A Gateway to the 19th Century: The William Steinway Diary, 1861–1896

Gateway to the 19th Century

Beginning eight days after the first shots of the American Civil War were fired and three days before his wedding, William Steinway’s remarkable diary bears witness to one of the most dynamic periods in American history.

Over 36 years, nine volumes, and more than 2,500 pages, William Steinway’s diary records a newlywed’s exuberance, his observations of a country at war, and his emergence as a leader in the cultural, economic, political, and physical development of New York City. In near-daily entries until his death in 1896, William details the period’s financial panics and labor turmoil, rise of the German immigrant class, growing sophistication of transportation, and fierce piano manufacturing wars in which his family firm, Steinway & Sons, was a major player. A proud member of New York’s German American community, William was at once an immigrant success story and an ambitious industrialist.

This exhibition followed Steinway’s growth from witness to participant in history through select diary passages, Steinway family photographs, maps, and advertisements that bring alive the fear and chaos of the 1863 Civil War Draft Riots and his hands-on role in the creation of the New York City subway and the company town of Steinway in modern-day Astoria, Queens.

The display also provided a behind-the-scenes look at work on the William Steinway Diary Project—one of the Smithsonian’s largest and longest-running volunteer research efforts—whose roster of more than 100 highly qualified volunteers included William’s grandson, Diary donor Henry Ziegler Steinway, who was a central part of the Diary Project until his death in 2008.

The William Steinway Diary Online

The exhibition coincided with the Diary Project’s launch of The William Steinway Diary website, a long-term effort to create a fully-annotated online edition of the Diary. With its release, students, scholars, and the general public may read and search a complete transcription of the diary alongside high-resolution scans of each handwritten page. Primary source material is contextualized with essays, a family tree, and more than 100 images from Steinway family archives.

The William Steinway Diary Project has been made possible with lead funding from Target Corporation and additional support from Henry Ziegler Steinway, the William and Mary McCormick Foundation and other friends of the Diary Project.