EDWARDIAN UPRIGHTS & Check Actions
(Page updated November 2020)
In spite of having over eighty thousand piano names on file, we cannot answer every single question about every single name, so these pages are presented as general information which can be applied to most pianos, to try to provide answers when the name is unknown, or meaningless. This page follows the story on from Victorian Cottage Pianos. People like to label things as Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian etc., but pianos didn’t suddenly change for the new century, or when Queen Victoria died in 1901, and a lot of the big advances in upright pianos happened around 1890, especially the increased use of cast iron frames, so although it is reasonable to talk about “Victorian cottage pianos”, some of the styles we know from Edwardian times were very similar to those of the 1890s.
Many of the enquiries that I deal with on the Piano History Forum and in our own website emails, are about upright pianos from just over a hundred years ago, and it is sometimes embarrassing to be saying yet again "it’s probably Edwardian". It’s as if that is the point when owners suddenly become aware that the piano might be an antique. So what was a typical British or European upright piano like at that time? The actions mostly have 85 notes, the dampers above the hammers, 2 pedals, and straight stringing, in fact they hadn’t changed much since the 1890s, and are still the most common pianos found in English front rooms. Sadly, they are also the most common pianos being sold for next to nothing, or offered to us for nothing, or just being scrapped. Try searching Ebay for pianos in price order. They are also the most common type of piano in English front rooms, and this is reflected in the number of them that appear in TV dramas, auction programmes, etc.. Also, in lockdown videos, we see into so many people’s homes and often see Edwardian pianos.
BORD, PARIS UPRIGHTS of 1890
Here is a random selection of upright pianos from 1892, to give some idea what styles were like, approaching the turn of the century. In order to produce better tonal quality and more power, makers needed to increase the tension on the strings, and this necessitated a stronger structure. Whereas most cottage pianos of the 1870s had very little iron reinforcement, most uprights of the 1890s had an extensive cast iron frame, and the difference in weight is often a 50% increase. I can usually lift a cottage piano onto a trolley, wheel it around on my own, and tip it onto a side-loading trailer or a tail-lift van. The same is not advisable with iron-framed uprights, they are dangerously back-heavy. You can weigh each end of an upright piano and add the two figures together. Wooden-framed cottage pianos may weigh about 9 to 12 stones each end, so something like the weight of 2 people altogether. By contrast, a three-quarter size iron frame on its own can add 5 stones, and a full iron frame would add more like 9 stones. If it is attached to a wooden back, with strings, it would weigh more than a whole cottage piano – even before the outer casework was added, or the keys and action. In extreme cases, such as our 1890 Bluthner, the full weight can be 23 stones each end. Why would anybody want to build a piano that heavy?
Henri Pape throwing a tantrum!
Old French uprights often have wheels instead of castors, so although they move beautifully from left to right, they raise violent objection when forced to move front-to-back. The brass handles on the ends are ridiculously small for such large, heavy objects. Some of our English pianos are pigs to move, most of the French ones are cochons, but the Bluthner is a SCHWEIN!
It’s always a good idea to spray castors thoroughly with WD40 an hour before you move them. The heavier the piano, the bigger and stronger the castors will be, but this has a downside, and once one of these beasts gets moving, you will have to fight against a lot of inertia to STOP it! That’s where many accidents happen, especially as upright pianos are all back-heavy. Also, rather than balancing a heavy piano on a trolley, it is often safer to lay boards on the ground and run the castors on them. I sometimes feel that pianos are safer and more predictable to move when the castors have been removed, but beware of replacing them with a central wooden block underneath. It adds to the danger by making the piano harder to steer.
GERMAN UPRIGHTS OF THE 1890s
These German pianos sold as “Hapsburg” by Beale, Australia, may seem to have similar panels, but the 2 on your left, thought to be from the 1890s, have proper shaped, inset panels, whereas the other one, made about a decade later, only has mouldings stuck onto a flat panel, a cheaper version.
By the late 1800s, it was possible to buy a decorative rail or gallery which could be screwed to the top of any upright piano, to give it something of the appearance of the fancier German models.
AMERICAN UPRIGHTS OF THE 1890s
BROADWOOD, LONDON UPRIGHTS OF 1898
AMERICAN UPRIGHTS OF THE EDWARDIAN PERIOD
With all these increases in string tension and structure to produce more power, the downside is that pianos like these, in becoming more powerful, place a great deal more strain on the moving parts of the notes, and the physical shock to the hammers etc. is such that pianos made around the turn of the century are much more likely to suffer from broken hammers and other parts of the action. Unfortunately, these are not mass-produced objects, so no ready-made parts are available. Makers had to learn how to create stronger actions to cope, but a century on, we find that these instruments suffer much worse problems with fragility than the earlier ones do, especially the ones with imported cheap German actions.
Until the 1914 war, it was quite common for English makers to import cheap overdamper actions from Germany, and they tended to be these “Costa” actions, as described at
They worked well then but, by now, may have one foot in the grave, and are very fragile. Some also used cheap felt for the hammers, and the tonal quality suffered. Many of these German actions have the action makers’ name and number on the back, and can be dated. Tuners are horrified to learn that such things as sticker actions and oblong wrestpins were still in limited use for a few years after 1900 and, occasionally, pianos were even pinned with some square and some oblong wrestpins.
Erard Kaps Brinsmead Winkelmann Wolfframm
By the 1890s, when almost all upright pianos had most of their sound trapped by boxed-in fronts, and the main sound output was from the rear, various reflectors and resonator gadgets were suddenly in vogue: Erard was making strange metal resonators for grands, Kaps made his Reflectrophon, a curved reflector on top of an upright, which reflected sound rising from the back, and Brinsmead used a similar device. [The item above refers to “Reflectrophone” but an instrument that I tuned was clearly marked “Reflectrophon”.] Wolfframm installed reflectors in the sides, while Winkelmann came up with resonating tubes attached to the soundboard, in an attempt to enhance the tone of the treble notes. Later, small uprights were sometimes fitted with sound vents, reflectors or revolving flaps to let more sound out, and it is amusing to think that if they had not boarded up the fronts, but kept them open like Victorian pianos, none of that palaver would have been necessary. Imagine someone making a violin or guitar with no soundholes!
Most British and European music desks continued to be the same as the Victorian overhanging ones, which could fold away when not in use. By about 1880, American uprights had begun to find their typical profile with a generous music shelf running right across the front of the piano, whereas (apart from more modern school models) most English and European upright pianos have pathetically inadequate provision for serious readers of music. School teachers often complain that Danemann pianos are rubbish, but they were so well-made and durable, they got the contract for the London County Council and others, so most school pianos here are Danemanns, but horribly abused.
Above all, what stuns the novice is the incredible standard of decorative work that was normal and everyday for the piano trade a century ago. Inlaid work, marquetry, or even the cheaper incised decorations can be quite impressive until you have seen hundreds of them. Some panels were imported from French firms like Chevrel’s.
The use of inlaid floral panels crept in the 1880s, perhaps related to the Art Nouveau movement, and Bechsteins’ catalogue shows no sign of them in 1887, but an 1888 Bechstein has inlay. They were more established by the 1890s, but became much less common by the 1914 war, dying out in the 1920s. People often imagine such panels to be individual works of art, but they were churned out in great numbers. Suggestions that they are Edwardian may not always be accurate, but it’s often a good guess.
Like many of the cheapest pianos doing the rounds on Ebay, the "legs" that support the keyboard are often of a type known as TRUSSES, which unite the horizontal and vertical surfaces. The toe-blocks at the bottom are quite short, about half the depth of the keyboard projection, and even when these pianos are modernised, the short toes often give them away. The trusses themselves are completely attached to the toe-blocks, the front of the piano, and the underside of the keyboard. Apart from a few early examples, trusses were mainly used from about 1885 to 1925, so they are an indicator of something that may be antique, but not necessarily exciting. We have an early example from 1872, but trusses are not commonly found on pianos of the 1880s, when many English designs were still connecting with cottage pianos. Looking through over 400 pictures of upright pianos from the 1880s, I found only 15 with trusses, mainly German, and mainly late 1880s.
Generally speaking, trusses of the 1890s were more ornate, and became much plainer and simpler by the 1914 war. We only have a limited number of names for particular leg types, but designs varied so much, it is sometimes difficult to define whether they are French legs, columns, trusses, Pan legs, etc..
HOPKINSON 1904 BARLESS FRAME
Often, pianos with trusses seem to have gone past the point of being interesting antiques, but not yet become mature twentieth-century instruments, although there is always a chance of some interesting facet, such as the barless iron frame in our little 5-octave Hopkinson, shown above. Most iron frames have vertical bars at points between the strings, which cause breaks in tonal quality at those points. Broadwoods are the most famous for barless frames, but they were not the first or the only makers.
Some trusses have a feature known as a DRIP that hangs down under the keyboard, in the manner of a stalactite. These are mainly found on German pianos, and mainly between 1882 and 1908, so the mean date is “circa 1895”.
A century ago, many pianos were mass-produced in huge factories, employing hundreds of workers, but it is important to understand that there were still little cottage industries like Smith’s making pianos one at a time in small sheds and workshops in their back gardens, buying in parts like actions, keys and iron frames from specialists, and building the piano around them. Tracing these little firms is almost impossible, most are not listed on the internet, many did not subscribe to trade organisations or directories, and a lot of them used fictitious aliases on their pianos. Some bought the whole "strung back" ready-made, and built a case around it, so they could build the piano to a unique design, but it is still a complicated job requiring a range of skills. Firth Brothers made just TWO of these, and then settled for the simpler process of buying in the whole piano from a wholesaler.
The 3-panel top doors shown here are typical of the period around 1901, but some had just one panel, or occasionally two.
It is difficult to guess in what order we should read the words on this transfer, but by the late 1800s, most pianos had TRICHORDS (3 strings per note) in the treble, and CELESTE was the most common type of soft pedal action, placing a strip of soft, graduated felt between the hammers and strings. “Celeste” implies that it is heavenly! The very apt American term for it is a MUFFLER.
These designs from Milsom’s catalogue are typical of so many Edwardian pianos, and all except one have trusses and 3-panel top doors. In 1897, all of the uprights in Broadwoods’ catalogue had trusses, as did most of Ibachs’ and Brinsmeads’, but Ibach had given up on trusses by 1905.
In modern times, it is not uncommon to find people painting old pianos white, but there seems to have been a trend towards white pianos in Edwardian times, even though we cannot always guarantee which ones were originally made like that. Caruso owned one that was.
In the early 1900s, and especially around the 1914 war, trusses were gradually replaced by columns, with toe blocks that tend to come out nearly as far as the keyboard.
Two out of three of these uprights from Broadwoods’ 1907 catalogue have columns.
Here, we see that in 1910, Cranes’ catalogue showed 8 models with trusses, 6 with columns, and varying numbers of panels. Around the 1914 war, Brinsmeads’ models with columns were in the majority, and by the twenties, most uprights had columns, they seem to have completely ousted trusses by 1926. It is natural to think in terms of decades, but many of the sudden changes in piano design happened around the time when production recommenced at the end of the war, 1918, although a number of changes happened around 1928.
SEWELL & SEWELL’S CATALOGUE
I have done a lot of research to try to help people estimate the dates of pianos by various visible features, so when I came across Sewell & Sewell’s catalogue, showing 20 different upright models on sale at the same time, I was keen to see how they compared. The date is estimated at 1913, it is before 1917, and probably before the 1914 war, because some models were imported from Germany. There are fancy German trusses or columns that I would have expected to be earlier. There are plainer, simpler trusses, and also columns. There is an upright with a raised gallery on top. Some you win, some you lose.
WOODEN TOP BRIDGE
Until about 1928, some London uprights still had wooden top bridges, whereas most other makers had incorporated this into the iron frame by then, improving the tonal quality, but perhaps increasing the risk of false beats, as explained at
Whatever you may think, two pedals is the NORMAL arrangement for old pianos, and you can see many examples on the internet. Most of the world's piano-makers had long realised that metal is the best material for pedal feet because of the heavy work they have to do, but Broadwoods were ahead of a lot of British upright pianos, which still had wooden pedal feet by 1910, although they might have a brass disc or some other token attempt at reinforcement.
The pedals in an Edwardian upright piano will probably be mounted underneath the plinth of the piano, so routine little jobs like oiling and adjustment become almost impossible in a normal room, because it is necessary to tip the piano on its back in order to do them. If you find yourself having the piano laid on its back, take advantage of the opportunity to lubricate the castors and pedals, and check for woodworm. The strings will often be in more-or-less parallel vertical lines, known as VERTICAL-STRUNG in uprights, or STRAIGHT-STRUNG in any type of piano, also known in the U.S.A. as FLAT SCALE. Some were still being made like this in the fifties, and the idea was revived by Lindner in the seventies.
Here, we see a fairly unusual arrangement where vertical strings are combined with an underdamper action in a “Boyd” piano, probably made by Kemble in the twenties. The result is a very neat interior. English uprights rarely had underdamper actions until the 1900s, and some overdampers continued to be made up to the 1950s.
Vertical/Straight Oblique Semi-Oblique? Overstrung Cramer Portable
Other stringing arrangements attempt to improve tonal quality by providing longer bass strings, on bridges further from the edges of the soundboard. OBLIQUE stringing (diagonal from corner to corner) only appears in about one in a thousand English pianos: John Watlen sold “Oblique Piano Fortes” in London by 1807, probably invented by Southwell, and Thomas Loud may even have made them in 1802, but the idea became much more commonly used in France. Some old pianos have the strings about 20 degrees off the vertical line, and this may be what was meant by “SEMI-OBLIQUE”, we don’t know. In 1827, Pape used the term “CROSS-STRINGING” but this is ambiguous, it sometimes refers to oblique, but in this instance it meant separate sets of strings crossing over each other. OVERSTRINGING, with the bass strings crossing over the tenor / treble section, was in limited use as early as the 1820s, by Pape and others, but it is now universal. Chickering strangely called it a “Circular Scale”. The claim that overstringing was invented by Steinway is incorrect, I really don’t know if T.Southwell invented it in 1807. The picture on your right shows a combination of oblique and overstringing used in some Cramer portable pianos. Like Yacht Pianos, they have a fold-away keyboard, but their Patent Portable Piano has nothing below keyboard level…
In 1901, Captain Scott took a Cramer Patent Portable Piano on his first expedition to the Antarctic, and also a Pianola piano player. Alistair Gellatly wrote to me from the Discovery Point museum. “There was one skilled pianist on board Discovery – Lieutenant Charles Royds. The following is from “The Voyage of Discovery” written by Captain Scott. He notes that for an hour before dinner, Royds “goes to the piano and plays it, sometimes with and sometimes without the aid of the Pianola; in either case we others in our various cabins have the pleasure of listening to excellent music, and feel that the debt of gratitude we owe to our only musician is no light one”. The piano did not only stay on board ship but was also moved at times to one of the huts they constructed on Ross Island. The rest of the men enjoyed using the piano - or more accurately the Pianola. This was of the push-up variety [meaning that it could be pushed up to a piano] and was donated to them by Lady Baxter of Dundee.
They didn’t have mp3 players then!
The portable pianos were also used in the trenches during the 1914 war, as explained in this page from Cramers’ catalogue. Originally, they had stands which allowed a pedal or 2 to be attached to the bottom of the piano, but many have now lost them, and some stands have been replaced by tables or cupboards. Scott’s fateful 1910 expedition included a Broadwood player piano, even bigger and heavier than a normal piano.
By 1897, some of the Cramer portables had the unusual combination mentioned above - of oblique stringing and overstringing, producing 17 surprisingly long bass strings, but by 1919, this was simplified to a semi-oblique arrangement, about 40 degrees off the vertical, with 23 monochords and the rest bichords.
When a piano is overstrung or oblique, the key-blocks at the ends of the keyboard are usually unequal, as you can see above, because the hammers have to line up with the sloping strings, so the bass key-block is wider, a useful outward clue. I get the impression that a century ago, it was mainly German makers who angled the rear ends of the keys so that the keyblocks could be symmetrical. Unfortunately, Chappells confused our convenient modern definitions in 1884 by advertising an “Overstrung Oblique Pianoforte” and even “Double Overstrung Oblique Pianofortes”, and it seems that overstringing was also regarded as being a form of oblique. Nicholsons (Australia) logically referred to overstringing as “Double Oblique”, although this is not a normal term. Occasionally, there were references to “Grand Oblique” – meaning uprights, and not grands at all!
Around 1879, Ibach was making some uprights with a very unusual string arrangement which could reasonably be described as “understrung” because the single bass strings of the bottom octave pass under the bichords of the upper bass section at an angle, and through the bridge onto a second bridge on the same platform. The rest of the strings are vertical.
DOUBLE OVERSTRINGING was used in a few uprights by the 1880s, as well as Mathusek’s double overstrung square piano, and Ernst Kaps’ double overstrung grand. All of these have the very lowest bass strings crossing over the next section which, in turn, crosses over the tenor / treble. In the 1920s and 1930s, Challen and Broadwood used double overstringing in some of their baby grands.
Neumeyer’s Quadruplex was advertised as “quadruple overstrung”, but this was not entirely accurate, it is actually triple overstrung, four sets of strings. (Piano owned by Clare Hamburger.) This is a very difficult arrangement when it comes to making the hammers and dampers operate at all those different angles. The combination of overstringing with overdampers is more likely to be found in German pianos, and it suffers similar problems.
Without donations, I will be fine, but our collection may not survive for future generations, and it may all end up on a bonfire. If every visitor to this site made a small donation, we would have better displays for our building, and much-improved facilities for research within our own archives. Cheques must be made out to Bill Kibby-Johnson. Foreign cheques are subject to high bank charges, so if you are posting a donation, bills are easier to change without any of your money disappearing on charges.
In 1863, Fourneaux had invented a device called “Pianista” - a separate unit (left) which could be pushed up to a piano, with a set of mechanical fingers that played the notes. Around the time of Scott’s first expedition, there was a sudden explosion of advertising for these “PIANO PLAYERS”, which took over most of the normal advertising space that had previously been used for pianos. In our 1903 Illustrated London News for example, only one in twelve of the piano ads was NOT about players, and the most famous of these was PIANOLA. Gradually, more player units were built inside the piano itself, which are known as PLAYER PIANOS.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then one measure of the success of the Pianola is the degree of imitation of its name by other player piano makers, such as Pianella, Pianolo, Pleyela, Virtuolo and the many "ola" endings, including Artonola, Autoelectrola, Auteola, Autonola, Carola, Claviola, Coinola, Concertrola, Desola, Dranola, Duola, Euphonola, Eastonola, Humanola, Indianola, Interola, Ninola, Odeola, Phonola, Pistonola, Plaola, Playerola, Russola, Spin-O-La, Stradola, Theme-Ola, Triphonola, and Victorola! There are many books, museums and websites which specialise in players, but although we have some player paperwork and illustrations on file, our active research is aimed at “real” pianos that require pianists. Personally, I think that, long before gramophones, cinemas and discos took work away from musicians, player pianos were another nail in the coffin of live music, and part of the reason why so much so-called “live music” often doesn’t involve musicians anymore.
Although the electric light bulb was invented as early as 1877, sconces (projecting candle-holders) continued to be used on some pianos until the twenties, but like trusses, they seem to have disappeared by the thirties, except for occasional examples of “electric sconces”, which had been available as early as 1904. We have an extensive collection of pictures of sconces, but a particular model did not always have a fixed style of sconce, and customers could choose their own, so it is not possible to say what the originals looked like. Modern replacements are available from trade suppliers. Some may be found on Ebay, but there is little opportunity to choose styles now, and the sconces often sell for more than the antique pianos. So do the stools. As far as I am aware, gas lights were never fitted to pianos.
Lynnedor enquired on the Piano History Forum about a 1904 Brinsmead which, unusually, has a copy of a Victorian painting 'Andromache in Captivity' by Frederic Leighton as its middle panel, and very large sconce brackets either side. Ken Barry wrote to me some time ago about a 1902 Brinsmead with the same Andromache painting, so there were probably quite a few of them made. Vernon Kennard says "My dad worked at Brinsmeads, as did my uncle and cousin around that time. I have a picture taken from the centre panel of a Brinsmead in similar style. It's a copy of a well-known Victorian print ‘A foretaste of Summer’ by George Logan, a woman reclining on a punt with a parasol and two swans in attendance. Very beautiful." A Brinsmead shown in a saleroom in 2015 with the same picture appears to be about 1905, (ignoring their estimate) so we already know of 4 separate examples of these paintings between about 1902-5. Around the same time, Koch & Korsell used a similar idea with a curved shape, shown on the right.
Deep bevelled edges on the top door panels, like these examples, tend to come from the period between the 1890s to the 1920s, so “circa 1910” is a rather vague estimate.
From about 1890 to 1920, or “circa 1905”, some upright pianos had curved shapes and no sharp corners to the inset panels of the top doors, perhaps related to Art Nouveau, with its flowing curves and floral designs, but these were possibly influenced by some of Steinways’ designs from the 1870s. Cable described them as “Chippendale Style”, but I have never seen any Chippendale furniture like that.
Another curvy idea is the so-called “Owl Eyes” with two curving panels that taper towards the middle. During my training, I was given several other generalisations about the number or type of panel, but these are not borne out by my research. By the twenties, inset panels were gradually replaced by “fake” panels - mouldings stuck on the surface - but it is difficult to infer dates from these.
ARTS & CRAFTS
To me, “Arts & Crafts” always seems a daft name for a style or period, but it was influencing pianos from the 1880s to the 1920s, although they don’t entirely conform to the modern view of Arts & Crafts. Some upright models rigidly followed the precedent set by Bechstein’s “Mediaeval English Model”, (left) with the columns extending above the keyboard, candle-holders on top of them, and the tendency towards Jacobean-style crude metalwork. Technically, the term “Jacobean” refers back to the reign of King James I, long before pianos existed.
In the early twenties, the Jacobean fad was taken a step further, and various firms were promoting very similar “Jacobean Models” with oak cases, shaped mouldings, barley twist columns and perhaps beaded edges. Names included Bremar, Chappell, Dale Forty, Larg, Rogers, Sames, Squire, Triumph and Waddington, but some of those pianos were actually made by Kemble. Monington & Weston still made them in the thirties.
The uprights shown here all date from around 1922-6, and illustrate a pattern of 3 elliptical panels (often wrongly described as “oval”) which was popular in the twenties. They are similar, but not all identical, some have inset panels, others have the elliptical edges inset. Their design allows spaces for sconces, but these are not fitted. Some examples were made for the wholesale trade by the Chalton Piano Co., but other names which appear on them include Barnes, Granger, Howlett, Karn, Lobl, Murdoch McKillop, Parker, Renn Hounam, Seeger, Society, Steinhart, Studholme, Tost, Wallis and Westwood. (“Oval” means a circle extended in one direction by straight lines, like a toy train track.)
Around the same time, some makers used a curved top to the panels, or occasionally straight slopes to achieve a similar effect. Some are arranged like a triptych.
These models from Whiting’s catalogue are typical of the twenties, and were also available with variations in the styles of the top door. There was space for sconces but they were optional extras, not listed in the catalogue.
Sconces were still on sale in the twenties, and upright pianos usually had spaces for them, but they became a lot less common, although various pianos and catalogues estimated to be from around 1920 do show sconces, as well as French ones such as this one of several shown in a Gaveau catalogue of 1927. An internet search of the whole of the 1920s only produced one with sconces, an Elcke also of 1927, on Besbrode Pianos’ website.
By the late 1800s, it was common to hype up perfectly ordinary, average upright pianos by describing them as “Upright Grand”, or as “Upright Iron Grand” if they had an iron frame, and the deception continues with the many surviving examples. (The true Georgian upright grands were quite different.) The use of iron was quite normal, and there was nothing “grand” about these uprights.
From the late twenties onwards, Robert Morley, London, was making smaller uprights somewhat in the shape of a grand, and later models varied from a curved top sloping down in the treble, (like our 1927 example) to a symmetrically-curved top half, or an upside-down version where the curve was below keyboard level. Rippen also made grand-shaped uprights, as well as their ”Scheherazade”, which was slightly different. In the 1950s, Kemble, Chappell and others produced small uprights to resemble the front section of a grand, with a top that lifts at one end, but the similarity was superficial.
FLUTING or REEDING
The form of decoration known as FLUTING – parallel groves along the edges of the case – gradually lost favour through the twenties, and was virtually unknown by 1930.
Technically, fluting is convex, reeding is concave, but the definition blurs when the convex ridges have concave valleys between them.
THREE-QUARTER IRON FRAME
In cheap commercial uprights, the iron frames tended to be of the three-quarter variety, not reaching up to the top area around the wrestplank and tuning pins, and not easy to see unless you look in the bottom of the piano. Hutchinson’s “Invisible” frame (centre) was one of these. Some “Full Open” frames were also made with the frame right up to the top, but with an open wrestplank area, which was cheaper than drilling every separate hole through the frame.
A separate head-bar would sometimes be added at the top of a three-quarter frame, painted gold, often with the name cast into it, and screwed on to give the impression that it was a full iron frame, and that the piano name was a proper maker. A standard model could be bought in from a wholesaler, and the head-bar would be screwed on.
Next time you see a circus strongman lifting a piano, think about the incredible feat of strength that goes on inside, a typical piano has about 215 strings, each one having a tension equivalent to the weight of an adult person. If ever an argument was needed for an all-over iron frame, I have known two instances where the piano “exploded” with a loud bang when the wrestplank burst through the front of the case, throwing pieces of piano around the room, and all because the piano was not designed to cope with modern heating. I recently heard of an extreme case where, incredibly, the substantial wooden bracings on the back of an upright piano snapped as it fell apart, with the inevitable explosion. On one occasion, a lady called the fire brigade because her tuner foolishly said the piano was like a bomb waiting to explode.
In the thirties, there was a battle between designs that just carried on from the twenties, (but perhaps a little more rounded) against others that began to show Minipianos, Art Deco, or smoother, more modern lines that were very much like the uprights of the fifties. (Kennard pictures courtesy of Loch Ness Pianos.) Kembles made small uprights with green edges and green sharps, sometimes in Art Deco styles, sold under a variety of names, including Crane or Barnes. Some of them had pale green natural keys too.
The two pianos on your left are our instruments by Henri Pape, Paris, patented in 1837. A century later, before and after the success of Eavestaffs’ 1934 Minipiano Pianette, there were many very small uprights called Amylette, Mignon, Miniature, Minstrelle, Minx, Pianet, Pianette, Spinet, and that old stand-by Pianino…
Collards used it in the thirties for a small overdamper model with only bichords – 2 strings per note, like the Minipianos. Unfortunately, there is no fixed definition for a Minipiano, it is a brand used and patented by Eavestaff, and their Minipianos of the 1930s were very different to those of the 1970s.
The thirties also saw a strange trend towards hiding pianos, by disguising them as cupboards, desks or wardrobes.
Several American websites have attempted to define piano sizes, but unfortunately, they don’t agree with each other. The Blue Book of Pianos says “The Console Piano measures 40 to 44" tall. The Studio or "professional upright" measures 45 to 50" tall. The largest of the vertical pianos is the Upright, which measures over 50" tall. The Spinet Piano is the smallest of the vertical pianos. The Spinet Piano has what is called a dropped action.” This is a very American point of view, alien to us over this side of the ocean, where a spinet is a type of harpsichord, and all of these others are “uprights”.
We receive more enquiries about Eavestaff pianos than most other makes, but no archives are available, and their serial numbers run in several separate sequences, most do not correspond to the published information, so dating is sometimes difficult, but several sets of Eavestaff numbers may be found on our Numbers page…
Established in 1823, W. Eavestaff was originally a music publisher. He was at Great Russell Street by 1826, and still there in the 1870s, but doesn't seem to have been described as W.G. (William Glenn) until the 1860s, so we don’t know if this was a son of the original.
He soon began to sell pianos, and by the 1840s he was listed as a pianoforte maker, offering typical cottage pianos, then typical uprights by the late 1800s. By 1875 he was at Berners Street, and by 1892 the firm was Eavestaff & Sons. In 1925, the manufacture of Eavestaff pianos is said to have been taken over by Brasteds, but a 1924 Eavestaff piano is signed “Brasted”.
They introduced their very popular Eavestaff Minipiano Pianette in 1934, based on a 1931 design by Lundholm, Sweden, and some models are outwardly very similar to Pape’s Piano Console of a century earlier, but with everything internal except the keyboard turned back-to-front. Because of their narrow bottom edge, they also suffer from the same problem of being almost impossible to move safely on a normal piano trolley! Most have very thick, hollow ends, and it has been suggested that these were intended to improve resonance. We don’t know whether the ones with thin ends are original, or altered.
As any tuner will tell you, there are 5 sizes of upright: Stretch, Stand, Bend, Sit, & ...
"Oh No! Not one of those!"
The action is mounted inside the back of the piano, hence the term “Back-Action Minipiano”. The original model can have major problems now, the tuning pins are often loose, and being quite different from the usual ones, they are difficult to obtain or replace, so often, the only option is a liquid treatment to tighten them. They are behind a little flap under the keyboard and very inconvenient to tune. In the trade, Eavestaff minis are known as “coffins” although “bier” might be more apt, I can quite imagine a coffin sitting on top of one, so it was quite amusing when I went to the flat above a funeral director’s office and a sombre purple cover was pulled off to reveal one of those “coffins”. Although it seems strange in this age of mini-skirts, mini-budgets, mini-strokes and mini cars, Eavestaffs copyrighted the use of the prefix “Mini” and, as recently as the sixties, took Farfisa to court for calling their organ a “Mini-Compact”. In 1937, a larger Eavestaff model called “Minigrand” was introduced, with a more conventional layout, the action “dropped” behind the keys, very much like Pape’s console piano of a century earlier, and optimistically claiming to have “the compass and tone of the most expensive grands”.
In the forties, the Miniroyal model had the top of the iron frame curved upwards in the middle, creating a convex top on the case, and the action sloping downwards in the bass, to accommodate longer bass strings. Later, they reverted to a flat-topped frame, but kept the outer curved shape. References to “As used by Princess Ingrid of Sweden” can be as early as 1936, but it was probably in the fifties that they introduced sound-holes above the keys, to direct more sound towards the pianist. There are various references to the pianos being “as used by” Princess Elizabeth, Princess Margaret, and Princess Ingrid of Sweden, hence the name “Miniroyal”, but it is difficult to infer dates from this information, apart from the fact that Elizabeth became Queen in 1952.
In the sixties, Eavestaff also made the tiny Minitronic electric grand piano, with open-helix bass strings, but it seems to have been short-lived, I have only ever seen one.
In 1969, the Eavestaff Miniroyal Model 90 was introduced, with its distinctive hood which can be raised to gain access to the interior. This also acts as a reflector, directing the sound towards the pianist or tuner. This is one of my favourite modern pianos, usually very pleasant to tune, and to play, but dealers displaying the Model 90 soon realised that it was unwise to place them back to back, because this gave an even stronger impression of a coffin. Monington & Weston’s “Monarch” model seems outwardly identical, another royal-sounding name, but was made years earlier.
A minor point is that the 1969 examples had a problem because so many people damaged the piano by trying to open the keyboard without lifting the hood first, so this little gadget was added to the end of the fall, to stop that happening. By the seventies, pianos bearing the Eavestaff name were imported. (See our Numbers page.)
I still tune a Brasted piano for the Brasted family, who now own a catering firm. They very kindly sent me a scan of a photocopy of an old monochrome photo of the factory, from which I reconstructed the picture above. Sadly, they have no archive information. One of the factory employees had collected information, and his widow was going to get in touch with me years ago, but she never did. I wonder if the paperwork still exists?
MODERNISED or STREAMLINED PIANOS
After the 1939 war, with a shortage of new pianos on the British market, the trade developed a method of forcing old pianos to conform to a more modern look by rounding off the top corners, fitting curved columns to support the keyboard, and plain panels in place of inlaid or decorative ones. The end result is rather like some of Kembles’ models from the late thirties but, being older, they are often taller. Some are described as “Art Deco”. These pianos were said to be “modernised”, and by the sixties, some firms took this process to damaging extremes, by cutting away some of the essential structure of the iron frame at the top and bottom, and sloping the front, in order to make the pianos smaller. The bottom board was moved in front of the frame to save an inch or two, and this butchery was called “streamlining”. In the course of these standardising processes, the name transfer was often lost, and replaced with a fictitious one, one can only guess what the original design of the case looked like, and the disguise makes it difficult to deduce anything much about a piano’s history from its outside appearance, so modernised pianos tend to be difficult to sell now, and low in value.
After the end of World War 2, import controls in New Zealand restricted the availability of new pianos and a similar practice also arose there whereby secondhand pianos were modernised to facilitate their resale. The process involved stripping them of 'old-fashioned' features such as candle-sticks, ornate panels and turned legs and replacing them with plain, smooth lines and rounded, rather than square, edges. The woodwork would then be artificially 'grained' and varnished. It seems that thousands of old pianos were so treated in New Zealand during the 1940s & 1950s.
Starting around the 1980s, the opposite situation occurred in Britain, where new, modern pianos were thinly disguised to give some impression of an antique-style case, but this is rarely convincing and, sometimes, the stuck-on decoration looks like something from B&Q’s bedroom department. A friend of mine used to work for Danemanns in the fifties, and their process of “antiqueing” included throwing darts at the piano to simulate woodworm.
The Preloved Pianos website offers an amusing list showing what they would pay for a piano, basically reducing from £300 for an instrument of the late 1900s, down to little or nothing before 1920. We place more historical value on pianos made before 1900. At least we agree that ordinary unrestored run-of-the-mill pianos made around a century ago have very little value here in Britain, and they can have all sorts of major problems. Fully restored, they are very expensive, and don’t forget that many pianos become untuneable after 50 or 60 years.
Paino panio pinao pisno pianogen.org Piano History Centre