The Enduring Legacy of Steinway & Sons
The Company’s 164-Year Production of Pianos is Alive and Well in New York City
When it comes to pianos, Steinway & Sons is synonymous with excellence. Whereas technological advancements in the last century have largely displaced craftmanship in America, production of the world’s greatest piano in Queens, New York, continues to honor the step-by-step design methods created by the company’s founder, Heinrich (Henry) Engelhard Steinweg.
Steinway pianos weren’t always manufactured in the US. The first Steinway piano, called the “kitchen piano,” was secretly built by Steinweg in 1826 in his kitchen in Seesen, Germany. Some of the practices Heinrich developed in his kitchen, such as the construction of a soundboard bridge made from a single piece of wood, are still carried out by employees in its factories today. Steinweg would construct 482 pianos by hand in his native Germany before emigrating to New York City in 1850 when he changed his name to Henry Steinway.After a few years working for other piano manufacturers to understand how business was done in the US, Steinway & Sons was officially formed in 1853.Piano number 483, the first piano built by Steinway in New York City, is on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art today.
Steinway & Sons emerged as a leader in the piano making industry just before the Civil War. Henry was a pioneer in piano design, achieving the first of the company’s 126 patents in 1857. The Steinway piano, made of 85 percent wood, became the most beautifully constructed piano with an unrivaled sound quality. The company is also responsible for designing the 88 keys that most pianos have today. Each Steinway piano, which consists of more than 12,000 individual parts (3,000 of which are moving), is constructed primarily by hand, but in recent years, Steinway has incorporated cutting-edge technology without compromising the quality of its pianos. A Model D Steinway piano takes 11 months to produce from start to finish; although, the wood used to make the piano needs an additional two years to dry and age.
In the 1860s, Steinway & Sons was the largest employer in New York City. A decade later, Henry Steinway’s son William, the company’s first president, relocated most of the production facility to a 400-acre lot in Astoria, Queens. Steinway & Sons would later sell part of this land, which eventually became the site of LaGuardia Airport. Steinway also opened a factory in Hamburg in 1880, which still distributes pianos to Europe.
The family’s business strategy extended beyond design and quality. William made extensive contributions to the local community by developing Steinway Village, a “company town” to house its employees. The company supplied public services to the community and had a post office, church, and library for its employees. It also provided English and German lessons to the workers’ children and founded one of the first kindergartens in America.
Today, the facility on Steinway Place produces approximately 1,100 grand pianos per year and is as much a museum as it is a factory. To tour the Steinway factory is like traveling through a lost era—many of the same practices and procedures developed in the 19th century still exist today. From the employees expertly bending the hard rock maple rims that give the grand piano its signature curve to the famous “bellymen” who glue the piano’s spruce soundboard by lying on their bellies, there is a deep appreciation, pride, and respect for the consistent craftsmanship and artistry in every Steinway created.
Cristina Patel is a writer in New York City, where she resides with her husband and three sons.
HERE ARE 10 REASONS
WHY THE PIANO IS A GREAT IDEA
1. SHARPENS THE INTELLECT Piano practice boosts cognitive and intellectual abilities by activating similar parts of the brain used in spatial reasoning.
2. DEVELOPS PASSION AND DILIGENCE Playing piano builds these good habits through dedication and goal-setting processes.
3. MAINTAINS AN AGING BRAIN’S HEALTH Research has shown that piano lessons for older adults have a significant impact on increased levels of human growth hormone, which slows the adverse effects of aging.
4. EXERCISES THE BODY Even though you’re sitting down, playing the piano is a workout all its own, improving fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Bringing music into your life is also proven to reduce heart and respiratory rates and cardiac complications, as well as to decrease blood pressure and increase immune response.
5. ENCOURAGES CREATIVITY Music affects our creativity through enhanced brain activity. This can inspire innovative solutions and evoke memories, emotions, and experiences.
6. STRENGTHENS MEMORY Studying piano has been shown to have a remarkable effect on memory—particularly with language.
7. ELEVATES MOODS Have you ever experienced a sensation of “chills” when listening to music? Playing piano can alter emotions through the release of serotonin and dopamine, “feel-good” neurotransmitters that provide the brain with positive emotions.
8. CALMS THE MIND Time spent playing piano improves mental health: People who make music experience less anxiety, loneliness, and depression.
9. FOSTERS COMMUNITY For more than 300 years, the piano has been a staple of the home, bringing people together and strengthening communities with the power of music.
10. BOOSTS CONFIDENCE Playing piano provides ample opportunities to bolster self-esteem. The ability to respond to constructive criticism—and learn from it—helps generate a positive outlook on life.