When bringing people around our Collections Storage Building on a tour, I usually invite them to explore the aisles of shelving filled with all of the museum’s hidden gems and to ask any questions they might have. Inevitably, most people end up stopping in our furniture section next to an eye-level shelf completely taken up by a massive wooden object. I watch as the rich wood grain catches their eye and they lean in to examine the scrollwork detailing that extends across the length of the item and around its corners. Curiosity starts to get the better of them and I wait for the question I know is coming – “What the heck is this thing?” – followed by the more practical, “How were you able to hoist it up onto this shelf?!” (I don’t have the answer to this one, I just silently thank goodness that this was before my time and I didn’t have to oversee that project!)
All within a matter of seconds, our Chickering & Sons square grand piano has been spotted. It is admired for a passing moment, along with its nearby detached legs, but then forgotten again as the visitor turns back down the aisle and finds more items they are interested in or that spark a forgotten memory. This brief look at such a treasure is far less than it deserves – making it a perfect candidate for this installment of Collections Curiosities!
Sometimes referred to as a box grand, the square grand piano is an earlier form of piano that is built in a rectangular shaped cabinet, sitting on four legs, with its strings running left to right. During the 18th and 19th centuries, more square grand pianos were built and sold in America and Europe than any other type of pianos combined!
Chickering & Sons was the first actual piano company in America, established in Boston in 1823 by Jonas and his partner, James Stewart. This partnership ultimately dissolved four years later when Stewart migrated to London. Jonas then partnered with John MacKay, a sea captain. Their partnership soon placed Boston on the map as a major piano building city of the 19th century. The partnership between Jonas and John MacKay was short lived due to the tragic disappearance of MacKay in 1841 while on voyage to South America in search of exotic, superior rainforest hardwoods for Jonas’s ever more popular pianos. Nevertheless, word of Jonas’s superior workmanship quickly spread to cities, towns and villages throughout the United States, Great Britain and Europe.
Jonas Chickering made several major contributions to the development of piano technology, most notably by introducing a one-piece, cast iron plate to support the greater string tension of larger grand pianos. Chickering’s pianos were of superb quality and design and, indeed, the Chickering pianos built up until around WWII are considered to be second to none. Prior to his death in 1853, Jonas made his three sons partners in the company, officially changing the name to Chickering & Sons. On December 1, 1852, a massive fire destroyed the Chickering factory but a new factory was rebuilt close by.
The Chickering name is also associated with the city of Chicago. In 1892, long after the death of Jonas Chickering and while the Chickering name was still considered to be the very best piano manufacturing company in the world, the sons opened a factory, Chickering Brothers, in Chicago. Although the eastern seaboard was considered the primary location for piano manufacturing during the 19th century, Chicago manufacturing put Illinois on the map as a rival manufacturing location for the production of the world’s best, highest quality pianos.
The company became part of the American Piano Company in 1908. The Chickering name continues to be applied to new pianos today, as a brand name of the Baldwin Piano Company.
Boasting such an illustrious name and also being in extremely good condition, our Chickering square grand piano awaits its next opportunity to be put on display…or at least for the next curious visitor to notice it as they make their way down that particular aisle. For the time being, it is content to bide its time patiently alongside the settees and across from the pie safes.
Remember to stay tuned every month for the newest installment of Collections Curiosities!