William Steinway was the fourth son and sixth child of Heinrich Engelhard and Julianne Thiemer Steinway (formerly Steinweg). Heinrich was an organ builder in Seesen, in the Duchy of Braunschweig (Brunswick), Germany, and like others of that profession, he also made pianos. During the several European revolutions in 1848, the third son, Charles G. had gone to New York to avoid military service.
Writing back to his family in Germany, he assured them that a living in piano-making could be made in New York. Heinrich and his family emigrated to New York from Seesen in 1850, leaving behind the eldest son, C. F. Theodore, who was making pianos in Seesen, later in Wolfenbüttel, and still later in the city of Braunschweig. Five sons (Charles G., Henry Jr., William, perhaps Hermann, and Albert) and three daughters (Doretta, Wilhelmina, and Anna) accompanied their parents to the New World. In the first years in New York, the males of the family (probably not including the two youngest sons) obtained employment in various New York piano manufacturing shops, learning something of the American trade.
In 1853, the family decided to form their own partnership, and Anglicized the name to form Steinway & Sons. With modest beginnings in lower Manhattan, the company soon began to reach for more ambitious goals. Helping to make their pianos known was the work of the eldest daughter, Doretta, who taught piano lessons in the shop. That was as close as any woman in the Steinway family ever came to being a part of the company, apart from being stockholders later, when it became a family-held corporation. An important prize for a square piano at a trade fair at the New York Crystal Palace in 1855 led to wider recognition. In 1857, they made their first grand pianos, and in 1859 Henry Steinway Jr. obtained an important patent for cross-stringing grand pianos on a single-piece cast-iron frame, a signal point in the development of the modern piano. In 1860, the company built a large modern factory at 4th Avenue (now Park Avenue) from 52nd to 53rd Street.
The company prospered, becoming one of the United States' premier piano manufacturers during the 1870s, if not first in rank. Winning an important prize at a world’s fair in Paris in 1867 brought international recognition, which the company fostered through an ambitious export trade. More recognition came with the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, and other prizes, including a major award in Australia. By the time of William’s death in 1896, the company was recognized as among the most important piano manufacturers in the world, and Steinway & Sons has labored hard to retain that reputation to the present.
William had worked in the shop from the beginning, having been trained as a “bellyman,” one who made the soundboards. He joined the company as a partner in 1856 at the age of 21, and was apparently soon set in charge of finances and marketing, as his English was quite good. The Diary begins on April 20, 1861, a few days before his marriage to Regina Roos of Buffalo, N.Y. It ends on November 8, 1896, about three weeks before his death on November 30 at the age of 61.
William was a very talented financier, businessman, and administrator, though his talents in the latter category tended to the dictatorial. He had very definite ideas and did not hesitate to impose them on the company and those who worked for it. Steinway & Sons remained a partnership until it incorporated as a closely-held corporation in 1876. William became President and Treasurer at that time and remained so until his death. He was no absentee manager. He worked long and hard at his jobs, often seven days a week from early in the morning until late at night.
A wealthy and financially adventurous man, he was involved in a number of other business ventures, especially in horse-car railroads in Astoria, New York, where in the early 1870s Steinway & Sons built another factory in the company town of Steinway across the East River from Manhattan. He and principal partner brewer George Ehret built the North Beach Amusement Park (originally called Bowery Bay Beach) which had the benefit of providing recreation and entertainment to Steinway & Sons' piano-making workforce living nearby in Steinway Village. It also created a demand for Steinway’s network of streetcars, trolleys, and ferries that provided access to the park on land that is now LaGuardia Airport. William also assisted a number of entrepreneurs who established businesses and manufacturing plants on the Steinway holdings. He purchased a distributor of natural gas in the Astoria area, and was a principal figure in several banks throughout the region, especially the Queens County Bank, the Bank of the Metropolis, and the German Savings Bank. In the last decade of his life he became interested in the work of Gustave Daimler, and helped to capitalize the company which much later became Daimler-Benz.
William also was socially active, a major figure in the German-American community in New York, where he was a close friend of all the leaders of the time. He was politically active as a Democrat, though he shunned elected office and most appointive offices. As a personal friend of Grover Cleveland, he recommended several of his acquaintances to President Cleveland for appointive office, but rejected Cleveland’s offer of an important government financial post. Later in his life, he served on New York City’s Rapid Transit Commission, as its Chairman for a time, and helped lay the blueprint for what would become the city's subway system.
Not surprisingly, he was active in the New York musical scene as a member of more than one German singing society, principally the New York Liederkranz, for which he served as President several times during his life. He sang tenor in that group, and was evidently a very fine singer, not infrequently performing solo, as he recounts in his very first Diary entry. He often attended musical events, and when Steinway & Sons opened Steinway Hall, an important concert hall on East 14th Street, on October 31, 1866, he became involved in planning and booking concerts. He and his family also frequented the opera and the theatre, both English and German.
William and Regina had three children, George, Paula, and Alfred. He discovered in 1875 that Alfred was not his child, which resulted in a very painful divorce in 1876, after which Regina and Alfred moved to Nancy, France. She resumed her maiden name, Roos, and kept it until her death in 1882. In the 1890s, William was instrumental in helping Alfred to return to the U.S. after studying chemistry at the University of Heidelberg; Alfred subsequently became an assayer of metal ore in South Dakota.
In 1880 William married Elizabeth Ranft of Dresden, Germany, with whom he had three children: William R., Theodore E. and Maud. George spent some time in the company, but never fulfilled his father's wish of succession; for years he was afflicted with a severe nervous disorder and reportedly drank heavily, factors that may have contributed to his death just two years after William's own. Paula married Louis von Bernuth in 1888, and, after Elizabeth died in 1893, she took over the care of the younger children, while her husband handled some of William’s business affairs. The two boys born of William’s second marriage worked in Steinway & Sons, Theodore serving as its President from 1927 to 1955.
When the Civil War began, several of the Steinway men went into the Union Forces. Albert ended the war a Colonel, and Charles G. Steinway and Theodore Vogel, the husband of William’s sister Wilhelmina, were both at times in the Union Army. Henry Jr. had weak lungs, for the sake of which he spent some time in Cuba during the war. Steinway & Sons survived a major crisis in 1865, when Henry Jr., who had specialized in design and construction, and Charles G., who had run the factory, died within a month of each other. William was then 30 years old, and Henry Sr. was apparently no longer active. The eldest brother, C. F. Theodore, was persuaded to join the New York company, and became a major factor in the continuing reputation of Steinway & Sons for innovation in design and a high quality of workmanship. The firm began to establish branches in Europe: a sales center in London in 1875 and an important concert hall there in 1879. In 1880, Theodore moved back to Germany; he and William established a piano factory in Hamburg, which simplified trade in Europe. The Hamburg factory was sold to Steinway & Sons in 1891 after Theodore’s death.
William was athletic and strong as a youth, known for feats of strength. He later suffered from a number of illnesses, especially gout, which gave him extended periods of pain and weakness. No doubt he did his health no good by the pace of his work or the richness of his diet. As he came into his last years, he was often unwell for extended lengths of time. Always interested in his own illnesses, and in those of others, he spent many lines of the Diary describing or referring to ill health. He was devastated when Elizabeth died quite suddenly of heart failure, the day before his 58th birthday. William died of typhus at the age of 61 on November 30, 1896. William's nephew, Frederick T. Steinway, described the death of William Steinway in a letter to his mother, Sophie Millinet Steinway Fricke, dated December 4, 1896.
There are several useful sources for the later history of Steinway & Sons: Theodore E. Steinway, People and Pianos: A Pictorial History of Steinway & Sons (Steinway & Sons, 1953, new edition, 2005); relevant articles in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (revised edition), The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, and other reference works. The company has long been acknowledged as one of the leading piano manufacturers in the world, and it still produces pianos in New York and Hamburg.