William Steinway

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William Steinway (originally Wilhelm Steinweg) was born in Seesen, Germany, on March 5, 1835, the fourth son and sixth child of Heinrich (later Henry) and Julianne Steinweg. Heinrich was a maker of pianos in Seesen, where he had lived since 1820. Three more children were born to the family, one of whom died young.

The children had a normal Protestant rearing in a small German town which, fortunately for them, had a remarkably good school, the Jacobsohn Institute, to which they all went. Among other things, William learned English in this school, which was important for him later.

In 1848 when a number of revolutions were going on in Europe, the third son, Charles (Carl) left Germany for New York in order to avoid the requirement of joining the army. He and others of the sons had learned something of piano making from their father, and Charles wrote back to the family that a good living could be made in New York piano factories. In May, 1850, Heinrich packed up his family, except the eldest son, C. F. Theodore, and sailed to New York, landing in June.

The males of the family went out and got jobs in piano manufactories, William among them. He worked for the William Nunns Company, where he learned to make soundboards, but the Nunns company failed in a few years, and William was denied salary he had earned.

The Steinwegs were ambitious, and they decided to found their own company as a partnership in 1853, Anglicizing the name to Steinway & Sons.  William was not a partner until he turned 21 in 1856. He is listed in the firm’s record book as the soundboard maker for the first pianos brought out by the company. The company won some prizes at local fairs, which brought them further business, and they soon gained a reputation for good design and construction. As William seemed to be the one best in control of English, he soon found himself handling the business end of the company, which involved being in contact with other companies and persons in New York. Having moved from the first shop at least once, the company was in position to build a sizable new factory covering the block on Fourth (now Park) Avenue from 52nd to 53rd Street, which they occupied until 1910.


William Steinway, circa 1860
Photographer unknown, New York City
Courtesy of Henry Z. Steinway Archive

During the Civil War, several of the Steinway men joined the Union Army, and William’s younger brother, Albert, was an officer.  One of the difficult episodes during the War were the Draft Riots in 1863, during which a large mob of mostly Irish working-class men arrived at the factory of the German Steinways with the thought of doing some damage. The Steinways had had the foresight to enlist an Irish Catholic priest, who joined them to face down the mob. During the war, the Steinways worked on a new building on East 14th Street to serve as showrooms and business offices. In 1866, they added an important concert hall to Steinway Hall, which hosted important concerts and meetings until shortly before Carnegie Hall was built on 57th Street in 1891.

The Steinways were soon in the business of sponsoring artists, especially pianists, both American and European.  William’s business acument was added to his musical talents (he was a fine tenor—the first diary entry centers on his singing a tenor solo in a Liederkranz concert with the New York Philharmonic), and Steinway & Sons sponsored important concert tours, not only in New York but around the country by Anton Rubinstein, and many others, including, in the 1890’s Ignaz Paderewski. William added being a concert impresario to his other business ventures and continued his leadership in the New York Liederkranz, the largest of New York’s many German singing societies. William was President of the group at least ten times, and was its President at his death.

He soon added investment in real estate.  In the early 1870s, the company began acquiring farm land in the Astoria district of eastern Long Island, and William’s diary is full of buying and disposing of home sites and manufacturing locations in Steinway Village. The company built a second factory there, which became the only factory in 1910, and purchased a sizable mansion to which William’s family went in the summers.  The factory was partly to get workers out of Manhattan and the influences of a newly emergent labor movement, in which William could find very little pleasure, and the real estate market allowed the company to provide workers with affordable housing in the neighborhood of the factory. 

By then, William had taken advantage of Steinway’s success in an important technical exposition in Paris in 1867, at which pianos both European and American were an important part of the technology on view, and in which Steinway and its major American competitor, Chickering & Sons of Boston, took the top honors for pianos. That success gave impetus to William’s desire to expand Steinway’s foreign trade, and he succeeded in a few years in making the Steinway name one of the premier piano names in the world, establishing a branch in London, sending pianos to royal palaces in Europe and to distant places (Australia, Japan). The Philadelphia Centennial Exposition was another opportunity for public admiration.  And at that time, the company became a family-owned corporation, of which William was President and Treasurer until his death.

But just at that time, William discovered a social factor he had not counted on. He and his wife, Regina, his marriage to whom is the first event in the diary, had had three children, George, born in 1866, Paula, born in 1867, and Alfred, born in 1869. In 1875, William learned something he had become concerned about for several months: Alfred was not his son. Pride required that he divorce Regina, which happened during all the busy times of the Philadelphia Exposition in 1876, and she and Alfred went off to live in Nancy, France. William, then, became the sole parent of George and Paula. Fortunately for him and them, he was able to afford full-time surrogate parental help.

But he certainly did not wish to stay unmarried, and in 1880, having been encouraged by his brother Theodore to consider remarrying, and assisted by Theodore in scouting out some appropriate young women in Dresden, Germany, he went to Germany to meet this family, a family that, in fact, the Steinways had known when they lived for a time in New York, and once engaged in trade in felt—a necessary material for piano makers to purchase. He met the two Ranft daughters in Dresden and decided that Elizabeth was the one he wanted, and they were married forthwith in August of 1880. Earlier he had taken his son George to France and met Regina briefly, which seems to have passed off pleasantly.  She would die there in 1882.

16: An image

William Steinway, 1882
Photograph by Carl Borntraeger, Wiesbaden, Germany
Courtesy of Henry Z. Steinway Archive

Coming home to New York with Elizabeth (he referred to her as Ellie), he was stricken with the worst case of gout that he had had up to that time—and he had been troubled by gout quite frequently. The voyage was spent in dreadful pain, and, coming to New York, he had to be carried off the ship by eight men and carried into their house by strong Steinway employees. But he and Ellie had what gives indication of a very happy marriage, producing three children, William (b. 1881). Theodore (b. 1883), and Maud (b. 1889).  Both boys were later important in the company, Theodore being its President, 1927–1955).

The company continued to prosper, though there were economic ups and downs during the remaining years of William’s life. He steadfastly refused to consider any political office, though he was offered some opportunities, especially a significant position in the U. S. Treasury Department that his friend Grover Cleveland dangled in front of him. A lifelong Democrat, he was active in political affairs and a confidant of more than one major politician, but never a politician himself. At the end of his life he was a member and Chairman of the New York Rapid Transit Commission, helping to design what became New York’s sub waysystem.

William suffered the sudden death of Ellie from heart failure on the day before his birthday in 1893, and he watched the deterioration of his son George, perhaps from alcoholism. William died on November 30, 1896, of typhus. The diary ends on November 8, 1896; he was suffering his last illness at that time.