Building a Relationship: the Steinways and the Smithsonian

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As a member of the Smithsonian curatorial staff, I was asked to organize an exhibition in 1966 on American music in the National Museum of History and Technology (since 1980 known as the National Museum of American History).

My first contact with the Steinways was in May 1966 in a letter to Henry, Steinway & Sons President, asking to borrow some graphic material for the exhibition. I also asked about the possibility of obtaining copies of the firm’s historical documents for the growing Smithsonian's research files, which were envisioned to become the basis for a national center for the study of musical instruments. Henry sent a cordial reply urging me to get in touch with his brother John Steinway, Vice President, and the family member then in charge of all the Steinway historical material. Henry also urged me to come to the Steinway & Sons offices in the Astoria factory to see the material. The first time I saw the Diary was on June 13, 1966, when I met with John at the factory offices. There, he introduced me to the family's impressive archival collections, including the nine volumes of William Steinway’s diary. Through the years until his death in 1989, John unfailingly offered me access and advice.

In a letter dated January 11, 1967, Henry invited me to join others on a tour of the "new piano manufacturing facilities recently completed by Steinway & Sons at the Steinway factory in Astoria." At this gathering I saw the factory for the first time and was able to spend time with three of the Steinway brothers—Theodore, Henry, and John—and met representatives from the music trades.

Three months later Henry came to Washington to see what he described in a subsequent letter as the Smithsonian’s "truly extraordinary collection of old musical instruments. A visit to your display should be required for everybody in the music business." In the same letter, Henry mentioned "some old Steinway pianos" in the factory that "we might get my brother John to part with… as a gift to the Smithsonian." Henry later added, "The idea of having our pianos in the Smithsonian appeals to us very much."

Between 1968 and 1972 there was less communication, as the Steinways were involved in negotiations for the sale of the company to CBS in 1972, and as I organized another exhibition, Music Machines—American Style. In the last quarter of 1972 I spent time again looking at the early Steinway pianos and making a brief inventory of the firm’s invaluable archives, which I urged the three brothers to have microfilmed. 

A year later, my division colleagues J. Scott Odell and James Weaver met with John Steinway to look at the "old" pianos stored in a factory attic room they called the "chicken coop." By mid-May 1974 the Steinway & Sons gift of two pianos had arrived at the Smithsonian: an 1857 grand piano (with  a straight-strung iron frame), and the 1892 grand played by Ignace Paderewski on his 1892–1893 American tour. By June the restoration process for the 1892 grand had begun and continued well into 1976.   

On December 7, 1976, many from the Steinway family joined other guests in the Smithsonian’s Hall of Musical Instruments for the official presentation of the two important Steinway & Sons pianos to the Smithsonian. The big attraction of the evening was Van Cliburn, the noted pianist, who performed on the 1892 "Paderewski" grand piano. Cliburn played the Liszt piano transcription of Robert Schumann’s "Widmung" (Dedication), which he had played on the occasion of the 87th birthday of Ruth Davis Steinway (widow of Theodore E. Steinway and mother of Henry and his siblings), who was in attendance along with her sons, Theodore, Henry, John, and Frederick, various spouses, and other family members. 

In preparations for American Bicentennial exhibitions and programs, I was often in touch with the Steinway brothers by mail and in person. I consulted the Diary and family archives in preparation for a short vignette on William for a Bicentennial publication and an article on music and musical instruments at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. I presented my subsequent paper on the Steinway's 19th-century contributions at the national meeting of the American Musicological Instrument Society (AMIS) in Washington in November 1976; a version of this lecture was delivered at the Smithsonian the following month and broadcast on Voice of America. An expanded article appeared as the AMIS publication, "The Steinways and Their Pianos in the Nineteenth Century."

Through these preparations, the richness of William’s diary to historical research became more evident, and frustration at not having easier Diary access grew. In addition, concern arose about its preservation and use. The Diary had been a part of the daily lives of the family for so long that a volume became a comfortable companion to read on the bus between the factory and their homes in Manhattan (especially if one reads through the diary four times). The brothers' openness to scholars also led them to lend separate volumes to writers of dissertations. It was in this context that I urged them to microfilm the Diary so that this intact historical treasure would remain whole and safe. Copies of the Diary could then be printed and circulated to many archives, including many of those cited on our Resources page. The discussions in 1972 about microfilming Steinway documents included not only the ledgers and other important material, but most urgently, the Diary.

The links between the Steinways and the Smithsonian strengthened. When Henry came to a meeting at the Department of Commerce in 1976, he rediscovered, tucked away in the corner of the Departmental Auditorium, the extraordinary 1939 Steinway concert grand (with an art case designed by the noted industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague. The 1939 New York World’s Fair featured the piano in the U.S. Pavilion, which Teague also designed). At lunch that day with Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, Henry persuaded Ripley that the piano would get more "tender, loving care" at the Smithsonian. In 1989 the piano was transferred from the Department of Commerce to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. In 2000, it was featured in the Museum's PIANO 300 exhibition curated by Edwin M. Good, Patrick Rucker, and myself.

The recurring theme throughout these years was microfilming valuable Steinway historical resources. On two separate occasions in 1978, while visiting the Steinway archives twice for continued research on the family and firm's 19th-century activities, I counted the number of Diary pages to assist in obtaining a microfilm estimate. I sought recommendations from colleagues at the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center for specialists in microfilming rare materials and got a rough estimate of the cost involved in microfilming the Diary.

In August 1980 at the age of 65, Henry, as required by the CBS corporation, retired from his position as Chairman of Steinway & Sons. He moved to an office in Steinway Hall on 57th Street in Manhattan. In this office, to which all the Steinway historical archives were moved, Henry spent much of his time in retirement reviewing the Diary and making useful summaries about many Diary subjects and people. He also served as a volunteer researcher on the William Steinway Diary Project.

By February 1981 the Diary had been microfilmed. On February 21, 1981, I wrote to John Steinway, who succeeded Henry as Steinway & Sons Chairman, thanking him for microfilming the diary and for sending the Smithsonian a bound photocopy of all nine volumes, which I kept at hand.  John replied, "I am delighted that you have the photo copy of Grandpa’s diary and are keeping it in your office and using it. It is still a prime source of information." High-resolution scans of the Diary were made in 2006. In 1988 the Smithsonian borrowed and copied 11 rolls of microfilms of the 19th-century factory production number books beginning in 1853; these microfilms are available in the American History branch of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries.