Monday, October 3, 2011

Piano Hub of the Universe

Chickering building, Tremont street (BPL Flickr group).

Chickering Piano Factory, Tremont street, 1895.

During the 19th Century, Boston became a national leader in piano manufacturing. Skilled craftsmen, many from Germany, brought the needed knowledge and experience, and the city's established cultural community supported them. Most of the factories were established in the South End, while the companies usually had sales showrooms in the downtown retail district.

One of the earliest companies operated under the Chickering name. Jonas Chickering went into business with a partner in 1823, and by 1853 was knows as Chickering and Sons. The original factory was on Washington street in Boston (at a time there was no 'South End' yet), but a fire in the 1850s destroyed the building and sent then to Tremont street in the South End, where the building still stands, now converted to housing and artist space. During the mid-19th Century, Chickering was the largest piano manufacturer in the country, with one of the largest building in the nation, and it's quality was among the highest in the world. The plant was so large that the nearest train station on the Boston Providence line two blocks away at Camden street was named Chickering Station.

Emerson Piano Company.

Emerson Piano Company, Harrison avenue and Waltham street, 1908.

William P. Emerson founded his company in 1849. His pianos featured the finest exotic woods, expert woodworking and high quality sound. The company lasted until the start of World War II.

Hallet and Davis factory.

Hallet and Davis, Harrison avenue, 1902. Now a parking lot.

This company started as Brown & Hallet in 1835 on Washington street. Various partnerships were formed and dissolved, with Hallet the only consistent member. Like Chickering, they moved from Washington street to the South End, in this case Harrison avenue, where they produced high quality pianos during the late 19th and early 20th Century. They also produced fine player pianos during the early 20th Century.

Charles C. Briggs apprenticed with Boston piano makers, and opened his own business in 1868. He was followed in the business by his son, and like many other producers, the company was bought out and the name disappeared by the Depression. The listed address was at the corner of Washington and Dover streets in the South End. I assume this would have been the showroom and offices, as I found what looks like the factory on Albany street.

A. M. McPhail Piano Company.

The McPhail company was another producer of high quality pianos in Boston. The company was founded in 1837, and in the 1880s moved to Washington and Waltham streets in the South End.
McPhail was one of the few Boston piano companies to stay in business and independent through the Depression, surviving until the 1950s.

Bay State Organs, Albany street, 1902.

And let's not forget the piano's cousin the organ! Bay State Organ was founded in 1875. We think of organs being used in churches, but they were also popular home instruments. Before the development of the electric organ, domestic organs were foot-powered, the foot pedal used to fill bellows to blow air through reeds. Unfortunately, Bay State Organ left behind few traces to be found on the internet.

Smith American Organ.

Smith American Organ, Albany and East Brookline sts, 1883.

More organ love.


  1. My great great grandfather was a piano case maker. He came to Boston from Germany in 1880. I don't know what piano maker he worked at, but have always wondered if it was the New England Piano Company located on George, Gerard, and Howard Sts in Boston as he lived around the corner from it. Thanks for the blog!

    1. It may be possible to find him by looking through some of the city directories around 1880

  2. The former Hallet & Davis factory at 700 Harrison Ave is not currently a parking lot, as stated in this blog. It's a modern condominium that was completed in 2007.
    Regarding Boston piano manufacturers, there were many more than mentioned above. The Music Trade Review from October 1903 also lists these piano manufacturers as residing within the City of Boston:
    F.T. Anderson
    Wm. Bourne & Son
    C.W. Coops
    Everett Piano Co.
    Ivers & Pond Piano Co.
    Kershner Piano Co.
    Merrill Piano Mfg. Co.
    Henry F. Miller & Sons
    Needham & Bailey
    Poole Piano Co.
    Vose & Sons Piano Co.
    Wentworth Piano Co.