Today it sits silently in the corner of the Gold Parlor; it’s melodious voice muted by the ravages of time. Noting its strange appearance, visitors have asked if it they can hear what it sounds like. Unfortunately, we have to tell them it no longer can be played. After 185 years, the sounding board has dried and cracked and the strings are loose and brittle. However, the Chickering Square Grand Piano does have a unique and fascinating story to tell.
The Chickering Story
The story starts in New Hampshire when a young cabinetmaker, Jonas Chickering, was asked to fix a locally owned piano that had fallen into disrepair. The piano was made in London and reportedly had once been owned by the daughter of King George III. In the early 1800s, there were very few American piano manufacturers. Chickering successfully accomplished the task and realized this was the direction for his life’s work. By age 20 Chickering moved to Boston and found employment in a piano-making establishment. Within five years he had mastered every detail that went into making a piano and also developed improvements of his own.
In early 1823, Chickering began his own business and sold his first creation, a Square Piano Forte, to James Bingham for $275.00. Other pianos followed as rapidly as the small Chickering “factory” could produce them. From the beginning, his pianos were highly regarded and his fame spread throughout the United States. Besides making improvements on his first model, he also invented a new method of string direction and over-stringing that became a standard in the construction of pianos into the next century.
In 1850, Jenny Lind, known as the Swedish Nightingale, began a concert tour of the United States. Chickering was commissioned to make a custom grand piano for the first two performances. Attending the opening night in New York City was Henry Steinway who had to be encouraged to move back to his seat before the concert could begin. This was due to his infatuation, not of Lind, but the piano! Within a short time period, Steinway was producing his own pianos. An interesting side note: Fanny Webb and her step-sister Hetty Swetland attended one of Lind’s concerts during the early part of her tour.
In 1851, Chickering brought his pianos to the International Exposition at the Crystal Palace in London. The pianos became an instant sensation and received the highest awards. Unfortunately, the next year Chickering’s factory in Boston was destroyed by fire. He began building a much larger structure but died suddenly at the end of 1853,before the factory was completed. Chickering left behind three sons who had been carefully trained in his craftsmanship and integrity, and were partners in the business, Chickering & Sons. They continued making pianos until 1909, when the Chickering Company affiliated itself with the American Piano Company, and later the Aeolian American Corporation. Chickering pianos continued to be made until 1983. Luckily, all the files including sales invoices that Chickering meticulously kept had been saved.
Frances ”Fannie” Delord Webb’s Piano
Those files included the sales invoice for the Square Grand Piano that sits in the Gold Parlor of the Kent-Delord House Museum today. In 1916 after locating a manufacture number, Jeannette Tuttle, DAR Regent and Delord House advocate, wrote to Chickering & Sons inquiring about the piano. Their reply stated that the piano “was finished and left the Chickering Factory June 17th, 1835, delivered to Jonathan Chapman at #52 Chestnut Street, Boston. The price paid was $400.00.” Further research indicates that the Chapman address was a retail store. John Webb later acquired the piano and presented it to his young niece, Fannie Delord Webb, who lived in Hartford, CT, at the time. The piano remained there until Fannie moved back to Plattsburgh in 1864.
In 1957, the KDH Museum Director contacted the Chickering Company to get more information about the piano. Their reply included a description of the shape of the instrument; “Pianofortes were made in uprights and grands and wherein the shape of the grand was of rectangular contour it was called a square grand.” [The Square Grand has sometimes been referred to as the “coffin piano” due to its resemblance to a coffin when fully closed.]
There was also an explanation of the serial number in the piano, “Our piano serial numbers now number 209,000 and this would include all those instrument manufactured other than concert or 9’ grands. Your instrument was the 2085th to be manufactured.”
Most interesting is the explanation of the keyboard, “The fact that this instrument has only 73 notes (keys) is not peculiar since in the early days of piano development many different height keyboards were manufactured and the manufacture of the keyboard was varied some what at will in order to produce a more attractive instrument.”
In 1976, a local piano tuning/repairman guru was hired to make the instrument playable again. His three-page assessment of the piano basically said that time and climate had taken a hefty toll on it. He detailed the problems ranging from dry rot to the lack of the original types of wires and the various leathers used on the hammers. However, those of you who remember Art Pierce know he did work magic on pianos. He was able to get the piano in playing order but cautioned that it wouldn’t last. He was right, it didn’t!
At a Christmas party later that year, Susan Johnson Aceto, a very talented musician, played Christmas carols while visitors gathered around to sing. Almost the next day, the piano sounded as if it had never been tuned! It has never been tried again. About a decade ago, another piano repair expert examined the instrument and determined that it needed extensive costly repairs.
Although Fanny Delord’s Square Grand Piano sits silently in the Gold Parlor, the museum will be filled with recordings of songs played on some early Chickering Square Grands that will revive the atmosphere of the 19thcentury in the Delord House. Hope you can visit us soon to listen!
by Patricia Tupper Loughan
Kent-Delord House Museum Quarterly Newsletter, Winter 2020