In the Spring of 2014, Valparaiso University’s Material Culture class studied artifacts from our collection, giving detailed historical context to some of our most unique and insightful artifacts. Thanks to Dr. Buggeln, Valparaiso University, the PoCo Muse collections volunteers, and the students for all the work and dedication put into this project.
The following research was compiled by Zachary Gronewold:
Square Grand Piano, ca. 1850s
U.F. Harrison, New York
This square grand piano is was made somewhere between 1850 and 1860 in New York. The company that made this piano was a cooperative of small piano companies that worked together surrounding the time of the Civil War in order to compete with larger companies that were emerging at the time. The name of this company was U. F. Harrison and it was forced to close its doors shortly after the end of the war. This square grand is one of the highest quality pianos that was made at the time and originally would have sold for $1200 or more which is the equivalent of roughly $36,000 in 2013.
The harp of the piano is designed differently than any other piano ever had been or has been since. The harp has two different banks of strings that are on different levels. The bass strings are in the top bank of strings and they stretch the width of the piano. The rest of the strings lie in the lower bank and stretch the depth of the piano, perpendicular to the top bank. The original square grand piano was one of the first pianos that used hammers to strike the strings rather than pluck them. This meant that the player could release the key and the sound would continue to ring rather than be dampened.
Most people have never seen a square grand piano before and that is simply because they are no longer made. While the square grand piano was originally very popular it lost its popularity because it was difficult to tune and fell out of style. The unique harp on the inside that allowed the piano to have its shape inhibited the tuner-technicians from easily being able to tune them. This led piano companies to stop production of the square grand around the end of the 19th century. When the Victorian era ended the style of the piano also faced trials. People began to change the furniture that they had in their house and the old square grand pianos would no longer match. Unlike any of the other furniture of the day, the square grand was not redesigned to meet the new style either. Because of this quick change in style, these pianos were stock-piled at piano dealers until they got to the point they started destroying them. In one particular case, over one hundred square grand pianos were covered in kerosene and lit on fire.
This particular square grand piano is made of Brazilian Rosewood for the cabinet as well as ivory for the keys. Both the Brazilian Rosewood tree and the elephant which the ivory keys come from are now consider endangered species and therefore they can no longer be used to make furniture which makes this piano even more unique. While it may look like the accompanying bench is missing, that is not completely accurate. Pianos that came from the mid-1800s did not come with a bench, however some of the higher end pianos such as this one would have come with a stool or a stool could have been ordered to match it. The stool is missing from this particular piano.
This photo shows the piano from the front view. You can see the different levels of the piano and how it makes a continuous pattern. You can also see the ivory keys fairly well as well as the shine of the rosewood.
Photo by Zachary Gronewold.
In this photo you can see the overlapping strings that is used in the square grand piano. This is what allowed the piano to be square. The strings that are laying on the top level are the base strings and they are also the longest and therefore lay going the width of the piano. The rest of the strings are underneath the bass strings and stretch the depth of the piano.