This year (2023) is the 170th anniversary of the founding of Steinway & Sons. It was back in 1853 that Henry E. Steinway Snr. established the company in a rented loft in New York City. But the seeds were sown many years earlier with what has become to be known as the Steinway Kitchen Piano (though more accurately the Steinweg Kitchen Piano).
Without the Kitchen Piano, the Steinway brand may never have happened.
Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg (he changed his name to Steinway when he moved to America) was born in 1797 in the small German mountain community of Wolfshagen, in the duchy of Brunswick, Germany.
Heinrich was the youngest of twelve brothers and sisters. He had a fraught childhood suffering the deprivations caused by the Napoleonic Wars between France and Prussia. And during this time he lost his entire family.
All alone and penniless, and just 15 years of age, he joined the Black Brunswicks – a military regiment striving to rid Germany of Napoleon’s army. In fact, Steinweg actually fought at the legendary Battle of Waterloo and was commended for his actions.
Whilst in the army Steinweg became skilled in woodworking and crafted various stringed musical instruments. On leaving his regiment he moved to Seesen (Lower Saxony, Germany) and became a full-time cabinetmaker. But his great passion had become musical instruments. He had worked repairing pipe organs, harpsichords and guitars, but was fascinated by the booming newer generation of keyboard instrument — the Fortepiano.
Steinweg made his very first piano in 1825. It was a small square piano which he gave as a wedding present to his new wife Julianne. But it was in 1836 that Steinweg finally completed his first grand piano.
The Kitchen Piano
This instrument got its name from the fact that it was built in the kitchen of Steinweg’s Seesen home. Steinweg had his own workshop in the town, but local regulations only allowed him to use it to repair instruments, not build them. He therefore secretly constructed his new piano “off-site”. It was what we today might call a “homer” project.
The Kitchen Piano is an important instrument for various reasons. Obviously because it was the first “Steinway” grand piano, but also it featured many new design innovations that enhanced the instrument’s performance, reliability and sound quality.
Grand pianos, as such, first appeared in the early 1700s. From the days of Cristofori’s original instruments they had slowly evolved over the years. Still, Steinweg made so many changes and improvements that his new piano can arguably be considered to be the prototype of the modern grand piano.
Steinweg’s 1836 instrument was a 212 cm concert grand piano. He extended the length of the keys of the traditional keyboard and improved the action by using lighter hammers with a different type of leather tip. These enhancements allowed faster repetition and delivered improved dynamics and greater overall volume. Steinweg also changed the damping mechanism to a system he had encountered on an English square piano.
The bridge was constructed as a single piece, not two. This made the soundboard more flexible, and thus a better transmitter of sound. Steinweg also increased the possible volume by applying more tension to the strings — this in turn required a stronger casework.
Overall, the Steinway Kitchen Piano was meticulously crafted and represented “state-of-the-art” piano craftsmanship for that time. This was officially recognised at the 1839 Brunswick State Fair. Steinweg exhibited his new piano at the show and was awarded a gold medal for his endeavours.
It was said that the Duke of Brunswick was so impressed by Steinweg’s grand piano that he ordered one to be built for himself, but there is no firm proof of this. Nevertheless, the Kitchen Piano did put Steinweg firmly on the map. And demand for his instruments took off.
The Move to America
Steinweg, aided by his sons, subsequently built almost 500 pianos in Seesen. But in 1850 political upheaval and financial depression led Steinweg and some of his family to emigrate to America in search of better prospects. Initially, he found things tough. But through determination, skill and luck (a strike at the Bacon & Raven piano factory), he pulled through. He “Americanized” his name to Henry E. Steinway and in 1853 set up Steinway & Sons at 85 Varick Street, New York City.
What happened next is for another time… but if you can’t wait, check out the books at the end of this article. These were used as reference sources for some of the information included above.
In 2006, piano builder extraordinaire Chris Maene built three replicas of the Steinway Kitchen Piano. One of these can be seen at Museum Headquarters “Piano Maene”, Industriestraat 42, 8755 Ruiselede, Belgium. The whole process was recorded by filmmaker Bram Cross in his documentary “Building a Legend”.
The original Steinway Kitchen Piano still exists. Steinway & Sons now own it, and it was housed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, it is currently on loan to MIM (the Musical Instrument Museum) in Phoenix Arizona, and forms part of MIM’s special Steinway exhibit.
Ratcliffe, Ronald V. Steinway. Chronicle Books. 1989; rev.2002.
Dolge, Alfred. Pianos and their Makers. Colin Publishing Company, 1911.
Steinway, Theodore E. People and Pianos. Steinway & Sons, 1953; rev.1961.
Lieberman, Dr. Richard K. Steinway and Sons. Yale University Press, 1995.
The above titles include links to the Amazon website. If you use these links and subsequently purchase a book, World Piano News may receive a small commission which helps fund this site.
Thanks also to Chris Maene for his help in preparing this article.