By James Grebe
While employed in 1962, as a piano technician apprentice by the Aeolian Co. of Missouri, I bought my first piano: a George Steck upright, circa 1904, one of 2100 built that year. The piano was almost 60 years old and it had run the gamut of wear and mis-use most pianos have in that amount of time. It had been a trade in for a new piano and though it had nothing spectacular in appearance it had a little life still left in it. It was somewhat unique, as far as piano construction was concerned, for instead of wooden back posts, it had a cast iron structure in the back performing the same tasks. I have never seen another piano of any kind, except the Everett’s of the mid 1900’s that used cast iron, in the Everett’s case , levers, instead of wooden back posts. It did add substance in the form of extra weight to the piano. The action had real “Billings type” flanges at the hammer butts and was quite sturdy with no side play. This was to be the first piano for me to work on. Since this was my first learning training at Aeolian, I performed the usual tasks of replacing the bridle straps, the old way of drilling a hole in the butt and using a home made inserter to glue the fabric end of the tape into the hammer butt. It was a tool we made out of a coat hanger wire. Reshaping the hammers, tightening all the screws, resetting key height and level and refinishing the accidentals. One of the other workers in the shop who did key recovering put on new plastics to replace the chipped and missing ivories for the sum for $15. The strings and pins were cleaned and action regulated and one of my mentors tuned it before it was delivered to my home. My total investment was $125.00. I had it in my parent’s home for about 2 weeks when the idea of putting in new parts started my desire to try to improve it. This was one of those cases where too much enthusiasm was a bad thing as I went about replacing new parts for old, ahead of my skill level. Suffice to say; within a year I let the piano go by dismantling it, saving the curved bass bridge. I cleaned it up; put new stove black on the bridge surface and gold on the tips of the bridge pins and red felt on the bottom of the whole bridge. I resolved that this bridge would stay with me the rest of my life and into the casket awaiting me at the end to forever remind me of my fault of over- enthusiasm and taking on more than I could handle.
A few months ago, I found another Steck upright, of similar appearance from the 1918 era and by that time, the Steck Company had switched to a straight bass bridge and a normal wooden post back construction. These are the only two Steck uprights made before 1930 I have come across in over 43 years of piano tuning in St. Louis.
Since Aeolian Co of Missouri was the George Steck representative in St. Louis I did get experience with many new Stecks of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The Steck grand of the 1960’s and 1970’s was the model “T”. The “T” was an under 5’ grand that had a full cast iron plate and no agraffes in the scale. This was the only size that had been made since probably before 1940. The earlier, larger Steck grands were long gone. As a matter of fact, Steck was the official piano of the St. Louis Municipal Opera and was widely advertised as such. The only problem was that the piano in the orchestra section had a George Steck decal on the fallboard only it was a Chickering grand piano. Chickerings could still be had a 5”, 5’8” and a 6’+ model. An under 5’ grand would not have been adequate to use with an orchestra. At that time, many stars that touring with the different shows requested pianos in their hotel rooms for their one week runs and Steck consoles and spinets were sent to accommodate them. At the end of the season there was a Muny Opera Sale to sell these pianos at a discount. In the 1950’s, Aeolian-American made Steck spinets with drop actions beginning with the model Q. In the early 60’s they came out with the model “R” spinet, which featured a concave lid and modernistic styling a full perimeter plate and no backposts at all. Their console was called the model “N”. The earlier model “N” had the quirk as there was hardly enough depth of the plate to hold a temperament strip in place to tune. The studio model Steck was the model “E”. Aeolian used one of these for rental purposes and it held up quite well. Rumor was Yamaha copied the look and design into making their “P” series of studio pianos. If you have the chance to see a Steck “E” you might compare it to a Yamaha P-22. By 1962 the distance was deepened and stripping was no longer a problem. Around 1966 Aeolian-American Company decided to save money and changed manufacturing of the Steck pianos to Memphis, TN from East Rochester, NY where they had been made since early in the 1900’s . There were a few minor changes in case design only the interior of the piano stayed the same and although the same design and parts were there but there were new people were assembling the pianos together and they was now called the model “O”. This was during the big move from manufacturing of pianos from the North with skilled workmen to wherever they could find workmen at a lower wage rate in the South. Aeolian American started their big decline finally ending in bankruptcy in the very late 1970’s.
Today we have the Steck name in view again, and this time they are in name only, and are made in China by the Sejung Corporation and range from a console size vertical to a 6’2” grand. In pictures, it looks just like their other brands Falcone and Hobart Cable. Before this and before any of us can personally remember, the real George Steck piano appeared and here is how it came to be. One of the great early pioneers in building pianos was Sebastian Erard of France. Erard was something of a child prodigy in musical instrument building in harpsichords. At age 25 he constructed his first piano in the year 1777. By the year 1785 he began building pianos in earnest with the inclusion of his brother Jean Baptiste, into his shop. . Then the French Revolution came along and, not being interested in war, Sebastian Erard moved his piano building to London where he opened up a harp and piano factory. Erard was very charismatic and soon became a friend of the English aristocracy, which helped his business immensely. By 1796, the Revolution was over and Erard moved back to France armed with his skill, ideas and also knowledge of the English ideas of piano construction. He blended these two schools of thought into building a unique piano and his success grew. One of his unique ideas was the making of a piano with a full pedal board similar to organs and a few harpsichords. Erard’s grand piano action construction is still very much with us to this day. Some years later in 1837, Carl Scheel, who was from Cassel, Germany joined the Erard factory working and improving his skill and then in 1846 Scheel left to begin his own piano building business. Shortly after beginning his own piano building business, another young fellow, age 17 began working for Scheel and his name was George Steck. Steck was born on July 13, 1829. In the year 1853, Steck left Scheel’s employ and came to America to seek his fortune. After arriving in New York at age 24 he began his own piano building. Can you imagine the courage needed to come to a new country by your self and to begin building something as complicated as a piano fresh off the boat? Steck’s fame spread fast, and in 1865, he built his own Steck Hall as his fame increased. Later, Steck built a new, larger Steck Hall on Fourteenth Street. Hall on FourteenHall Steck’s main skill was in scale design and it was said that many other makers blatantly copied his work. It is always easier to copy than do your own, even today. One of Steck’s earliest boosters was the composer Richard Wagner. Steck was forward thinking and incorporated his business and sold stock in his company in 1884. He began a profit sharing program with his employees to ensure loyalty, responsibility and, quality of workmanship. By the year 1887, Steck’s company was so successful that Steck could devote his full time into trying to design a piano that would hold tune indefinitely. On this note, I do not recall seeing any patents on scale improvements or notes in advertising or on his pianos. He worked on this goal till he assumed room temperature in 1897 at age 76. Because of his forward thinking, the company was able to carry on until the year 1904, the year of my first piano’s date of manufacture. At that point the Aeolian Piano Company consolidated the Steck piano company. It remained with Aeolian till the merge with the American Piano Company and a then with the Winter Piano Company till dissolution in the year 1979. After 1930 the conglomerate played loose with the Steck name mixing it with the names of Chickering, J&C Fischer and the Wheelock names. The depression, and succeeding years wreaked havoc with piano individuality. Are any of you aware of any patents or design quirks? If any of my readers have come across his pianos from this era please e-mail me at my email address, firstname.lastname@example.org. . May this story about that bridge inspire us all to keep our work within our skill levels to further our quality reputations.
© Copyright 2014 James Grebe. All rights reserved.