatest pianists, a legacy that continues today via the dazzling roster of Steinway Artists.
After this mini-trawl through the fascinating history of Steinway, there’s one more item to see: Steinway piano No. 2166, which sits under a protective acrylic glass cover in a corridor near the archive. According to company ledgers, the instrument dates back to December 4, 1858. It’s an old square grand piano with a fascinating history. Built at the Steinway & Sons factory on Walker Street (now the center of Chinatown), it was purchased by a music dealer in Louisville, Kentucky, and sold to the Hudgins family in 1859. According to Hudgins family legend, during the Civil War the family hid its Union loyalties by playing “Dixie” on the piano when Confederate soldiers were nearby. When the war ended, the family protected the piano from looting Northern soldiers by hiding it under a haystack in a field. While it did survive the Yankees, a pair of field mice got to it by gnawing at several of the ivory keys at the far left.
When the piano was donated to LaGuardia Community College in 1993, it was in serious need of repair. It was first shipped to the factory in Astoria, where three Steinway craftsmen came out of retirement to restore the historic instrument. For these “piano men” — as New York Newsday nicknamed the trio in a feature profile — it was a labor of love that ultimately restored the instrument to its former glory. But this isn’t just a museum piece, insists Lieberman. “The value and significance of this piano is that you can actually play it,” he says. “The piano will reveal what piano music sounded like in the 1850s.”
As DiCarlo unlocks the cover so I can get closer to this remarkable piece of history, I lean in to examine the rosewood cover and the short keyboard with the gnawed bass keys thoughtfully left intact, a little message from those field mice of yesteryear. I dare not play it or even press a key. I feel a little daunted in the presence of the instrument: oh, the stories this Steinway could tell! It seems to me that this piano is a perfect complement to the archives, a tangible symbol of Steinway’s long journey from the mid nineteenth century to the present day, a musical arc that reaches back from the glory days of Liszt and forward to the child about to start piano lessons tomorrow. While the story of Steinway looms large in the imagination, it is thankfully preserved here in Long Island City in this extensive archive.