Politics

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 581

This is the grave of Henry and William Steinway.

Born Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg in Wolfshagen, Duchy of Brunswick of the Holy Roman Empire, in 1797. His family was torn up in the Napoleonic Wars. When he was 8, he was considered to be an orphan, but it turned out his father and older brothers were not dead and they eventually found him. But his father did die when he was 15 and he was also forced into the military of the German states at that age. He fought in a few battles and survived, staying in the military until after Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, all the way until 1822.

When he left the military, Steinweg had to find something to do. He apprenticed as a carpenter and then as an organ builder. The last was a good idea for him. As he was not yet a member of the guild, he was not allowed to make instruments, but he started secretly doing so in his house, storing them in his kitchen. He started with guitars and zithers and was very good. Then, presumably having reached guild status, he started making pianos. By 1835, he was good enough that he made a square piano to give to his wife as a wedding present and built his first grand piano the next year. He became an award-winning piano maker over the next few years.

But the unstable politics and constant wars of the region convinced Steinweg to emigrate to the United States. The 1848 revolutions were the last straw. He moved to the U.S. in 1850. He left the family business to one of his older sons and took the younger ones with him. He changed his name to Steinway shortly after moving, figuring it would lead to better business in this xenophobic yet immigrant-heavy land. Steinway and his sons who he was training started their time in the U.S. by working for other piano makers, just to build up their capital. But within a few years, Steinway and Sons had opened. Steinway became the most prominent piano maker in the United States soon enough. His square piano design won a major award at the New York Industrial Fair in 1855. He started entering his designs into major European fairs as well as won first prize in fairs in London and Paris. They were simply superior instruments to the rest of the world. Steinway died a successful man in 1871, at the age of 73.

Born Wilhelm Steinweg in Seesen, Brunswick, Germany in 1835, the future William Steinway was the most successful son in the business. He came with his father to the U.S. in 1850. When his father died in 1871, he was the son who took lead of the firm, which became official in 1876. By this time, the family was loaded. They had opened a big factory to make their extremely high-end pianos in 1860 and in 1866, he had already used a bunch of family money to create a concert hall specifically designed to maximize the sound of the Steinway piano. The first Steinway Hall was on 14th Street and was used until 1925. Today’s version is at 6th Avenue and 43rd Street. William also began building a company town in 1870 to supposedly avoid the labor problems of Manhattan. That town was in Astoria, Queens and while I don’t know that much about it, the many problems of company towns are something I have documented many times around here. But there was housing, a kindergarten, and a public trolley line extending out there. Steinway himself went through a disastrous marriage with a woman who routinely cheated on him and had children who were not his. He was totally devastated by this. They finally divorced after 16 years and he remarried into a happier marriage.

Steinway also became interested in automobiles. He worked closely with Gottlieb Daimler, who he met on a trip to Germany. Daimler convinced him of the automobile’s future and in the mid-1890s, the Steinway factory also produced American versions of Daimler’s very early vehicles. His children thought this was a total waste of money and sold all the automobile manufacturing stuff after their father’s death, which came in 1896, at the age of 61.

Herny and William Steinway are buried in the family tomb in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other musical instrument makers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Les Paul is in Waukesha, Wisconsin and Christian Frederic Martin is in Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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