Mason and Dixon’s Line divided pretty much everything in this country once upon a time. It even divided piano-making. While others, for instance, were laying the foundations of great concerns devoted to this industry in the Northern States, William Knabe was laying the foundations of a similar industry on the broadest and solidest lines in one of the States of the South.
It is a fact curiously characteristic of our American history that not until after the civil war was it generally known in the North that one of the best pianos in the world was made in the South. Southern people had found it out nearly a quarter of a century before. Even before 1840 they had learned that they need not go farther than Maryland’s chief city to get all that was best in the art of piano-making. They did not go any farther. They bought their pianos in Baltimore. The superb Knabe piano had been for years in the refined homes of the South before it was hardly heard of in the North. To those of the present generation, familiar with the sight of Knabe pianos from Maine to California, it comes as something all but incredible to be told that for a third of a lifetime these instruments were in universal use in one half of the country, and all but unknown in the other half.
When William Knabe the first, the head of the now historical family of American piano-makers, came to this country in 1833, he intended to make Missouri his home. His father had been a prosperous merchant in Kreuzburg, Saxe – Weimar, Germany, and William was intended for the university and a profession. In the wreckage of the Napoleonic invasion of Germany the fortune of Knabe the Kreuzburg merchant was wrecked. That is how it came to pass that Germany lost a man of strong character and of a high order of ability for one of her professions, while America gained such a man for the creation of one of her great industries.
Although William Knabe did not go to the university, be was well grounded in elementary education, after the solid, thorough-going German way. Besides, he had some knowledge of music. But he had to go to work. He was first apprenticed to a cabinet-maker. Cabinetmaking is the first step in the art of piano-making. All the Knabes—William the first, who founded the great house of to-day; William the second, who, with his brother Ernest J., carried on the business from the point where the first William left it when he died; and William the third, together with his brother Ernest J., Jr., who are now carrying it on and so broadly extending it—all these began at the cabinet-maker’s bench, and worked their way conscientiously through every branch of the intricate art of producing a perfect piano.
But before William the first left Germany he had graduated from cabinet-making and had served an apprenticeship in a regular piano-making establishment. That was at Gotha, and the manufactory was the then famous one of Langenham . Thus equipped with a knowledge of music and with skill as a piano-manufacturer, he Came to America started for Missouri, where he had friends and relatives. But the American port at which he landed was Baltimore. Baltimore in 1833 was the great metropolis of our Atlantic seaboard. It promised to eclipse even New
York. William Knabe was thirty years of age when he first saw this bustling American city. Baltimore then, as it is 110W, was an exceedingly attractive place. He liked the people he met there. Why should he go any farther? He remained in Baltimore— married the young lady to whom he had been engaged in Germany, and settled in Baltimore, determined to build up there a piano-making business.
But to begin a piano-manufacturing business on even a small scale requires a little capital, and William Knabe did not have even a little capital. He had absolutely no capital at all. That is, in cash. He had a tremendous capital in energy, thoroughness, and sagacity. For an honest, square-dealing man there happens to be no way to get cash capital save by earning it.
To persons endowed with spirit and energy labor is not dreary. William Knabe took cheerily to labor in his new home just as he had in the old home in Germany when family reverses had thrust the necessity of labor upon him. He first earned five dollars a week in Baltimore. Then his pay was increased to eight dollars. To be sure, money went farther in 1833 than now. But five dollars or even eight dollars per week is not precisely w ha t would be called a bewildering income. Yet William Knabe lived on it and saved money on it. With still more increases of his wages and with continued thrift he found himself in 1837, four years after his arrival, a capitalist—sufficiently a capitalist to begin business in a very small way.
William Knabe then lived in a little old one-story cottage at the corner of Liberty and Lexington streets in Baltimore, still standing up to a few years ago. In a little back room of that house a mere box of a room with just space enough for a work-bench, a little raw material, and elbow-room for one man to work in that cramped area was the first :limbo piano-manufactory. Its picture by the side of that of the vast Knabe plant of to-day puts the germ and the present result of the germ’s evolution in striking contrast.
The original Knabe factory was little more than a pigeonhole. The Knabe factory of to-day covers five acres. It has 300,000 square feet of floor space. It is divided into seven large buildings, besides the recent great additions to the old buildings. The working force of the original Knabe manufactory was William Knabe. The working force of the William Knabe Company of 1906 is over eight hundred hands. The contrasts of vastness of growth might be carried on indefinitely. It would only be cumulative enforcement of the same fact.
He knew what a piano was. He knew every gradation from a good piano all through the gamut of fairly good to wholly bad. He started out to make good pianos. He would ‘let nothing save a good piano leave his hands or bear his name. No matter how much of time or patience or minute care was involved, William Knabe would not let a. piano go out to the world with the responsibility of maintaining his reputation that did not pass beyond question of doubt the ordeal of his own exacting, searching inspection. He did not go into piano-making as a passing speculation, as a makeshift occupation until something better turned up. He went into it to create an industry -to be handed down to generations that were to follow him. He had this goal ever definitely before him, and he reached it—reached it by the road of honest, thoroughgoing, conscientious work.
And what has all this to do with the size of the present Knabe plant? Everything’. It means not merely an increase of the Knabe piano’s success. It means much more. It means -the reason of that success. It explains why the Knabe plant is vastly larger than other piano plants, which every year can turn out three times the number of pianos the Knabe concern can turn out. It takes -three times as much work, carried through three times the number of hands, and spread over three times as much working and material storage space to turn out a piano of the Knabe standard, worked out in conscientious observance of the William Knabe -traditions, as it does to turn out a piano produced under less exacting conditions. It represents, in a word, the bridge which spans that chasm between the thing done and the thing almost done which William Knabe so cordially detested. It stands for the difference between the piano that is made to produce music and the piano that is made to sell.
The business on his own account which William Knabe began with his very small capital in 1837 was necessarily of very modest dimensions, and was, through a number of years, of slow growth. At his bench in the tiny shop- room of his Liberty Street cottage he worked at piano-repairing. He bought a piano now and then, made it into a better piano, and sold it. The old workbench is still preserved in the Knabe family. It occupies an honored niche of its own out in the big factory. Its work-days are over. It is used no more. It looks on in the well-earned dignity of an honorable old-age retirement at the great hive of busy industry of which it was the beginning. Both of William the first’s sons, William the second and Ernest J., took their turn at the old bench. So likewise did the third generation—William the third and Ernest J., Jr. It followed William the first into his partnership with FL Gaehle in 1839, and so on through the ever-growing business until the dissolution of the Gaehle partnership in 1855. Then it went on with William the first into the firm of William Knabe and Co., formed immediately on the Gaehle dissolution, and so on into William Knabe and Co., the corporation, organized in 1889.
But long before’ the death of William the first away back in the forties, in fact — the Knabe pianos had made their fame and won their highstanding among the aristocratic families of the old South. , The executive mansions of Virginia, Maryland, Georgia, North Carolina, and a number of other Southern States had them. General J. E. B. Stuart, the famous Confederate cavalry leader ; the Lees of Virginia ; the Taliaferros of Florida and Virginia; the Carrolls of Carrollton; the Bayards of Delaware; the War-fields, the Stewarts, the Lowndes,the McLanes of Maryland; the
Selbys of South Carolina, and so on through the whole catalogue of names of well-known Southern families—all of them had Knabe pianos in their mansions years before the instrument was hardly heard of in the Northern States. William Knabe had already won wealth and his house high standing when the war came.
Meantime his two Sons, William and Ernest J., had come into the business. Educated first in this country and sent abroad as students of music, both came back and began work in the factory as cabinet-maker apprentices, as their father had done before them’. The two sons of Ernest J. William the third and Ernest J., Jr. who now are in sole control of the vast business, went through the same hard school of training. From the Pennsylvania Military University at Chester, where they were graduated, they went abroad and studied music. Then it was the lunch-pail, the overalls, hard work at the bench, for them. They went through every department of the piano- making business, working as piece-work and salaried mechanics for four full years, just as their father and their grandfather had done. There was not merely the general mystery of piano- making, from the beginning up, to master. There were special Knabe manufacturing secrets and traditions with the reasons for their existence to know all about. For them there was less indulgence for errors and negligence than even for any other of the paid mechanics.
It was not merely a great piano- making industry that William Knabe made and left behind him. He left a family, a trained hierarchy of skilled artists in piano-making as well.
Text and images from a 1906 William Knabe & Company publication