The Chickering Piano Company

The Chickering Piano Company

By James Grebe

          The Chickering piano, until it’s demise a few short years ago was this nations oldest documented manufacturing company with the original journal of Jonas Chickering still in existence to day.          Jonas Chickering was born in 1798 in Mason, New Hampshire and in his teenage years was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker in New Ipswitch who took the job in 1817 to restore the cabinetry on a square grand, the only piano in the county.  The piano belonged to a family who obtained it form Princess Amelia, daughter of King George, in England.  It had suffered the ravages of time and a trip across the ocean.  The cabinetmaker was able to restore its cosmetic beauty but not the musical instrument.  Jonas, his apprentice, was enthralled by the piano and was able to restore it back to health.  This experience turned his direction in life to one of research and experimentation to build pianos.          Chickering moved to Boston at the age of 20 and went to work for John Osborne, a piano builder who made the first upright piano in Boston.  Once again he immersed himself in every detail of piano craftsmanship and began to incorporate many of his own improvements.  In 1823 he left Osborne’s employ and with James Stewart who had also worked with Osborne, began a company as Stewart & Chickering in a small workroom on Tremont Street.  Shortly thereafter Stewart left to go back to Europe and thus began the Chickering Piano Company.  Chickering’s first piano is still in existence in the Ford Museum in Dearborn , MI.  Chickering’s fame spread as he built more pianos and in 1830 built his first upright piano, modeled after existing English instruments but with his own improvements.  Also in 1830, he entered in a partnership with John McKay, a sea captain and changed the company to Chickering & MacKay.  MacKay made frequent trips to South America taking Chickering pianos to sell there and on the return trip brought fine rosewood asnd mahogany to craft into paino cases.  In 1841 MacKay was lost at sea in a tropical storm and all was lost and the name Chickering was restored on the company name.          In 1837 Chickering developed the full iron plate, bringing on tuning stability that had not been seen before.  In 1845 he developed over strung construction and with these 2 improvements the modern piano was born.  At the first International Exposition in 1851 Chickering won the highest award.  In 1852 a devastating fire burned the factory down and Chickering built a new factory which turned out to be the largest structure in the U.S. except for the Capital Building in Washington D.C.  In December of 1853, Jonas died and showed greatness does not depend on a large number of years of life.  Chickering had 3 sons, Thomas, Frank, and George who carried on the expansion of Chickering fame.  The carted a piano to the home of Franz Liszt in Rome and Liszt could hardly pull himself away from the instrument.  Needles to say, the piano stayed with Liszt and other artists soon afterwards gave praise to Chickering pianos.  In 1896, all 3 Chickering brothers had died and the business floundered until 1903 when the American Paino Company bought out the Chickering Company and held it till 1932 when it merged with the Aeolian- Piano Company.     The business continued until the early 1980’s when the parent company concentrated on building cheap spinet pianos and went bankrupt.  A short time later the Chickering Company was started again but the former magic was gone and other top name pianos like Mason & Hamlin, Weber, and Knabe fell away again.  This time the names were sold by the banks and Wurlitzer bought the Chickering name and began building Chickering pianos again.  The new Chickering had cheapened cases and a little later Wurlitzer was sold to the Baldwin Piano Company and Baldwin has built a few Chickerings in name but with Baldwin innovations like the accu-just hitch pins.  As of now no Chickerings are being built.          Among design quirks that Chickering pianos had were smaller thickness hammer shanks to decrease the woody sound of the hammer striking the string.  Chickerings’ dampers ran about 6 notes higher than everyone else.  In the early part of the century they used several weird designs like the Quarter Grand which had pin blocks in 4 sections and bolted from underneath rather than screwed on form the top of the plate. These design are conversation pieces for the piano tuners of today.  Fortunately, because the  pianos live a long time there will be older Chickerings to tune so that they may bring praise the House of Chickering.  Baldwin now owns the Chickering name and currently (2008) has cease production of all Chickering named pianos.

Please visit the other parts of my site to see the different wares I hand craft in my shop in Arnold, MO.  Most other sites sellikng similar items are mass produced and resold rather than being made one at a time by a craftsman.

 

      As of 2008 the Baldwin Company has ceased production of all Chickering Pianos.

Copyright,2008/Yesterday Onmce More Publications, James Grebe

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