Piano maker William Steinway saw the future in suburbia in the 1880s, so he built a factory and then an entire village
Piano manufacturer William Steinway described his vision of suburban America to Congress in 1883, but in his own life the future had already arrived.
Citing the horrors of tenement houses for workers in New York City, Steinway told the Senate Committee on Education and Labor: "The only thing that I can imagine is to do as we have done, remove the very large factories … from out of the city of New York into the suburbs" in order "to give the workingmen a chance to live as human beings ought to live."
Eleven years before speaking to Congress, Steinway opened a new factory across the East River from Manhattan. This factory, located in what is now the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, still makes pianos today. The rural area was not then part of New York City, but Steinway saw the potential. He ended up creating an entire company town, including worker housing, and suggested to a Senate committee that other manufacturers follow his lead.
But Steinway wasn't driven solely by altruism. He wanted to get away from unions who were striking piano manufacturers in Manhattan.
"We sought a place outside the city to escape the machinations of the anarchists and socialists" who "were continually breeding discontent among our workmen and inciting them to strike," Steinway said, according to the book "Steinway & Sons" by Richard K. Lieberman, published in 1995.
We know a lot about Steinway because he kept a daily diary from April 1861 through November 1896, the month he died. The diary, which can be viewed here, resides in the National Museum of American History's Archives Center in our Steinway and Sons Records and Family Papers 1857–1919.
While Steinway made pianos for the rich, he didn't forget the working people and the poor as the years went by.
William Steinway certainly hadn't forgotten that his family started Steinway & Sons from scratch in 1853. He arrived in New York as a teenager in 1850 with his parents and siblings. The family (who were piano makers in Germany) worked with New York piano firms to learn the American method of manufacture. This made it possible for Steinway to make and market some of the most famous pianos in the world.
Steinway wasn't shy about letting reporters know about his good deeds. In his diary entry of March 16, 1895, he wrote, "N.Y. World and today's Evg papers have the News that I have placed 200 Acres of land close to the Ferries in Long Island City at the disposal of the charity organization for cultivating purposes by the poor."
When the charity's farm made a surplus of $6,000 and offered the money to Steinway as a payment, he refused.
"He told the association that he was not in the habit of doing charity by halves, and therefore it was his desire that the surplus money be employed in furnishing seed, fertilizers and agricultural implements for the following season," the New York Times reported on July 12, 1896, in a spread about Steinway's creation in Astoria.
His village transformed this rural area into a community of paved streets, trees, electric trolley lines, a firehouse, a church, a kindergarten, a library and a beach resort, in addition to worker houses.
Steinway also saw the disadvantages of his generosity. There are repeated expressions in his diary of annoyance with a constant stream of "mendicants," his word for those who were always asking him for money. Some were people he knew, who might have needed help for medical reasons, wanted to invest in a business, or were seeking help with a musical career. He wrote that he was "hounded to death" by them, once encountering "a perfect cavalcade of mendicants," and facetiously claiming to be "badly retarded by lots of mendicants."
Steinway established a land office at the Astoria factory to provide maintenance to rented properties. He sold other homes and also sold land. He financed most public services in the village, graded and paved the streets, and developed some of the nation's first electric trolley lines, in part to bring workers living in the city from the ferry dock to their jobs.
For William Steinway in the late 1800s, the future was now.
Larry Margasak is a retired Washington journalist who writes frequent articles for the museum's blog. Past stories included William Steinway's bizarre experience as chairman of New York's presidential electors in 1893, his construction of a resort that now sits under the runways of LaGuardia Airport, and Hollywood during World War II.