Celebrating 200 years of Chickering Pianos

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In the mid-19th century, Chickering & Sons was the largest piano manufacturer in all of America. It was responsible for many technical innovations still used today, received countless awards, and its pianos were admired for their craftsmanship and quality by countless pianists including Franz Liszt, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Edvard Greig, Hans von Bülow and more recently Glenn Gould. This year, 2023, marks the 200th anniversary of the company’s founding.

portrait of Jonas Chickering in 1853

Jonas Chickering was born in Mason, New Hampshire in 1798. He was trained as a cabinet maker. And the story goes that in 1817 Chickering saw a square piano made by Christopher Garner (London) supposedly once owned by Princess Amelia — the fifteenth (!) child of King George III of Britain and Ireland.

The piano had been damaged on the sea crossing to the US and also by the New Hampshire climate once it arrived. No other carpenter was prepared to attempt repairs, so Chickering studied the instrument and managed to restore it to a playable condition.

The satisfaction he derived from this accomplishment was apparently enough to sow the seed for his future career.

He soon left Mason and moved to Boston, Massachusetts.

Birth of the American Piano

The birth of the American piano-making industry centred on two locations — Philadelphia and Boston. Many German immigrants skilled in crafting musical instruments had established businesses in Philadelphia. And it was here the first piano ever made in America was built by John Berent in 1775. Other famed makers such as Charles Albrecht and John Isaac Hawkins also set up factories in the city.

In Boston, Benjamin Crehore was at the time perfecting his square pianos. His workshop was to become the spawning ground for many pioneering American piano makers including the Babcock brothers, the Bent brothers, and John Osborn.

Osbourn set up his first facility in the city in 1815 and it was here for the ensuing five years that Jonas Chickering truly learnt his piano-building skills.

In 1823 Chickering set up in business with Scotsman James Stewart who had also worked for John Osborn. Stewart is credited with inventing what is now the basis of modern piano stringing. His idea was to use a single wire of double the required length to serve as two unison strings, passing the string around a single hitch pin.

The company was originally known as Stewart & Chickering and in its first year built 15 pianos. But in 1826 Stewart left the company and returned to Britain.

lithograph of the frontage of the early Chickering workshop
The Chickering premises (1838-1852), located at 334 Washington Street, Boston

Chickering’s pianos were of excellent quality and design, but the company suffered from a lack of funding and poor marketing. Enter merchant, marketeer, sailor, and adventurer Captain John Mackay. Not only did he sell and promote Chickering’s instruments across North and South America and Europe, but he also brought back exotic hardwoods that Chickering could use in the construction of his pianos.

Alas, Mackay perished at sea in a tropical storm off South America in 1841 leaving Chickering again the sole owner of the business, however, the company was now in a financially secure position.

Today “Chickering & Mackay” branded instruments are very rare and can be quite valuable.

One of Chickering’s greatest legacies was his innovative designs for the piano’s frame (plate). In 1840 he patented a single-piece cast-iron frame for a square piano. This one-piece frame could handle the increased tensions required for the strings. Tauter strings introduce less harmonic distortion and this improves the sound quality.

And in 1843 he applied similar principles to the grand piano’s frame, which was also patented (see below).

front page of Chickering's 1843 patent application
Jonas Chickering’s 1843 patent for improving the frame of a grand piano
close-up photos of the inside of a Chickering grand piano
And a mid-19th century Chickering grand showing these modifications to the frame.

Chickering also pioneered the use of cross-stringing whereby the bass strings run diagonally over those in the treble. This idea was originally conceived in the 1820s and is variously credited to both Alpheus Babcock and Jean-Henri Papa, although Pape’s name is on the 1828 patent. Chickering, however, was one of the first to actually exploit this design commercially.

Steinway show interest

Johanna “Jenny” Lind, was a famous Swedish soprano opera singer. In 1850, at the behest of the famed American showman P.T. Barnum, she embarked on a 93-date tour of some of the largest venues in the United States. Barnum commissioned Chickering & Sons to build a special grand piano for the tour.

The opening night in New York was attended by a certain Heinrich E. Steinweg (aka Henry E. Steinway). Steinweg spent a considerable time before and after the concert studying the piano, of which he was extremely impressed. Steinway & Sons was founded just three years later.

lithograph showing the Chickering piano factory
Chickering’s factory at 791 Tremont Street, Boston (1854- )

In 1852 Jonas made his three sons Thomas E., C. Frank, and George H., partners in the firm, and the company’s name was changed to Chickering & Sons. Jonas died the following year at the age of 55.

White House Chickering Pianos

Many U.S. presidents had pianos of their own, which they installed in The White House. And several had Chickering pianos.

James Buchanan (the 15th president, 1857-1861) was the first to have a grand piano—a Chickering. And Abraham Lincoln (the 16th president, 1861-1865) had both a Chickering square and a Chickering upright. Incidentally, the house piano at Ford’s Theatre where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865 was a Chickering.

Other presidents to have a Chickering piano include Franklin Pierce (14th, 1853-1857), and Theodore Roosevelt (26th, 1901-1909).

Following his father’s death Thomas E. took over the business, but died in 1871 and Frank Chickering took control. And under his guidance the company really flourished.

A 1500-seat Chickering Hall on Fifth Avenue was opened in 1875 and was the showcase for the Chickering empire which continued to grow and thrive.

Chickering pianos have a charming deep dark rich sound quality. They were built to the highest of standards, and built to last. A certain Model 33B (serial no. 30540) built in 1867, was one of Franz Liszt’s all-time favourite pianos, and to survive the pianist’s powerful playing style, the instrument had to be strong indeed!

studio photo of a "heavyweight" Chickering square piano
A Chickering square piano built around 1850

Chickering grand pianos are generally wider than other instruments of the same length. This can be seen with reference to the left-hand cheek block, which is much wider than on other pianos. This extra width allows for a larger soundboard, which in turn produces a richer more powerful sound.

Frank Chickering died in 1891 and George in 1896. In 1900 financial pressures forced the sale of Chickering Hall, and in 1908 the company merged with several other manufacturers to become the all-powerful American Piano Company (AMPICO). By the mid-1920s this was the largest manufacturer and distributor of pianos in the world. Following the Depression, however, this became part of the Aeolian-America Corporation in 1932.

The last piano to be made by Chickering & Sons per se was in 1983.

Aolian-America ceased trading in 1985, and the Chickering name was acquired by Wurlitzer. And ten years later by the Baldwin Piano Company, which is now a subsidiary of Gibson Brands Inc.

Both Wurlitzer and Baldwin did produce pianos under the Chickering name, but no longer do so. The 200-year-old brand is currently dormant.

WPN would like to thank Dr Aurel Betz for correcting a couple of details in the original version of this article.


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