Steinway & Sons Piano Factory
Backstory and Context
In 1836, the German-born Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg constructed pianos and organs in the town of Seesen in Brunswick, Germany. Over the following decade, he would assemble nearly five hundred pianos, as his business grew rapidly. Together with his wife, Julianne Thiemer Steinweg, and eight children, he immigrated to New York in 1850. In 1853, he changed his family name to Steinway – a more American-sounding name – and together with his sons, Theodore and William, founded the company Steinway & Sons. Their first base of operations was a loft on Varick Street.
Steinway & Sons pioneered modern piano-making technology in 1859, with a patent for cross-stringing grand pianos with a single cast iron frame. The following year they built a large piano-making factory on 4th Avenue (present-day Park Avenue), though this was later replaced with the Seagram Building. Heinrich established the first “Steinway Hall” in 1866. This concert hall on 14th Street could seat up to two thousand people, and it was the location in which the New York Philharmonic played until the Carnegie Hall opened in 1891.
The company prospered and grew, winning award after award at world fairs and trade exhibitions across the globe during the 1870s, resulting in Steinway & Sons' globally recognition. In 1869, Heinrich’s son, Wilhelm, built a new factory in Astoria, Queens, along with a complex of buildings, shops, parks, and services known as “Steinway Village” for the workers of the factory and their families. At this point, the Steinway empire focused their efforts on Queens, where they built not only pianos, but also streetcars, amusement parks, ferries, and banks. Heinrich himself was chairman of New York City’s Rapid Transit Commission and made many contributions to the design of the city’s earliest subway system.
After Heinrich passed away in 1871, his sons acquired the Steinway business. Steinway & Sons was managed by the descendants of Heinrich Steinweg until 1972 when it merged with CBS Inc., forming the Columbia Group. In 1985, it became Steinway Musical Properties before merging again with the Selmer Company in 1995. They changed the name to Steinway Musical Instruments, Inc. the following year and made it a publically owned company.
Two of Steinway & Sons' factories were located in Queens. Another factory was established in Hamburg, Germany, after Heinrich’s sons, Theodore and William, moved back there in 1880. The factory manufactures between one thousand and one thousand two hundred grand pianos each year (with another one thousand made in Hamburg). Their production process has been, and continues to be, shrouded in secrecy, and though they do provide weekly tours to the public, photography is strictly forbidden. Today, the factory is a fascinating mix of the original equipment and new piano-making technology. Much of the 19th-century machinery has not been made redundant, and the original steam-powered saws and sanding belts are still used. They import materials specifically chosen for individual pianos from all over the world: maple from Canada, spruce from Bavaria, and steel from Sweden. Each piano takes one year to assemble and requires more than twelve thousand individual parts, the vast majority of which are made and fitted by hand in the factory.
"Steinway & Sons History." Steinway & Sons. Accessed Web, 6/26/17. http://www.steinwaypianos.com/about-us/steinway-history.
"The Steinway Family and Steinway & Sons. Smithsonian." Accessed Web, 6/26/17. http://americanhistory.si.edu/steinwaydiary/annotations/?annotation=117.
Arbuckle, Alex. "The Making of a Steinway Piano." The New Yorker. 7/17/12. Accessed Web, 6/26/17. http://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/the-making-of-a-steinway-piano.
"Inside the Belly: Steinway & Sons Piano Factory Tour." Avoiding Regret. 11/29/12. Accessed Web, 6/26/17. http://www.avoidingregret.com/2010/11/inside-belly-of-beast-steinway-sons.html.
"Steinway and Sons: Piano Men and Kings of Queens." The Bowery Boys: New York City History. 10/23/09. Accessed Web 6/26/17. http://www.boweryboyshistory.com/2009/10/steinway-and-sons-piano-men-and-queens.html.