The International Exposition of 1867 in Paris

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The International Exposition of 1867 was the largest and grandest of all world's fairs up to that time. A celebration of scientific and industrial progress, it featured more than 50,000 exhibitors, including Steinway and more than 150 other piano manufacturers. The Exposition's award of a gold medal to Steinway, and its official report on Steinway's superiority over its competitors, were instrumental in establishing the company's international reputation and future success. Although William did not attend the exposition, he planned Steinway's participation and wrote promotional materials.

Background on the Exposition

In 1864, France's Emperor Napoleon III declared that an international exposition should be held in Paris in 1867, coinciding with the renovation of the capital city by Baron Haussmann and celebrating the Second French Empire. The Exposition occupied more than 100 acres on the Champ de Mars in the heart of Paris, lasted seven months (April 1-November 3), and attracted 15 million visitors. The central ceremonial event, on July 1, was a royal procession led by Napoleon III and twelve other European heads of state, followed by a speech by the French minister of state, a Rossini hymn performed by an orchestra of 1,200 musicians, and the presentation of awards to the top exhibitors. (7, pp. 92 ff.)(11)

The exhibits were displayed in a large central building, 32 acres in size, and nearly 100 smaller buildings. They were organized both by country and category. The 50,226 exhibitors included 15,055 from France and its colonies, 6,176 from Great Britain and Ireland, and 703 from the United States. They spanned a diverse range of arts and industries, including jewelry, porcelain, furniture, precious metals, carpets, carriages, clocks, watches, textiles, tools, steel, steam engines, electric motors, scientific instruments, machinery, weaponry, etc. – with an emphasis on highlighting the progress of the age. Among the prominent new inventions shown were hydraulic elevators and reinforced concrete. (8, pp. vi-viii)(17)(25, pp. 314-15)

The Exposition awarded nearly 17,000 medals, certificates, and other prizes. Special citations were awarded to inventors or developers of the transatlantic cable, the telegraph, the railroad, the sewing machine, and agricultural machinery, among others. Fewer than 2% of the exhibitors received the prestigious gold medals. Competition among piano makers for gold medals was intense. (6, p. 141)(25, p. 314)(7, p. 93)(24, p.50)

Steinway's preparation for the Exposition

William first mentioned the Exposition in his diary in autumn 1866, when he spent the evening "writing [on the] Paris Exp[osition] matter."(Diary, 1866-10-08) Steinway & Sons had previously exhibited its pianos at the London Universal Exposition in 1862 and was now eager to show its latest instruments in Paris. William's writings on October 8 likely included a letter to J.C. Derby, the agent of the U.S. Commission on the Paris Exhibition in charge of deciding which firms would be given space to exhibit American pianos, and information on how to pack and ship the pianos. (15)(16)

By December 1866, the American piano exhibitors had been chosen. Steinway was allocated space for 5 pianos, its arch-rival Chickering & Sons of Boston was given 3 spaces, and Lindeman & Sons of New York was awarded one space. (14)(16)

William wrote in his diary that he was writing a "Pamphlet for Paris", likely a reference to a brochure explaining Steinway's new method of "overstringing", in which the bass strings fan out above the other strings.(Diary, 1866-12-23) Although overstringing itself was not new, Steinway's version was the first to work effectively. Chickering and most European firms still relied on the traditional method of parallel stringing. (19)

In early January 1867 William was again "writing [on the] Paris matter". (Diary, 1867-01-05) This reference likely concerned a boat reservation for his brother Theodore, who represented the family at the Exposition, and arrangements to ship the five pianos to Paris. On January 20 William made note of that day's "full concert [to] try our pianos for Paris in [Steinway] Hall."(Diary, 1867-01-20) This concert was probably an informal event attended by Steinway technicians, other employees and their families. Theodore and the five pianos – two Concert Grands, one Parlor Grand, an Upright, and a Square – sailed for Europe on the steamer "Union" on February 9. (Diary, 1867-02-09)(14)

Steinway at the Exposition

Sources differ regarding the number of pianos at the Exposition. The official French report says 158 manufacturers exhibited 338 pianos; the U.S. report says 178 makers displayed 356 pianos. (4)(23) Whatever the actual number, the five Steinway instruments attracted particular attention for the quality of their sound. The composer Hector Berlioz said "their sonority is splendid and essentially noble....[This is] progress for which all artists and amateurs gifted with delicate perception must be infinitely indebted to you." (1) With many other piano manufacturers eager to adopt the Steinway stringing system, Theodore sent a cable on April 28, 1867, asking William to "Send over Patents immediately by steamer." (Diary, 1867-04-28)

In the decade before the Paris Exposition, Steinway & Sons had received U.S. patents for several innovations, including its overstringing system, improvements in the securing and positioning of the agraffes (the clips which hold the strings in place), and the single cast-iron frame. (20)

Curiously, the Steinways seemed to regard their patents at that time more as a means to promote their system of piano construction than to protect their innovations in Europe. At the Exposition, Theodore gave lectures on Steinway's piano designs, distributed thousands of William's brochures – in French, German, and English – with diagrams illustrating the Steinway stringing method, and gave technical demonstrations to the Exposition judges on string tone and compression of the sounding board. (6, pp. 142-3)

While this free dissemination of its intellectual property may have hurt Steinway's sales in the European market in the long run, it provided immediate favorable publicity. As William later wrote in a Steinway & Sons catalog, "To the numerous reporters of every nationality, who at that time congregated in Paris, [our promotional campaign] proved a real goldmine; its contents, with the drawings, were embodied almost unchanged in their printed reports on the Exposition." This "posture of noblesse oblige toward the family innovations", as D. W. Fostle put it, together with positive professional judgments, helped Steinway achieve lasting international prestige from the Paris Exposition. (6, pp. 143-44)

The Exposition's Piano Awards

William's diary makes clear his anxiety about the Paris competition. He first received word of Steinway's gold medal in a telegram early in the morning of May 17, 1867. (Diary, 1867-05-17) While not recording his reaction, he must have been thrilled. But the next day, after some deliberation, he "conclude[d] to await details by mail before advertising [the] Gold Medal." (Diary, 1867-05-18) On May 29, he spent the evening "writing letters to Europe", presumably seeking more information. (Diary, 1867-05-29)

One month later William saw the "Official list of Medals awarded to Americans", probably in the New York Times of that day, and noted with satisfaction that "we head[ed] the list."(Diary, 1867-06-29) The Times article indeed listed Steinway first among the 16 American gold medal winners. Chickering was listed second, followed by 14 others in non-music categories. Although the Times did not mention any basis of distinction between these gold medals, William apparently took heart from the article's suggestive comment that the awards were listed "in the order in which the [official] report will be made." (13)

But William's mood darkened after the Exposition's formal public announcement of its awards on July 1. Not only did Chickering also win a gold medal; the head of that firm, C. Frank Chickering, was awarded the Cross of the Legion of Honor, the French equivalent of a knighthood. When William heard the Chickering news, he lamented that there was "Great Jubilee at their store, [while] we feel in despair about [the] absence of news from Theodore." (6, p. 141)(Diary, 1867-07-02)

On July 3 William brightened again when he received a telegram "stating that we got [our] gold Medal before Chick[ering]. Our flag [is] up, and [we're] telegraphing to our principal Agents." But evidently still eager for more details, he also wrote a "long letter to Theodore."(Diary, 1867-07-03) The following day he received more good news from Paris, though not from the Exposition: Steinway had received a separate medal from the Societe des Beaux Arts for superiority in piano construction. (10)(Diary, 1867-07-04)

Steinway vs. Chickering: the "first" gold medal and the "Piano War"

The Paris awards launched a fevered competition for bragging rights between Steinway and Chickering. On July 5 William noted that the two firms began running advertisements in the New York press. (Diary, 1867-07-05) These ads continued virtually daily for about two months, each company claiming victory over the other For William, this so-called "Piano War" was most visibly an argument over which firm had received higher recognition in Paris; underlying this debate was the longer-running and more fundamental contest for supremacy between their alternative methods of piano construction.

William was obsessed with trying to confirm that Steinway had won the Exposition's "first" gold medal. At times his focus was on being "first" chronologically; at other times he viewed "first" in terms of quality. Either way, he was driven to assert Steinway's superiority over Chickering. Based on the thin evidence from Paris, William's advertisements repeatedly claimed that Steinway had won "the First Gold Medal of Merit for the highest degree of perfection", that it was "distinctly classified first in order of merit and placed at the head of the list." Chickering countered, also repeatedly, with the argument that its Legion of Honor gave it "the only distinction over the ... other medals awarded for pianos" and thus put Chickering "at the head of all others." (2)(18)

On July 11 William received word from Theodore about the "victory of the Overstrung System," (Diary, 1867-07-11) which must have referred to more specific assessments by the Exposition's piano judges. It seems that Theodore provided at least some of the award "details" that William had long been awaiting. The next day William completed an article – which he referred to as "Victory Overstrung" (Diary, 1867-07-12) – for the New York Weekly Review, Steinway's principal press advocate. In it he spelled out how thoroughly overstrung pianos had dominated their parallel-strung competitors in the Paris awards. He also condemned "malicious" and "ridiculous" attacks on the overstrung system by supporters of Chickering, and asserted that Chickering's Legion of Honor had been obtained through "influential friends" and had no connection to the piano medals. (12)

On July 22 William happily noted receipt of another "telegram from Theodore, that [the] Jury certifies that we are classified superior to Chickering."(Diary 1867-07-22) Although it is not clear how much detail Theodore provided, his cable seems to have been the first substantive information supporting William's claims about Steinway ranking "first" at Paris. Two days later William wrote another article for the Weekly Review on "the new overstrung system in pianos". (Diary, 1867-07-24). This article was more technical than the first, describing in some detail Steinway's construction method. But it also ridiculed the "ignorance," "absurdity," and "silly twaddle" of the Chickering camp and reiterated Steinway's claim to the "first" gold medal. (9)

Despite the good news from Theodore, William still wanted more specific and definitive information. On August 4 he felt "sick with disappointment and rage" when he received a "letter from Theodore [which] does not contain the Jury Certificate."(Diary, 1867-08-04) His gloom partly lifted eight days later when the certificate finally arrived. (Diary, 1867-08-13) Signed by the jury president M. Melinet, it said, in entirety: "I certify that the First Gold Medal for American Pianos has been unanimously awarded to Messrs. Steinway by the Jury of the International Exposition. First on the list." While these words did not exactly document Steinway's superiority in any detail, they at least provided official endorsement of William's advertising claims. On August 17 a new Weekly Review article, likely written by William, proclaimed the "End of the Piano War" and said that it "ha[d] been definitely settled in favor of Messrs. Steinway & Sons." (3)

But William was yet to be fully satisfied. At some point after receiving the Jury certificate he wrote to Francois Joseph Fetis, eminent musicologist and director of the Brussels Conservatory, who was writing the official report of the Paris piano Jury. William's letter has not been found, but he clearly requested specific information about the official report. On September 18 Fetis replied that that he could not disclose the contents of his report before it was published. He did confirm, yet again, that Steinway had won "the First Gold Medal for American Pianos", and he added that the Jury did not request the Legion of Honor for Chickering. (5) William would have to wait seven more months for the Jury's report.

Official Exposition report on the piano competition

Fetis's official report, issued in March 1868, was all that William could have asked. It clearly and explicitly declared Steinway superior to all its competitors.

"The secret of the great tone of the American pianos," wrote Fetis, "consists in the solidity of construction.... The principle of solidity is ... in the iron frame, cast in one solid piece, which resists the tension of the strings instead of the wooden framework of the European pianos." He then noted that the heavier strings in American pianos also contributed to their better sound, but "plac[ing] them into vibration required a more energetic attack .... which renders the blow of the hammer too perceptible." This flaw was particularly notable in Chickering's pianos, which sounded "magnificent" in a large concert hall "and at a certain distance .... [but] nearer by ... there is combined with this powerful tone the impression of the blow of the hammer, which produces a nervous sensation by its frequent repetition." Steinway, on the other hand, had solved this problem by its patented method of overstringing, "which in great part does away with the defect."

The report's conclusion was a triumph: "The pianos of Messrs. Steinway & Sons are equally endowed with the splendid sonority of their competitor; they also possess that seizing largeness and volume of tone, hitherto unknown, which fills the greatest space. Brilliant in the treble, singing in the middle and formidable in the bass, their sonority acts with irresistible power on the organs of hearing. In regard to expression, delicate shading, variety of accentuation, the instruments of Messrs. Steinway have over those of Messrs. Chickering an advantage which cannot be contested." (4)

William called the report "perfectly splendid."(Diary, 1868-03-28). A week later he wrote to his dealers that "our success is complete and the superiority of our [pianos] over all others at the Paris Exposition, fully and officially established." (21)

Sale of Steinway's pianos after the Exposition

Before returning to New York in December of 1867, Theodore sold the five pianos exhibited at the Exposition. One Concert Grand was sold to Baroness Madame Rothschild, the other to the French piano maker Mangeot Freres & Cie. The Parlor Grand was sold to a Count Asartchefsky. The Upright and Square were also sold to European buyers. (22)



1.  Berlioz letter (translation), Steinway & Sons catalog of 1888.
2.  Chickering advertisements, The New York Times, July 4, 12, et. al, 1867; New York Weekly Review, July 13, 1867, p. 5.
3.  “End of the Piano War,” New York Weekly Review, August 17, 1867, p. 4.
4.  “Exposition Universelle.  Paris. 1867.  Official Report of the International Jury by M. Fetis. Pianos,” reprinted in New York Weekly Review, April 4, 1868.
5.  Fetis. F. J., letter to William, September 18, 1867 (translation), in New York Weekly Review, October 26, 1867.
6.  Fostle, D.W.  The Steinway Saga, New York: Scribner, 1995.
7.  Hoyt, J. W., Report on the Universal Expositions of 1862 and 1867.
8.  “The illustrated catalogue of the Universal exhibition, published with the Art journal
9.  “The New Overstrung System in Pianos,” New York Weekly Review, July 27, 1867, p. 4
10.  New York Weekly Review, July 6, 1867, p.4.
11.  “Official Site of the Bureau International des Expositions,”
12.  "The Overstrung Piano System: Its Triumph at the Paris Exposition,” New York Weekly Review, July 13, 1867, p. 4.
13.  “The Paris Exposition.  Official List of the Awards to American Exhibitors,” The New York Times, June 29, 1867, p.8.
14.  “The Paris International Exhibition,” Illustrated Daily London News, July 20, 1867, p. 73.
15.  “The Paris International Exhibition of 1867”, The New York Times, December 25, 1866, p. 4.
16.  “The Pianos and the Paris Exposition,” American Art Journal, May 27, 1867, p. 73.
17.  Reports of the United States Commissioners to the Paris Universal Exposition, 1867, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1870.
18.  Steinway advertisements, The New York Times, July 6, 12, et. al, 1867; New York Weekly Review, July 27, 1867. p. 5.
19.  Steinway & Sons Catalog, ca. 1870.
20.  Steinway & Sons Catalog 1888, pp. 8, 16, 23.
21.  Steinway & Sons, confidential circular to dealers and agents, April 3, 1868.
22.  Steinway & Sons, Piano Number Books
23.  Stevens, Paran.  Report Upon Musical Instruments, Paris Universal Exhibition, p.5, Washington, Government Printing Office, 1869.
24.  United States Commissioners, General Survey of the Exhibition, Paris Universal Exhibition of 1867.
25.  Zieren, Gregory. “American manufacturing, American technology, and the labor question at the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1867,” Essays in Economic and Business History, vol. 22, 2004, pp. 313-322.