Bartolomeo di Francesco Cristofori is credited with inventing the modern piano in Padua, Italy, in 1709. A hundred and fifty years later, the piano had become the “King” of musical instruments as well as a symbol of social and economic status. No middle or upper-class Victorian household was considered complete without the presence of a piano or small home organ in its parlor, and the fancier the better. Since these musical instruments were high ticket items, it is not surprising that manufactures designed colorful trade cards with wonderful graphics to advertise their products (Figure #1).
One of the largest and most important piano manufactures in the United States was the Estey Piano and Organ Company of New York. Established in 1846, the Estey Company soon became the largest producers of pianos and reed organs in the world. Shown in Figure #2 is an Estey trade card from the late 1800s featuring “Brownies”, mischievous little spirits created by Canadian author and illustrator, Palmer Cox.
While most late nineteenth century trade cards utilized advances in chromolithography, a few companies continued to feature complex black and white graphics to advertise their products. One such company was the W. P. Emerson Piano Company of Boston founded in 1849. Emerson pianos were known for their outstanding sound quality as well as their extensive inlays of rare and exotic woods. Figure #3 is an example of one of Emerson’s early trade cards. While not colorful, the intricacy of the graphic design makes this card highly desirable.
A particularly interesting and valuable trade card is shown in Figure #4. This card was utilized by the Kohler & Campbell Company of New York to advertise their line of pianos. The card features a young couple standing in their somewhat stark parlor dominated by a small love seat. However, when the same scene is viewed through the red filter which accompanied the card, low and behold a new Kohler & Campbell piano appears! To find this trade card with its red filter disc still attached is very uncommon.
Many of the manufacturers of pianos during the late 1800s also sold organs. While the presence of a piano in the home of middle and upper-class households was to be expected, the presence of a small parlor organ elevated the social status of that family even more. Figure #5 shows a trade card from the Mason & Hamlin Organ and Piano Company of Boston. At its peak production in the early 1870s, Mason & Hamlin produced more than 200 instruments a week.
Another manufacturer of high-quality organs was the Burdett Organ Company originally of Chicago. While more ornate than pianos, parlor or cottage organs sold for only about one half the cost of the average piano. Also, organs were better suited for playing church hymns, the style of music favored by most middle-class families. Figure #6 and Figure #7 show the front and back sides of a Burdett trade card from the early 1880s. In addition to the excellent graphics on the card’s front, the back of the card features the music for a Hymn called “Hand in Hand,” a Hymn that the card notes is “… suitable for all of our National Holidays.”
Even though most organ and piano trade cards were attractive enough to stand on their own merits, some included images to aid in the promotion of their products that make them especially desirable. Figure #8 shows a hold to the light trade card produced for the Everett Piano Company of Boston that plays on a patriotic theme with Uncle Sam. When held to the light, a silhouette of Uncle Sam holding an Everett piano appears on the front of the card. An even more blatant example of using a patriotic/political theme to help sell pianos is shown in Figure #9. On this card, not one but two former Presidents of the United States are claimed to be endorsing a Blasius piano. Even P.T. Barnum’s famous and highly popular elephant “Jumbo” was used by the Daniel F. Beatty Company of New Jersey to advertise its pianos (Figure #10).
Although piano and organ advertising trade cards languished in the market place for many years, there has recently been a resurgence of interest in them. Whereas only a few years ago, most piano and organ trade cards could be acquired for less than ten dollars, the better cards now command prices in the forty to sixty-dollar range.