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Piano Tuning and Piano Manufacture History

In the 1970’s I worked as a piano tuner at Steinert’s, the Steinway franchise of Boston. People often think that the Steinert and Steinway families are related, but the similarity of the names is coincidental. The son of the owner of Steinert’s told me stories about piano manufacture and sales in the early 20th century.

At the turn of the century, there was no radio, so pianos were very popular for home entertainment. Manufacturers in Boston would load a railroad box car full of pianos, and put it on a siding in Vermont. They would sell all of the pianos out of the box car, without even needing a store-front.

There were dozens of manufacturers who sold pianos as fast as they could make them. About 1902, the Steinert family of Boston decided they wanted to manufacture their own brand of piano. Steinway objected to the use of the Steinert name on the pianos, because it was so similar to Steinway. Steinerts agreed to name their brand after their manufacturing supervisor, Mr. Hume.  So the “Hume” piano was born.

After 12 years of manufacture and very little profit, Steinerts did an audit of their production. They found that Mr. Hume was cooking the books. Far more pianos were manufactured than were reported sold. He had been depositing the income from purchases into his personal account. Steinerts did not prosecute him, but they did fire him. With Steinway’s permission, they renamed the brand “Steinert”.

For decades whenever a Hume piano came on the used piano market in Boston, Steinerts purchased it and brought it into the shop. They changed the decal on the key cover from “Hume” to “Steinert”, and they ground the Hume name off the plate inside the piano near the treble strings. They could not recast the name on the plate, so these formerly “Hume” pianos simply had no name on the plate. In contrast, the new “Steinert” pianos had “Steinert” cast into the plates. Therefore, whenever a piano tuner found a piano that had “Steinert” on the key cover, but no name on the plate, that was formerly a “Hume” piano.

I tuned both in my years tuning in Boston. I saw Hume pianos that still had the “Hume” name on the key cover and plate, and I saw formerly Hume pianos that had “Steinert” decals on the key cover and  no name on the plate.

While I was living near Boston, I dated a young woman who had just graduated from college, but was living at home until she found a situation. We had met in a community theater production of My Fair Lady. Her parents were proud of their “blue-blood” New England ancestry. After a few months, the parents invited me to look at their Steinway piano. I lifted the key cover, and read “Steinert”. I lifted the lid, and saw a blank place where the brand should have been cast into the plate. Not only did they not have a Steinway, they did not even have a Steinert. They had a Hume.

To me this was interesting, so without thinking, I told them about their piano. They were not amused. I did not stop to consider that this piano was a family heirloom, highly valued and passed down through generations. I was sorry to have caused an upset, and since then I have been more aware of the advice of Polonius: “Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice.”