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The American Piano Wars

Piano Factory 1900

The history of the American piano wars is a forgotten period in American business. The story of the piano in America as a commodity is actually quite interesting.

By 1870, the piano had penetrated everywhere in Western culture. There was no electricity, no cars, no radio and no telephone, no internet, no Facebook, no nothing.

What else was there to do?

Piano Is Easy

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The ideal was to sit in one's living room in the evening and listen to someone playing the piano, perhaps your daughter. There were 150 piano companies in the USA alone, trying to meet the public's insatiable demand for the instrument.

In fact, the piano industry provided jobs for more Americans than any other industry!

What Caused The Decline

There were to be several shocks that were to shake the piano industry and ultimately cripple it. First was the economic decline around 1900. This started to affect sales.

Then came electricity and cars. Electricity and cars made the ideal of sitting in your living rooms listening to a piano into old news.

Americans wanted to be out on the road in their Model T, using all that cheap electricity they had just discovered.

Player Pianos Almost Saved The Industry

With less reason to stay home, US piano sales plummeted again. Then the Aeolian Company, a major piano manufacturer, found a way to mass-produce the mechanism for the player piano.

All of a sudden, player pianos were the rage, and sales skyrocketed. For a few years the piano returned to a position of dominance in the entertainment marketplace.

Aeolian built a huge new 18 story building on 43rd Street in Manhattan to take care of the expected permanent surge in player-piano sales.

Aeolian Building

People were intrigued with the idea of not having to play the piano at all.

Instead, you could listen to great music and players reproduced from a paper piano roll.

Listen To An Old Player Piano 

Mass Produced Radio Kills The Piano

Then came the death-knell. Some bright fellow figured out a way to cheaply mass-produce the radio in 1926, and the radio swept the Americans like a raging fire. Piano sales of all kinds dropped off the map.

The great honeymoon with the American public was over. Radio swept the nation. It was over.

A Stream Of Other Inventions

The piano, which had come to embody the accomplishments of the Industrial Revolution since 1800, was relegated to a lower and lower position as inventions poured out. First radio, television, and then, of course, the computer. 

In the 1980s, electronic synthesizers entered the scene, leading to hopes that the keyboard market could be rejuvenated. But the demand was not great, although almost all commercial pop music adopted synthesizers.

We abandoned the acoustic piano because the cost of synthesizers was less. By the 1950's the Piano Culture started to wither, and then die, mostly due to television, the computer, and then the internet.

A slight resurgence in the 1970's and 1980's was caused by the invention of the digital player piano, a mechanism that could be fitted to any piano much like a player piano.

But then came the PC in the 1980's, and the piano was finally finished off by the electronic keyboard and synthesizer. The great piano, once a vehicle for a nation's dreams, had become just another useless piece of furniture.

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