ARCHIVES OF THE PIANOFORTE MAKERS
(Updated December 2013)
We function as an archive, and every day, we supply unique information in answer to enquiries from around the world. A subject that comes up with some regularity in these pages is the appalling rate at which our history (pianos or otherwise) is being lost. On the one hand, we see groups of people studying ancient civilizations, and often making great strides in the furtherance of our knowledge about the distant past, but on the other hand, looking back just three hundred years, there is a continuing feeling that "nobody will want to know" about this or that piece of paperwork or information. We sometimes experience the same negativity in trying to raise support for our collection, and whereas some people (like our recent visitors from Radio 3) are stunned at seeing “so much history in the room”, others who have no interest in history cannot grasp the concept that…
VALUE IS NOT ALWAYS ABOUT MONEY!
People are often disappointed if their pianos do not have a name, but many piano names are meaningless anyway. We deal with over thirty thousand, a lot of these are fictitious aliases used by retailers on pianos bought in from wholesalers. Only a handful of the world’s makers have the original archive material to tell us who the first purchaser was, or when the piano was made. Sadly, the following information gives all too true a picture of the tragic loss of piano history, and a lot of our work, unique in the world, involves trying to piece together what we can about that majority of makers, whose archives are lost, so that we can help people with information about their antique pianos. The archives of my first employers still exist, but the last I heard, they were mouldering away in a damp garage, where nobody could see them. Perhaps we will locate more stock records of Victorian dealers eventually, we have later items, but because of lack of funding, we have to treat the oldest items as priority. Most of the famous British piano names have now been bought up by foreign companies, and although we are in touch with various descendants of piano makers, the whereabouts of most of the archive material (if it still exists) is unknown. Usually, all we can offer is a researched booklet based on what we can deduce from photos of the interior and exterior of the piano. However, this new website offers a lot of that information free, in the hope of donations.
A single sentence from an old document can sometimes provide vital clues about piano history, and we are always looking for less obvious archive sources where historical records might include unexpected references to pianos. Some years ago, I approached the Royal Archives at Windsor, as one of a number of sources that might have some early piano history filed away, but it was beyond my wildest expectations when Her Majesty personally gave permission for me to use information from the Royal Bills (1786-1826) referring to pianofortes, as part of my research on Royal piano makers. We are not permitted to reproduce the images themselves, but they provide a wealth of information. Our active research is aimed at antique British pianos, and anything else that turns up is a matter of luck, so we do not normally deal with modern pianos, player pianos, organs, harpsichords, clavichords or meerkats, but we try not to discard any kind of piano information, and we have lots of general history in Victorian books as well. We have provided piano advice to television programmes such as “Pebble Mill”, “The One Show” and “Who do you think you are”, the Financial Times, plays and documentaries, as well as the interview with Radio 3, and I offer lectures on piano history to Women’s Institutes, colleges, museums, schools, etc.. There is a temptation to worry that my passion could be boring for others, but I am always surprised at the enthusiasm of so many people to learn more about pianos, and impressed by the depth of their questions.
Even if we have evidence of the original purchase, there is no way of tracing the life history of every piano after its sale, through to the present day. After all, when one buys a piano, there is no license or logbook to record who its previous owners were, or where it lived: There could be an exciting historical piece in my street and I wouldn't necessarily have any way of knowing. Do please be wary of people who make claims about a piano being “one of only four that survive”, or make other similar sweeping claims that cannot possibly be proven without visiting every house in the world. Four is a popular number for these myths, and the internet does not have all the answers. Someone, in a little village somewhere in Italy, may be using an original Cristofori as a workbench or a breakfast table, and the internet would not know.
Because so many existing firms have lost their original archive material, one result of this is that they are sometimes quoting information from websites and textbooks, pretending it is theirs, without knowing if the information is accurate. Some years ago, I thought I was being kind in offered my estimates of serial number dates to a company who had lost their archives. Years later, they denied losing the information, then quoted my own estimates of numbers back to me, claiming them to be their own!
Most piano firms have no surviving archives, and as far as we are aware, Broadwoods are the only major British maker whose archives are available for reference, at the Surrey History Centre, and provide genuine, original information, but a fairly small amount, whereas our researched reports (based partly on your photos) can often run to twenty pages of what we hope is interesting and useful information. Researchers can go independently at their own expense (£7.75 per day), or ask the centre to quote for doing the work for them (£34.40 per hour), or go through Broadwoods (£60). To combine the two approaches for a more complete picture, my costs in travelling to Surrey and paying search fees would be higher than Broadwoods’.
Alastair Laurence says "The fee pays for a thorough search throughout the Broadwood volumes at Surrey Archives, which usually takes at least one hour for each number searched. The archives give the day, month and year when the piano was finished at the factory, the name and address of the first purchaser, the selling price, and often, interesting technical information. The Broadwood archives also give the method of transportation of any sold piano (road, rail or sea) and even the name of the ship if an export order is involved. Finally, the archive will often have further references to any particular instrument if that same instrument is hired, moved, brought in for repair etc., or taken in part exchange."
A book was published about the Broadwood archives in 2006, and they had an exhibit (along with our own PianoGen room) at an Archives Day at Finchcocks, Kent in 2006. It seemed a strange situation, because although Broadwoods had genuine, original archive material, our muniments were probably the best hope for the majority of people with any other British pianos. It was also interesting to note how many references in the talk about Broadwoods tied in with items which just happened to be there in our own displays.
Often, the fact that a piano was delivered to a certain address is only of passing interest, but there was an instance in the Erard archives which showed that a piano was delivered to a particular position in a particular room in the 1830s. That piano was still in the same position in the 21st century!
When it comes to piano history, few stories can top the research I was doing about the Victorian royal piano maker, Isaac Henry Robert Mott: Eventually, I spoke to someone who had just missed SIX SACKS of information about him, which were sent to the dump because "nobody will want them"! In view of this, it seems unlikely that any archive material for Mott will ever be found again.
The Army & Navy Stores very kindly let me do some research in their archives before they closed, but it is so difficult to find early stock records from Victorian retailers, and the most complete pre-1900 one I have ever found in half a century of research is Rudall's of the 1870s, kindly supplied by Robert Bigio. These include references to Rudall & Rose, Rudall, Rose & Carte, and Rudall Carte & Co..
Other stock books must exist, and they hold so much useful information about names, dates of numbers, time held in stock, prices, profit margins, technical terms, keyboard range, etc. that even the one set is useful to us almost every week. You'd think it was a matter of official secrets, because even shops I used to work for wouldn't let us look through their old stock books, and some went out of business, taking their archive material with them. Of course, the ones that would be safer from a Data Protection point of view are also the most interesting ones, pre-1900.
In the absence of proper archives, it is often possible to piece together useful information from old photos and paperwork, so I was delighted to hear from the Munt family about Munt’s factory and shops, and I am grateful for the photos and information they so kindly supplied. There is a Munt piano near us, but its interior was written off, and it now houses an electronic keyboard within its antique shell.
Information can sometimes go round in circles and come back again, like a boomerang. In 1972, I wrote to Collard & Collard Ltd. at an address which I knew to be that of Chappell & Co.. They were unable to help me with any information, having lost their archives in the 1964 fire, so they passed on my enquiry to the late Frank Holland at the Musical Museum. He followed his normal procedure, and PASSED IT ON TO ME to answer! (Good ol' Frank, bless 'im!) In the course of their long history, Chappells took over several other piano names, but all their historical records were lost in the fire. Since that time, we have collected more information on the Collard lineage than any other, and probably more than anyone else has.
Another example of this boomerang effect is that one day, Stephen Kirkman sent me a copy of a letter written by Kirkmans to Alfred Laurence in 1866. I took the rather stark monochrome photocopy, gave it more of the character of an old document, made it fit the page better, then sent it to Alastair Laurence because it featured his ancestor. He told me that it was he who sent it to Stephen in the first place!
Fires figure heavily in piano history, and when Birdingbury Hall burned down in 1859, one of the treasured possessions lined up on the lawn was a piano.
Whiteleys closed without answering my request for information, and Barkers of Kensington didn't even return my two stamped addressed reply cards. Crane & Sons were unable to provide archive material. Bearmans of Leytonstone "would willingly have helped, had there been anything of interest" left on file. When I heard on the radio that Wilson Peck were "closing their doors for ever" in March 2001, I phoned them to ask about historical information. They said they had no archives, and no paperwork about their pianos.
Duck, Son & Pinker, in Bath, used to have some archive material and stock records, I don’t know what the situation is now. I was, to say the least, perturbed when a lady phoned to say that Steinways were unable to help her with a historical enquiry because they had destroyed all their London records! I can only hope that this proves to have been some kind of misunderstanding, and all that irreplaceable information hasn't ended up as SHREDDER- FODDER!
Boosey & Hawkes are famous as musical instrument makers, but they have no record of the fact that when they were Boosey & Co., they claimed to be pianoforte makers, “Manufacturers of the Miniature Pianoforte”. They moved from Holles Street to Regent Street around 1880.
In the same way, Keith, Prowse & Co. still exist as theatre agents, but are unaware of pianos sold with their name on them. By 1822, Robert William Keith was a music seller at 131, Cheapside, and may have made the pianos that bear his name. Keith, Prowse & Co. were there by 1832.
Breitkopf & Hartel are aware of pianos bearing their name, but have no archives, and they tell me they didn’t make the pianos.
Wurlitzers inform me that they have no archive material whatsoever. Chickering & Sons say "all of the collateral materials, photographs, etc., going back to the early days was lost sight of when the company re-located to the present address".
Lindner's short-lived plastic and alloy pianos were only invented in the 1950s, but when they (International Piano Industries Ltd.) were placed in the hands of the Receiver in 1975, no paperwork was kept, and even these fairly modern pianos are more or less without archives or spare parts. There seems to have been little point in offering a 70-year guarantee on their soundboards!
ARCHIVES LOST IN WARS
War has always been an important part of history, but it is also the greatest destroyer of historical information. These views of Hamburg after the allied bombing give a chilling insight into the devastation that turned buildings into empty shells, and it is not hard to imagine what happened to people or paperwork.
Bluthners, of Leipzig said "Dear Mr Kibby, We have unfortunately to inform you that we cannot help you with your enquiries about this instrument. Our records were destroyed during the last war". James Reeder confirmed this in 2004: "Dear Bill, All records were destroyed during World War II, as well as the factory and offices, so there are no production records available."
The Ascherberg company is said to have been bombed out of existence during the second world war when the Americans levelled Dresden. No archives survived.
Helen McGrath received a lot of help from the Ronisch company, also in Dresden, about this 1880 exhibition piano, but they tell me that their archives were destroyed in World War II.
The Bechstein archives have survived, and their website bechstein.com deals with enquiries, but the library of the Royal College of Music has an important set of ledgers from the firm of Bechstein, and their Centre for Performance History holds four volumes of photographs of designs for pianos, both grand and upright. The so-called "Bechstein, London" pianos seem to have been imported in pieces, for assembly in Bournemouth rather than London, from the early 1930s. The grands are somewhat smaller than normal Bechstein models, and seem of a cheaper quality. Although Bechsteins had a London office, the company name "Bechstein London" was never registered, so virtually no information is available on them. The arrangement with Berlin ceased with the outbreak of war.
1944 diary mentions doodle-bugs (V-1 bombs)
Rita Dix, of R.C. Bishop & Son, says "all the business & papers were lost in the war".
Milliers of Weston Supermare say "all records were lost in the Blitz".
The Sunday School Union, which sold Unex pianos, (below) has now become Christian Education, they say "Unfortunately most of the history up to 1940 was destroyed in the war when an air raid affected the premises at the time. The library was completely gutted and the headquarters almost completely destroyed. Details can be found in Philip Cliff's book ‘The Rise and Development of the Sunday School Movement in England 1780-1980’. What remains from that time and all our other archives are stored at Birmingham University and can be viewed there".
Fine in theory, but Birmingham University say "We have a lot of the Sunday School Union archives. Unfortunately, this material is not listed so we have no idea whether what you want is there. At present we are not in position to be able to say when a listing of these archives will be available."
We receive a large number of enquiries about Eavestaff pianos, but no archives are available, and their numbers run in several separate sequences, most do not correspond to the published information, so dating is sometimes difficult. Established in 1823, W. Eavestaff was originally a music publisher. He was at 66 Great Russell Street by 1826, and still there in the 1870s, but doesn't seem to have been described as W.G. (William Glen) until the 1860s, so we don’t know if this is a son of the original. He soon began to sell pianos, and by the 1840s he was listed as a pianoforte maker, offering typical cottage pianos, then typical uprights by the late 1800s. In 1925, the manufacture of Eavestaff pianos was taken over by Brasteds, who introduced their very popular Minipiano Pianette in 1934, outwardly very similar in some ways to Pape’s Piano Console of a century earlier, but with everything except the keyboard turned back-to-front. It also suffers from the same problem of being almost impossible to move safely on a normal piano trolley!
The action is mounted inside the back of the piano, hence the term “back-action minipiano”. The original model can have major problems now, the tuning pins are often loose, and being quite different from the usual ones, they are difficult to replace. They are behind a little flap under the keyboard and very inconvenient to tune.
The two on your left are by Pape. In the trade, Eavestaff minis are known as “coffins” although “bier” might be more apt, I can quite imagine a coffin sitting on top of one, so it was quite amusing when I went to the flat above a funeral director’s office and a sombre purple cover was pulled off to reveal one of those “coffins”. Before and after the success of the Minipiano Pianette, there were many very small uprights called Mignon, Miniature, Minstrelle, Minx, Pianet, Spinet, and that old standby Pianino. Although it seems strange in this age of mini-skirts, mini-budgets and mini cars, Eavestaffs copyrighted the use of the prefix “Mini” and, as recently as the sixties, took Farfisa to court for calling their organ a “Mini-Compact”. In 1937, a larger model called “Minigrand” was introduced, with a more conventional layout, the action “dropped” behind the keys, very much like Pape’s console piano of a century earlier, and claiming to have “the compass and tone of the most expensive grands”.
In the fifties, the Miniroyal model had the top of the iron frame curved upwards in the middle, creating a convex top on the case, and the action sloping downwards in the bass, to accommodate longer bass strings. There are various references to the pianos being “as used by” Princess Elizabeth, Princess Margaret, and Princess Ingrid of Denmark, hence the name “Miniroyal”, but it is difficult to infer dates from this information, apart from the fact that Elizabeth became Queen in 1952. Later, they reverted to a flat-topped frame, but oddly, kept the outer curved shape. In the sixties, Eavestaff also made the tiny Minitronic electric grand piano, with helical bass strings, but it seems to have been short-lived.
In 1969, the Eavestaff Miniroyal Model 90 was introduced, with its distinctive hood which can be raised to gain access to the interior. This also acts as a reflector, directing the sound towards the pianist or tuner. This is one of my favourite modern pianos, usually very pleasant to tune, and to play, but dealers displaying the Model 90 soon realised that it was unwise to place them back to back, because this gave an even stronger impression of a coffin.
A minor point is that the 1969 examples had a problem because so many people damaged the piano by trying to open the keyboard without lifting the hood first, so this little gadget was added to the end of the fall, to stop that happening.
I still tune a Brasted piano for the Brasted family, who now own a catering firm. They very kindly sent me a scan of a photocopy of an old monochrome photo of the factory, from which I reconstructed the picture above. Sadly, they have no archive information. One of the factory employees had collected information, and his widow was going to get in touch with me years ago, but she never did. I wonder if the paperwork still exists? (See Brasted on our Numbers page.)
When Monington & Weston closed their factory in 1986, they very kindly donated a lot of paperwork to us, including some of their own literature, old trade directories, and old catalogues of various other makers. Their 1962 “Regent” model (on the right) seems to have been outwardly identical to the Eavestaff Miniroyal Model 90, but years earlier.
On honeymoon in Jersey in 2002, we saved a trip to the Jersey Museum for a rainy day, and inspected their Priestley cottage piano, passing the Library Jersiaise as we went in. Beth said we should check if the library had any piano information, but with uncharacteristic negativity, I said “they won’t have any piano history here!”… We were amazed to find lots of information about Jersey’s piano makers and dealers going right back to the 1840s, including Fentum, who had disappeared from the London records.
In 2004, having failed to get anywhere on the internet trying to locate Paris history sources, we trudged around that wonderful city in 42 degrees of heat until the pavement was more comfortable without our shoes. We were directed and re-directed to archives and likely places, but whereas most British libraries have local history books easily available for research, several French people have since confirmed that Paris doesn’t know where its history is kept! Even the historic Legion d’Honneur couldn’t tell us anything about piano makers who were awarded the “croix” without precise details that we didn’t have, because they are not computerised, and have no cross-reference system.
The Duke of Wellington owned an Erard piano, as did Nelson, Napoleon, Marie Antoinette, Queen Hortense, Josephine and many other (rich) historical figures.
The Erard Paris archives are not available to the general public, they were locked away in an old building along with the Pleyel archives, and it suffered a fire in 2009. Most of the archive survived, but with some fire damage. Our friends in France had been involved in legal wrangles to try to protect these records, which are now held by the Cité de la Musique, Paris, and since 2011, they are gradually being made available online.
The Paris archives contain some brief references to their "Maison de Londres", but Erards’ London archives are a bit of a mystery, although we have some dates of their London serial numbers on our Numbers page.
This letterhead from 1872, kindly sent in by Gill Green, seems identical to the 1843 one held by Westminster City Archives.
My hopes were raised some years ago when I read that Erards’ London ledgers were stored at the Royal College of Music's museum, but Peter Horton kindly informed me that "The Erard London ledgers at the RCM are for the harp, not the piano business".
We have only recently tracked down where Erards’ twin London factories were, in Pembroke Road, it's the kind of basic clue that is just sitting there on the internet waiting to be found if only one knows the magic words, and we even found plans and drawings. However, the Paris archives make little reference to the making of pianos in London, and Pierre's correspondence only refers to harps.
In 1888, Messrs. S. & P. Erard, London, appointed Cramer & Co. (who boasted the largest pianoforte showrooms in Europe) as their “sole agents” for the City of London, but oddly, Erards continued to advertise and sell their own pianos at 18 Great Marlborough Street. (This is probably because “The City” is only a small area within London.) The idea that they finished in 1890 seems to have no basis, the manufacture may possibly have been moved to Paris then, but they built new premises on the site by 1895, (photos are available from the Westminster City Archives) and they still gave the same address in 1933.
The mysteries don’t end there, because around 1902, Robert Cocks & Co. moved from New Burlington Street to Erard's refurbished premises at 18 Great Marlborough Street. It has been suggested that perhaps Robert Cocks may have continued with the making of Erards’ London pianos. He was music publisher to the Queen, at New Burlington Street, but for a while, his pianos were misleading labelled “Pianoforte Manufacturers & Music Publishers to Her Most Gracious Majesty Queen Victoria”.
Here we see that Cocks’ pianos were actually made for him for 17 years by Henry Tow, not as an employee, but as “manufacturer”. Tow was gone by the 1890s. Cocks’ business was later taken over by successive music publishers, who do not have his archives now. The way things tend to go, we could perhaps assume that the records are lost. In 1904, Cocks & Augener were united under the name of Augener Ltd., and it is presumed that Cocks & Co. ceased to exist as such. The firm of Erard continued to give their address as No.18 long after Augener's had bought the building, and Erard pianos continued to be manufactured - somewhere. Modern Erard pianos are made by Schimmel, they say "We regret to have to inform you that we could not give you any information ~~~~~ The Schimmel Piano Company produced under a licensed contract upright and grands under the 3 French brands Gaveau, Erard, Pleyel as of 1971 through 1994. We have no archives available here from before that time." At least they had the decency to reply, some firms don't have the manners to answer history enquiries that don't lead to sales.
As mentioned above, the Pleyel archives do still exist, and we can also refer to a recently-published book on the subject of Pleyel. There are illustrations of the Pleyel factory available on several websites, but although these were published in 1865, they were 1855 pictures. By 1867, they had a much more advanced steam factory. We have been unable to locate anything like an equivalent service to the Piano History Centre in any other country. Without donations, I will be fine, but the Piano History Centre may not survive. If the information on this website helps you, and you cannot afford to make a donation, perhaps you can help us by looking out for any kind of paperwork or information about pianos.
Perhaps surprisingly, some of the commonest pieces of piano paperwork to survive are record sleeves, but we are always interested in ads, articles, books, booklets, catalogues, diagrams, directory listings, exhibition catalogues, guarantees, letterheads, music with piano ads on it, newspaper ads, pamphlets, photos, pictures, posters, pricelists, receipts, record sleeves, trade cards, warranties, etc.. We quite understand that people don’t always want to part with originals, but good colour copies or scans can sometimes provide irreplaceable information.