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Collections Corner: The Piano in the Parlor

Updated: Aug 1

Imagine the year is 1870 and you find yourself seated in the grand parlor of one of the many affluent residences of Indiana County. As you chat the night away, the gently flowing melody of a piano caresses your ear and sets the backdrop for the evening. Whether by one’s own hand or a hired musician’s, music had to be played to be heard in Victorian times. Recording devices were nonexistent and would not see mass market production until later in the century. Though available instruments were many, the piano was probably the most multifaceted of the bunch and served not only as an instrument, but as a statement of wealth and class, not to mention being a handsome piece of furniture. The more expensive the piano, the more ornate and exotic the material used to produce it.


As a member of upper class Indiana, Silas Clark owned such an instrument. Family photographs show a beautiful square grand piano occupying the east parlor’s bay window. As the Clark heirs moved on and the home changed hands, the piano was relocated and the room sat without an instrument for some time…until the Society received a call from a donor who was in search of a new home for their mid-nineteenth century Chickering Square Grand Piano.


The Chickering Piano Company - A Brief History

In 1823, Jonas Chickering and partner James Stewart (no relation to Jimmy) founded the first American piano manufacturer. Prior to this, all pianos had to be imported from overseas. The company went through multiple iterations and partnerships during its early years of existence. Among these were Stewart and Chickering, Chickering and Mackays, and finally, Chickering and Sons in 1852. At that time Jonas’s sons George, Frank and Thomas became partners. The factory, located in Boston, produced grand, upright, and square pianos for the duration of its operation.

The award-winning Chickering pianos were known throughout the world and endorsed by celebrities like pianist and composer Franz Liszt. The brand amassed accolades and attained one-hundred eighteen first prizes or medals by the year 1883, according to Chickering’s catalogue for that year. What made the square grand so unique (Chickerings in particular) was that it had an iron frame, which gave the pianos a distinct sound and allowed them to remain in-tune longer. This was an innovation by Jonas Chickering that would empower the voice of the piano; it was one of many discoveries that would change piano manufacturing in the United States forever.


In 1853 Jonas Chickering passed away, and his sons took over the company until they, too, passed one by one. The death of the last Chickering son marked the beginning of the end for the company. It was sold in 1908 to the American Piano Company, which continued to make pianos under the Chickering name. With the rise of Steinway in the early 1900s, the square grand design slowly fell out of style, and production of them ceased to make way for the grand piano that we know today. In 1932 the American Piano and Aeolian companies merged to make the Aeolian-American Corporation. Finally, the last Chickering rolled off the assembly line in 1981 and marked the end of the brand. The company’s role in American piano manufacturing can best be summed up by a statement made in the 1883 Chickering sales catalogue, as follows:

“We Claim to be the originators of the American System, and also that from the Inventions and Improvements introduced by us here arisen all of those characteristics which have made the American Piano the Standard Instrument of the world.”

Chickering Pianos in Western Pennsylvania

The sale of Chickering pianos in Western Pennsylvania appears to have begun sometime in the 1830s, as the first advertisements began to appear in newspapers championing the superior quality of the brand. The introduction of railways to the area may have also had an impact on the increased flow of pianos to the west. Trains would make it far easier to transport the bulky, fragile cargo. It was also during this time that industry in Western Pennsylvania took off on many fronts and brought the wealth that could afford such instruments to the area. Some pianos cost as much as $800, the price of a small house at the time. There were even tales of tenants, to the dismay landlords, who left the piano to cover their rents and debts.


By the time Silas Clark established himself as a lawyer, there were music shops in the town of Indiana that sold various types of pianos. Photographic evidence confirms that Silas owned a square grand piano while he resided at 200 South Sixth Street. It sat in his parlor, tucked into the room’s bay window. The image is not clear enough to indicate what brand of piano Silas had for sure, although the lettering does seems to somewhat resemble the insignia of a well-known piano company from the time. Chickering, perhaps?


The Piano in the Parlor

In the summer of 2018, the Society was contacted by Carol Adams of West Virginia, who was performing renovations in her home and needed to relocate a Chickering Square Grand Piano in order to complete the work. She decided to donate the instrument to the HGSIC in honor of her parents, Mel and Donagene Adams. After the details were discussed with the Executive Director and Museum Chair, it was decided that the piano would enter the museum’s collection.


The instrument was bulky and contained numerous fragile parts that needed to be handled with care. Proper transportation was arranged and the necessary muscle was acquired. After more than one hundred miles on the road, the Chickering found itself in Indiana. The large doorways of the Clark House made unloading the piano a breeze. When it came time to place the instrument, photographic evidence and markings on the floor enabled the new piano to occupy almost precisely the location of Silas’ original.


With the instrument in place, it was time to conduct further research into the age, make, and model of the piano. A serial number would give all of this information when found. However, despite inspecting all of the usual locations, no number presented itself. Quite possibly it had worn off with age; another form of identification would need to be consulted. By referencing prints from old Chickering catalogues, it was concluded that the piece was produced sometime between 1840 and 1860 and was known as the Empire Style Chickering & Sons Square Grand Piano. The piece consists of ivory keys, is made from Brazilian Rosewood, and features numerous ornate details. With the piano now in place, the room more closely resembles what it was during the life and times of Justice Clark.


The Music Returns

The Society is thrilled to have Silas’s parlor one step closer to how it was when he resided at 200 South Sixth Street. The piano, although in wonderful condition for its age, is in need of quite a bit of work. Many of the keys on the Chickering were out of tune or did not register a sound at all, thanks to restoration efforts all the keys are functional. Some other issues that were present were the case was dirty and had various scuffs and scratches, which have all been repaired along with a cleaning of the case. When the piano arrived the pedal system was not function, but has since been fixed. On a positive note, upon survey of the piano it was found that the soundboard and strings are in excellent condition. Multiple tunings have been completed, and after a few more tunings, the piano will be in a playable state. This restoration work is thanks to the many donors who donated to our piano restoration fund and as such, the sound of this elegant instrument will soon once again echo through Memorial Hall as it did in the days when Silas Clark called it home.