The Golden Age of Chickering (A History)

Jonas Chickering
Jonas Chickering (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Benjamin Crehore, who had established a reputation as an expert maker of violins, cellos and other musical instruments, exhibited a harpsichord in 1791, and soon thereafter built pianos at Milton, near Boston. In his shop he had John Osborn, Alpheus and Lewis Babcock as pupils. In 1810 the Babcock brothers began to make pianos in Boston. The great panic of 1819 ruined their business, but we hear of Alpheus Babcock again in 1821, in partnership with John MacKay, that commercial genius who later assisted so strongly in building up the fame of the Chickering firm.

John Osborn, the most talented of Crehore’s pupils, started in business in 1815. It was in Osborn’s shop that Jonas Chickering learned the art of piano making. Born in New Ipswich, N. H., on April 5, 1798, Chickering came to Boston about 1817, after he had served his apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker and joiner. Well educated and possessing decided mechanical talents of a high order, Chickering was attracted to the art of piano making and was fortunate in finding a master like Osborn as teacher. He studied with Osborn until 1823, when James Stewart, who had come from Baltimore to go in partnership with Osborn, but soon quarreled with him, proposed partnership to Chickering, which the \ latter accepted, and the firm of Stewart & Chickering opened their shop on Tremont Street in that year.

Stewart was one of those restless, unsettled inventors, who needed the methodical and painstaking young Chickering to give to his inventions the practical form. It soon developed, however, that Chickering was not only the better workman of the two, but also the far more scientific piano maker. The firm was dissolved in 1826. Stewart went to London to take a prominent position with Collard & Collard. Jonas Chickering continued the business, making excellent pianos, but his talents were more in the line of inventing and constructing than merchandising. He also suffered from lack of capital, so that his progress was rather slow until John MacKay, who had left Babcock, joined him as a partner. This closed the chain of Chickering’s connection with Crehore, the founder of the Boston school, consisting of Osborn and Lewis Babcock, pupils of Crehore; and Alpheus Bab-cock, partner of MacKay, the latter joining Chickering.

MacKay had had considerable experience as a merchant, having traveled much to England and other foreign countries, and was unquestionably a commercial genius. With sufficient capital at his command, and faith in Chickering’s excellent pianos, MacKay started an aggressive sell-ing campaign, making the Chickering piano known in all the cities of the -United States. Chickering, freed from all financial and business cares, devoted his whole time and attention to the development and improvement of his piano, and many of his best inventions were perfected during the period of his partnership with MacKay, which came to an untimely end in 1841. MacKay, having gone in a ship of his own to South America to procure fancy woods for the Chickering factory, never returned from that voyage, nor was his ship ever heard from.

Once more Jonas Chickering had to assume entire charge of the business. He continued MacKay’s aggressive policy with great energy, maintaining the highest possible prices for his pianos, and spending money liberally for the necessary publicity. He exhibited his pianos at every important exposition, going to the World’s Fair of London in 1851 with a number of instruments; engaged prominent virtuosos to play his grand pianos in concert; and took active part in the musical life of his home city, acting as vice-president of the great Handel and Haydn Society as early as 1834, and later on as its president for seven years.

While paying proper attention to the commercial and artistic necessities of his great establishment, Jonas Chickering was ever true to his love for scientific research and experiments, to improve his pianos. He was not an empiric, who would experiment hap­hazard with an idea. Whenever he had discovered a possible improvement, he would work out the problem in its entirety on his drawing board, until he had proven to his own satisfaction its practicability, and not before would he turn it over to his mechanics for execution. It was this painstaking care down to the smallest detail which assured the Chickering piano the place of honor in the first ranks.

When at the height of his prosperity Jonas Chickering met with a great calamity. On December 1, 1852, his factory was totally destroyed by fire, involving a loss of $250,000. Undaunted, Chickering at once designed plans for a new and larger factory, which was soon erected, and stands to this day on Tremont Street, Boston, as a monument to the exceptional ability, talent and cour­age of Jonas Chickering. Even now, nearly 60 years after its erection, this factory is considered one of the best for its purpose.

Jonas Chickering died on December 8, 1853, in his fifty-sixth year. The extraordinary nervous strain of the short period from the destruction of his old factory to the completion of the new works had, no doubt, affected his constitution. He had educated all of his three sons as practical piano makers and admitted them to partnership in 1852, when the firm was changed to Chickering & Sons. The three brothers made a rare and most fortunate combina­tion.

Thomas E. Chickering, the eldest son, soon ex­hibited pronounced commer­cial talents and, as a man of the world, represented the firm with excellent results in social circles, making friends among artists, literary and scientific men. His promis­ing career was prematurely cut short by his death on February 14, 1871.

English: Brevet Brigadier General Thomas E. Ch...
English: Brevet Brigadier General Thomas E. Chickering (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This sad event made C. Frank Chickering, born at Boston on January 20, 1827, the head of the firm. Having inherited his father’s talents as a designer and inventor, he had been in charge of the construction department since his father’s death in 1853. While studying, as a young man, he had impaired his health and, upon the advice of his physician, in 1844 he went on a voyage to India in a sailing vessel. He took with him a number of pianos, which he sold in India at good prices, and thus the firm of Chickering became the first exporters of American made pianos.

In 1851 Frank accompanied his father to London to take care of their exhibit at the World’s Fair. The prolonged stay in what was then the home of the most advanced piano construction was of great and lasting advantage to young Frank. It gave him the opportunity to study and compare the work of the best brains of the industry as it then existed in Europe, and furthermore he became ac­quainted with the advanced manufacturing methods of the celebrated London estab­lishments. Returning from abroad, Frank utilized his ex­periences with effect, greatly improving the Chickering pianos.

Appreciating the impor­tance of New York as an art center, Chickering & Sons opened extensive warerooms there under the direct management of C. Frank Chickering, and in 1875 erected Chickering Hall, on Fifth Avenue. In this hall, virtuosos like Billow, Joseffy, de Pachmann, Henry Ketten and many others gave their never-to-be-forgotten concerts on the Chickering grand pianos, designed and constructed by C. Frank Chickering.

Chickering Hall was chosen as a permanent borne by leading glee clubs, such as the Mendelssohn, the English Glee Club, the New York Vocal Society and by those eminent apostles of classic chamber music, the New York Quartette, composed of C. Mollen­hauer, M. Schwarz, George Matzka and F. Bergner, and the Phil­harmonic Club under the able leadership of Richard Arnold. Remenyi and Willielmi appeared as soloists with Gotthold Carl- berg’s Orchestra, and Frank Van der Stucken conducted symphony concerts for several seasons in Chickering Hall, to be followed by Anton Seidl and the Bos­ton Symphony Orchestra with Franz Rummel, Xaver Scharwenka and Richard Hoffmann as soloists. The great building contained, besides the concert hall with a seating capacity of 2,000, the showrooms for the Chickering pianos, offices, repair shops and also the drafting rooms, where C. Frank Chickering designed and worked out his in­ventions.

It was but natural that in New York, as in Boston, Frank should be in close touch with artistic and literary circles. Among his personal friends was one J. H. Paine, a composer and critic of con­siderable ability. He was generally known as ” Miser ” Paine, and would gladly accept Chickering’s hospitality and aid at all times. He was considered a poor man by all who knew him. One day he brought to Frank Chickering a bundle wrapped up in a bandanna handkerchief, asking Chickering to kindly place the package in his safe. Chickering assumed that the bundle con­tained manuscripts of Paine’s compositions and accepted the Charge. About 17 years thereafter Paine died, without leaving a will or any disposition of the aforesaid bundle. Chickering sent for Paine’s legal representative, the bundle was opened in his presence and found to contain over $100,000 worth of bonds and currency. Chickering delivered the valuable package to the lawyer, who was obliged to hunt up distant relatives of Paine to distribute the heritage.

C. Frank Chickering (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)
C. Frank Chickering (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

C. Frank Chickering was in all respects one of nature’s noble­men. In appearance he reminded one forcibly of the Grand Seigneurs of Louis XIV’s time. He died in New York, March 25, 1891.  George H. Chickering, the youngest of the brothers, was born at Boston on April 18, 1830. After acquiring an excellent educa­tion, he turned to the bench and worked under his father’s tutelage. For many years George made every set of hammers used in their concert grands. He was an exceedingly neat and artistic me­chanic. After 1853 he took charge of the factory management and performed his arduous duties most faithfully until his death, on November 17, 1896. All three of the brothers, like their father, took an active part in the artistic life of their home city and each of them served in turn with honor as president of the Handel and Haydn Society.

George H. Chickering (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

The Chickering pianos were always awarded the highest hon­ors wherever exhibited, and, at the World’s Fair at Paris, 1867, C. Frank Chickering was decorated by the Emperor of the French with the Cross of the Legion of Honor.  The business of this renowned firm is successfully carried on by a corporation which has joined the American Piano Company, maintaining the high character of its products. True to the tradi­tions of the honored name, Chickering & Sons have of late years been instrumental in reviving interest in the beauties of the old clavichord, and are building such instruments for those who enjoy the study of the compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach, Scar-, latti and others who wrote for the clavichord. The factory on Tremont Street, Boston, has become a landmark of that historic city, but Chickering Hall, New York, had to give way to a modern building for business purposes.

The previous text and images were retrieved from: Dolge, Alfred. Pianos and Their makers: A Comprehensive History of the Development of the Piano. New York: Dover, 1972. Print.

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