Sunday, March 13, 2011

Date My Piano; Serial Numbers and Pianos

Please consider the following facts;

-Tens of millions of pianos have been manufactured world-wide during the past 200 years.

- Global production for 1911 was estimated at 650,000 units or more.

- In 1970 the Global output was 756,000 units; the majority coming from Japan.

- In the US alone, more than 5000 individual brand-name pianos have been marketed since 1880.

- In Canada 240 different company brand and stencil name pianos have been made since 1816.

- With only a few exceptions, the piano manufacturers of Canada were not compelled to hire record keepers or required to keep statisticians.

- Factory fires, floods, disasters of other kinds, the paper and metal drives of the Second War, the fact that most industry people have been businessmen rather than historians have led to a lamentable lack of documentation on pianos.

Many people have a desire to find out the age of their piano. For most of the older instruments, this is simply a point of interest. For others, serial number dating can be the confirmation to purchase the item, or steer clear of it and purchase something else.

 At times, this can be a simple process for the popular brands of instruments that many purchase; one can obtain a reference book called a Piano Atlas. These books are printed on a yearly basis with the previous year’s information updated or corrected as the publisher re-prints from year to year. The sources of information for the publishers of these books are the manufacturers of pianos or other sources like museums or historical piano collections.

With an atlas in hand, one looks up the brand name and then finds the correct year for the serial number provided.

The Piano atlas can be a minefield at times, especially when one is using a North American publication in an attempt to date a European instrument or a piano from Britain. This is why there are several atlas publications one can purchase. Some cover the serial numbers of instruments from other continents in a more complete way than the domestic publication. This is not so much the case any longer in modern times with the internet, but for the early instruments this can be especially problematic.

There can be other problems with this type of age dating too. In the early days of piano making some companies switched to a different series of serial numbers every year and did not keep the same sequence.  Some did this to keep the competition confused as to unit output; pianos were as competitive then as computers are today.

Let us look at a few examples;

 Craig Piano Co. of MontrĂ©al Canada:

Serial numbers for this company from 1913-1919 range from 23,000-29,000. A good example of how number series were often chosen to correspond to year numbers. What I mean is that the 2nd digit of the serial number corresponds to the 4th digit of the year. Even if only 2 or 300 instruments were made in a particular year the number would jump by 1000.

This method can be systematically observed for many piano manufacturers although numerous exceptions occur.

Mason & Risch Classic:

This was a piano name used by Mason & Risch from 1909-25. The serial numbers in 1919 were 15,000 and by 1925 were at 93,000. This is a classic example of how piano serial numbers seemingly indicated large volume sales. A more accurate estimate of the number of instruments sold during this period would be closer to 500 or less…

Zimmermann Piano Co Leipzig Germany:

I just received one of these instruments in my shop. The serial number in the North American atlas tells me that  #4264 was made in 1887. However, I know this instrument came here during the 1960’s. In the European atlas, I discover that the serial number for Zimmermann grand pianos ran a different sequence, and Serial number 4264 was 1969. This is another example of how manufacturers kept track of the units built. One can find many examples of this type of separation from grand to uprights.

Other types of dating occur too. Sometimes the instrument has been made by one factory and then modified by another company.

Take the Schultz & Sons Piano Co. of New York. This company has an exclusive arrangement with several piano manufacturers to make upgraded versions of their instruments that are then modified in the Schultz factory.  These instruments carry two identifiable serial numbers; one from the original company who built the instrument and then one from Schultz.

I have also worked on instruments from the early 1800’s that have been modified. Sometimes they have two serial numbers; one from the original build and one from the upgrade.

Here is an example of that type of dating in a Collard & Collard piano from 1849. When I was contracted by the owner to make improvements on this instrument, I found the original date from the factory and then another serial I suspect relates to the upgrades this instrument has received to the  action/keyboard and framework. The two different serial numbers can be seen in photos 2 and 3 of this photo album.

Collard & Collard 2.2m

The best guide for finding the age of your instrument is your piano tuner.  The tradition of leaving personal marks or initials developed very early in the piano industry; often it is possible to come close to the year of manufacture by examining these “hidden” marks that are no doubt inscribed on your piano somewhere. Some of these marks will be easy for the untrained eye to locate; others will require the skill of a trained eye or the skilled hand of an experienced technician.

Often times efforts are made to determine age by cabinet style or case design. This may allow generalized dating but could not be considered a guide to specific production years. Many of the piano makers were furniture makers; entire departments of the factories were devoted to making benches and legs only. Cabinet styles would come and go on a regular basis, some styles appearing decades later in the same way as previously.

So remember…if you don’t know your piano, know your piano technician.

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