Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Guide to the Chickering & Sons Piano Company Collection


Collection ID:
Chickering, Jonas, 1798-1853
1864 - 1985
Physical Description:
16 Cubic feet
37 boxes

Scope and Contents

Scope and Contents
This collection consists of 51 volumes of Chickering & Sons piano registers, documenting piano production (May 1823-September 1985); correspondence related to the hundredth anniversary of Jonas Chickering's presidency of the Handel and Hayden Society; publications on the history of the Company and sales literature (1854-1984); newspapers articles about the company (1847-1876); photographs (1926-1966); advertising and management forms (1938-1968); and a copy of a letter by Jonas Chickering to his father dated January 27, 1838. There are also ten documents related to the construction, mortgaging and insurance of Chickering Hall in New York City (1876-1886). Chickering Hall opened with great acclaim in 1875 and was an important musical center in New York City in the last quarter of the 19th Century. Some grand pianos from turn of the century onward are not listed in the ledgers. It is thought that Chickering may have had a duplicate set of serial numbers for grand pianos but this collection lacks that volume.


This collection organized into seven series.
Series 1: Correspondence, 1950
Series 2: Publications, 1854-1884
Series 3: Company history and records, 1838-1940
Series 4: Newspapers, 1847-1876
Series 5: Photographs, 1924-1966
Series 6: Management forms and material, 1938-1968
Series 7: Microfilm of ledger books, 1823-1985

Biographical / Historical

Biographical / Historical
Chickering & Sons pianos are an old line that came into being in April 1823 in Boston. Jonas Chickering, the founder, was a youthful cabinet maker. He learned piano making from John Osborn, a true master of the trade. The division of labor in Osborn's shop was not very extensive and Chickering was compelled to study every part of the instrument and to make himself acquainted with all the details. This exposure to the full range of tasks would served him well when he became a master in his own right. During his four years with Osborn, he became acquainted with Osborn's partner, James Stewart, who was awarded a patent for a "detached" soundingboard that was incorporated in the partners' pianos.
When Osborn and Stewart severed their business relationship, Stewart and his new partner, Chickering, opened a small shop on Tremont Street near King's Chapel on February 15, 1823. The partnership lasted three years until Stewart withdrew and left for London. At the age of 28, Chickering became the sole owner of the small but prosperous manufactory. The firm's annual output climbed over the next three years and reached 47 instruments in 1829.
In early 1830, Chickering made Captain John McKay, an experienced, aggressive, and successful merchandiser a partner in Chickering & Company. Captain Mackay made frequent trips to South American ports with ships laden with pianos. Returning home, the hold was filled with fragrant rosewood and richly grained mahogany. Chickering's first invention was patented in 1837 the first practical casting of a modern iron frame built to sustain the great tension of the strings of the piano so that it would stay in tune for a considerable period. In 1845, another important patent was secured, representing the first practical method of overstringing for square pianos, and in 1849 he applied the same principle to uprights. These contributions and others have become standard with all piano manufacturers.
The Chickering firm made pianos in a new way, employing production strategies that paralleled developments in other trades undergoing industrialization. "When he first commenced business for himself about 15 instruments a year were turned out while in the later years Mr. Chickering's business finished between fifteen and sixteen hundred instruments a year and at least one grand piano worth about a thousand dollars every week." (Richard G. Parker, A Tribute To The Life and Character of Jonas Chickering "By one who knew him well" (Boston: William P. Tewksbury, 1854.)
He was a long time President of the Handel & Hayden Society of Boston, this Country's oldest oratorio, founded in 1815.
On December 1, 1853, a fire swept through the Washington Street factory. Rather than rebuild on Washington Street, plans were made to erect a new factory on Tremont Street in the South End of Boston. Chickering, however, never saw the new plant in operation as he suffered a stroke and died December 8, 1853. The large Chickering factory built in 1853 was described at that time as the largest building in the United States outside the U.S. Capitol, and as "... the most perfect and extensive pianoforte estblishment in the world."
Chickering's death in 1853 left the business in the hands of his sons. In 1867, Emperor Napoleon III of France bestowed the Imperial Cross of the Legion of Honor on Frank Chickering at the Paris World's Fair that year.
With the passing of C. Frank Chickering in 1891, the company lost headway; and it was purchased by the American Piano Company in 1908 (Chickering Brothers pianos, which were made for several years following 1892 were in no way related to Chickering & Sons, though this family of boys was trained in the Chickering & Sons Boston factory).
From 1905 to 1911, the firm alone among American builders supported the revival of early instruments by hiring the English musician and craftsman Arnold Dolmetsch to build harpsichords, clavichords, and violas.
Chickering & Sons continued manufacturing pianos in Boston until 1927, when the plant and its personnel were relocated to East Rochester, New York. The Chickering was the foremost piano of the time Longfellow had one and there was one on the stage at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. the night Lincoln was assassinated. In 1932 the Company became part of the Aeolian American Corporation.
William Knabe of Kreutzburg, Germany, trained as a piano manufacturer, established his business in Baltimore, Maryland in 1837, and controlled the market in the Southern states by 1860. The Civil War and economic pressures may have contributed to the death of Knabe in 1864. The Company was eventually purchased by the American Piano Company in 1908, shortly after Chickering became a part of the organization.
The Wurlitzer Company, a major musical instrument manufacturer, acquired the Chickering firm in 1985 and continued to produce instruments with the Chickering name. The Wurlitzer Company was later purchased by the Baldwin Piano Company; Baldwin was subsequently purchased by Wurltech, Inc., of Houston, Texas.


Robert Ageton
Immediate Source of Acquisition
This collection was donated by the Wurlitzer Company, May 17, 1987.
Processing Information
Collection processed by Robert Ageton, volunteer, 1989.
Custodial History
These records were deposited in the Archives Center, National Museum of American History in 1987, loaned by the Wurlitzer Company in recognition of the Museum's interest in the history of musical instruments in the United States and its outstanding collection of American pianos, including five (5) Chickering instruments. Under the terms of the loan agreement, the piano registers were to be microfilmed. Microfilming was completed in 1988 and volumes 1 and 3 were subsequently returned to Wurltech Industries in August 1988. Volume 2 was never located among the company's records and is therefore missing from both this collection and the microfilm. In November 1991, Wurltech Industries very graciously agreed to donate these records to the NMAH.
The ten (10) documents related to Chickering Hall were purchased from The Center For Musical Antiquities, New York in June 1989. They have been inserted into Series 3: Company History and Records in Box 2, Folders 7 and 8.
The 1857 catalog of Chickering and Sons Piano Fortes at the Exhibitions of 1856 was donated to the National Museum of American History in March 1994 by Edwin Good.

Using the Collection

Conditions Governing Access
The collection is open for research use.
Preferred Citation
Chickering and Sons Piano Company Collection, 1864-1985, Archives Center, National Museum of American History
Conditions Governing Use
Collection items available for reproduction, but the Archives Center makes no guarantees concerning copyright restrictions. Other intellectual property rights may apply. Archives Center cost-recovery and use fees may apply when requesting reproductions.


Keywords table of terms and types.
Keyword Terms Keyword Types
advertising Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Microfilms Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Keyboard instruments Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Business -- History Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Musical instruments -- 1860-1990 Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Trade literature Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Boston (Mass.) Geographic Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Musical instrument manufacturing Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Photographic prints Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Papers Genre Form Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Piano makers Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
McKay, John, Captain Personal Name Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
National Museum of American History (U.S.). Division of Musical History Corporate Name Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Stewart, James Personal Name Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Wurlitzer Company Corporate Name Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Chickering & Sons Piano Company Corporate Name Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid

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