by Davey Lee Goode
Pre 1930 Pianos in general
I am fascinated by history and how life changes throughout the ages and Have a love of old musical instruments. We have long moved on from the times when every household dreamt of owning or was lucky enough to own a piano. At the turn of the last century, entertainment within the home came from the people within it and the piano was a popular contender for livening up the home with music... no TV, no Radio, no HiFi equipment to fill the rooms with music and no real means of producing music other than by human performance. These times can be hard to imagine in today’s techno hungry and gadget reliant environment.
Canada had a history of piano building through the 1800’s but it would be the early 1900’s that would see the industry boom! Imported instruments were common but there was a major problem transporting them in damp cargo holds across the ocean and they were notorious for their problems associated with the change in climate after transportation. The early 20th century seemed to be a time when the piano switched from being a instrument of the wealthy to being an instrument for everyone. Much of the marketing was aimed at the average household, making a piano part of everyday life with slogans like "A piano for every Parlour".
1900 to 1930 (The Good times)
Canadian piano makers were enjoying increasing sales and the growing population kept demand high. Canada had a strong piano industry and one look through today’s classifieds will pull up many examples of Canadian built pianos form the pre 1930 period. Small piano building shops were numerous and there were a number of large factory manufacturers all seeming to have no problem competing for a piece in the very favorable piano market of the times. The peak time for the Canadian piano production was 1890 thru to 1925.
Piano parts (keys, strings, action) were imported from other suppliers for some of the builders but as time progressed many Canadian builders utilized all Canadian parts.
When looking at the timelines, I have identified a cut off at around 1930 where many manufacturers went out of business or were bought up by larger manufactures.
There are some piano builders that continued to operate long after 1930 but only the very strong survived. The great depression of the 30’s saw the further demise of the industry and the piano market would never be the same again. It is important to note that the demise of the Canadian Piano manufactures up to and around 1930 was not only due to the onset of the depression years, a major contributor was to advent of the Gramophone and then of course Radio, the popularity of these was enormous and the piano was almost forgotten overnight.
As an indication of the growing market, statistics show that piano production more than doubled between 1900 (12,000 units) and 1912 (30,000 units).
World war 1 saw a challenge for the industry with materials such as Woods, metals and fuel being held back from anything that was not part of the war effort. With the problems in Europe, much of the import and export from the European community was hindered and this opened up some trade potential from Canada to such destinations as the UK.
Amherst Pianos Ltd 1913 to 1928
Amherst Piano Factory Workers
The Amherst Pianos story typifies the time and gives a good sense of the boom in the early 20th century. The story is an interesting but relatively short lived lifespan 1913 to 1928.
The piano building story in Amherst seems to start with the H.A. Hillcoat Pianos, a small company that had been manufacturing for some time. Hillcoat was certainly in business through the 1890's and it seems had a number of startups and business closures. I have press clippings indicating that the Company assigned in 1898 due to Mr Hillcoats inability to operate his business due to illness. In 1892 it seems that the Hillcoat premises sustained a fire that burnt the entire store to the ground. Many ads in the late 1800 imply that Hillcoat sold furniture and pianos and at some time moved into building his own instruments.
Hillcoat Pianos- H A Hillcoat
H A Hillcoat Had been operating a music store in Amherst since before the turn of the century. He had been re-branding pianos to the Hillcoat name and also started production of his own pianos using his own design of cabinet and sourced parts, an announcement was made that the Hillcoat Piano Co., would be manufacturing 20 pianos in 1912.
It was certainly known that Amherst Pianos would be starting up their operations this year and plans had been made for Amherst Pianos to absorb the Hillcoat Co., into it’s new large enterprise. Amherst Pianos purchased the Hillcoat Piano Co., and H.A, Hillcoat would go on to work for the new piano company moving forward.
While Hillcoat was building his instruments there was a music store mogul by the name of J.A.McDonald who resided in Amherst but was from Halifax.
The McDonald Piano And Music Company was the largest music retailer in Atlantic Canada at the time It seemed that Mr. McDonald was enjoying high levels of growth and expansion. Piano’s were sold from many builders through the chain of stores Around 1912, sales were limited only by the speed at which pianos could be acquired from the manufacturers. Since the music sales in his outlets was equal to the output of an entire piano factory, J A McDonald decided to go into production himself and rallied up the enthusiasm of some keen businessmen and investors. I have found reference while digging through museum records (Cumberland Museum, Amherst NS) that the sum of money raised was $500,000.
Amherst at that time was the home of an unprecedented amount of wealthy, successful and influential people and business just could not have been better. In late 1912 McDonald bought up the Hillcoat Company and Amherst Pianos Ltd was truly born.
Amherst being a bustling and rapidly expanding important business centre at that time must have seemed like a logical choice for the factory location also given that H A Hillcoat had a small production premises already located there.
A number of prosperous business men from the town raised the capital for the venture and many other investors were soon to follow. The Company capitalized at $500,000.
Expertise was bought in from the old firm of Blundell in Toronto and a number of specialist personnel relocated to Amherst to be part of the management team within the new company. H A Hillcoat was also recruited to the team as part of the expert workforce for Amherst Pianos.
The official company was announced January 8th, 1913.
Amherst Piano was born.
Best in the World
Initial production was started at the Malleable Iron Foundry Building in Amherst until the new brick building was ready.
An example of an Amherst Piano
For the opening of the new plant there was a very grand shareholders banquet held, attended by nearly 500 people, the Rev. D A Steele pronounced the blessing and prayed that the instruments would bring melody and harmony to many homes. Share holders had an opportunity to view the factory in all its splendor with the newest and best technology for piano building at the time. The factory was set up to handle the raw timber supplies through to high quality cabinet production and piano assembly. Electricity was not yet commonly used yet in the town, the factory was powered by a large steam engine powered by a large flywheel that powered various drive shafts that ran the entire length of the floors of the building. The building was heated with exhaust steam generated from the steam engine The factory had its own power house which still stands today.
Directors of the company were able to boast that sample pianos had been displayed in key centers and exhibitions and all displays had sold out. The momentum of the excitement was to carry Amherst pianos into many years of lucrative success. Production from the Amherst plant was quick to expand as skilled workers and industry specialists were scooped up from other companies. The Amherst brand was distributed aggressively across Canada with a network of over 200 retailers, sales also went into the US, West Indies and across the Atlantic where sales were even enjoyed in the European market.
One of the most notable pianos was the Player Piano which was somewhat of a craze in the first 20 years or so of the last century. I have found note to the fact that an Amherst built player piano cost $750 in 1913, this was testimonial to the fact that these pianos were far from cheap.
The War Years (WW1)
WW1 had a huge effect on the markets at the time and Amherst Pianos weathered the storm well. The post war years saw many piano and gramophone companies close down due to the social disruptions the war left behind. Amherst pianos managed to sustain itself through a strong distribution network of 200 dealers in Ontario and Quebec.
1915 – The NAMM “National Association of Musical Manufacturers” has a great resource of archives of musical industry accomplishments and events throughout the 20th century. I have found record of an exhibition in New York in 1915 showing the latest accomplishments in music reproduction, this would be largely phonographs and gramophones. There is note of a J.A.MacDonald from Canada having a special invite to this event. I am sure this is our J.A. MacDonald of the Amherst Piano Co., and this would have marked the time where he was about to stock and market these wonderful machines through his music store outlets, I am almost sure that he plans at this time to manufacture a competitor for the same from the Amherst Piano Company, this would mark the birth of the Amherst Cremonaphone which was officially launched a few years later on April 14th 1917.
1916 –The Amherst Piano Company increased the capitalisation of the Company, I believe this would have been for research and development of the Cremonaphone and other products being thought of at the time
Amherst Piano Factory Cremonaphones for sale in New York circa.1920
1917 - April 14th, 1917 The Amherst Cremonaphone was officially launched with a marketing slogan “talking machine”
Amherst Pianos, Limited, manufactured the "Cremonaphone", which boasted a beautiful piano finish and a tone "well nigh perfect". It could be acquired for as little as $5.00 down, the balance payable in easy installments. With the phonograph, people could now hear their favorite music when and as often as they wished. The disc records offered a wide range of choices such as "Whistling and Laughing Songs", speeches and orations, orchestral and band selections. It has been argued that this device "contributed greatly to the demise of piano-playing as a symbol of accomplishment, particularly by females, in the home" and undermined the communal tradition of playing music and singing as a family. Sales declined sharply in the early 1930s as the phonograph encountered stiff competition from the radio.
Given J A McDonalds experience with his music outlets it is no surprise that the company would try to capitalize on the emerging gramophone market. McDonald was certainly aware of the popularity of these new machines with his stores being Victor dealers.
I have yet to find any press ads for these machines and am not entirely sure when they were first produced by the company. It seems that the gramaphones were first made at the piano factory and when output grew a new facility was opened to cope with their assembly. In December of 1919 The Maple leaf hotel in the town of Amherst was purchased by Amherst pianos and was refitted to handle production of the Cremonaphone Talking machine. In 1919 the company apparently sold 250 of these new gramophones to the growing market. The cremonaphone was announced in the Amherst Daily news April 14, 1917 and was referred to as the “talking machine”
Deluxe Cremonaphone (Cumberland Musem)
References to Amherst Piano ltd. and The Amherst Pianos Company refer to the same company.
The 1917 Halifax Explosion
The Cumberland museum has a document advertisement for a scratch and dent sale to be held in Halifax after the explosion. I would assume that this was for pianos that had been warehoused in Halifax awaiting shipment. It seemed like the Company wanted to make it almost impossible to resist buying a piano with such deals as:
After the War 1919-1924
1919 - The Amherst Piano factory was also part of the Amherst General Strike of 1919. There were no labour union in Amherst prior to 1919. Frank Burke, a union organizer from Ontario, arrived in Amherst to organize the workers at eight of the largest manufactures into one union – the Amherst Federation of Labour.
In May 1919, the employees at all eight industries went on strike demanding union recognition, wage parity with workers in central Canada and a shorter work day without a reduction in pay. The standoff lasted more than a month with assistance from the town council and federal and provincial governments the federation of labour successful negotiated a shorter working day and better working conditions.
1920 - Feb. 16th, 1920 Amherst as a town was put in quarantine for an outbreak of influenza. The health officer at the time, Dr C.W. Bliss advised that all public places be shut down. The Amherst piano factory lowered its working staff to a bare minimum for a period of 8 days until the outbreak was deemed to be over.
1923 - Saw the formation of the Amherst Pianos Ltd., Finance Co., in Toronto, this is where the financing would be raised for the Company ventures moving forward, sadly it would be the failure of this Company in 5 years time that would lead to the closure of the Amherst Piano Factory doors.
In 1923 the company made 72 pianos for Europe, these were 2 inches lower in height than the Canadian models. These pianos were equipped with an unusual sound board somewhat arched in an attempt to improve the tonal quality.
The Companies gramophone horns also incorporated unusual features which were noted to give a finer sound reproduction.
1925 was a good year and although piano sales had gone past their peak, the company felt that it would do well in the long run. I found a quote from McDonald in 1925 (Late Summer) saying that he felt that the radio fad was over and people would start buying pianos again, he could not have been more off track. 1925 was still a good year though, Amherst pianos did not see the end coming at all.
US reporter for the Music trade Review publication (Maurice Richmond) made a trip through Nova Scotia in 1925 and when he got to Amherst he was very impressed, indeed he noted that "Amherst is a piano city". he was given a tour of the Amherst factory and he wrote:
"We arrived at the plant and found it modern in every aspect. Every apparatus that modern manufacturing efficiency can suggest has been adopted with the object of producing a good piano."
The annual shareholders meeting of Amherst Pianos, Ltd., was held at the head office in Amherst, N. S. The shareholders re-elected Senator J. A. MacDonald president, with Charles R. Smith, K. C, as vice-president, and W. W. MacDonald as secretary-treasurer; Senator N. Curry, Montreal, C. L. Martin, H. N. Stevens and J. E. Lusby were appointed as directors. The company showed a net gain or profit in their operations during the last year of $18,000
Amherst Pianos, The Choice of Royalty
Business was good and the Amherst name held a great reputation. The Princess Royal of 1925 (Princess Louise, later Duchess of Fife - 1867-1931, 3rd child of Edward VII (son Queen Victoria) and Queen Alexandra.) selected an Amherst piano for her household. The princess had been offered many pianos to choose from but selected on of the regular Amherst built instruments.
This is testimony to the fact that the Canadian piano was well respected as far away as the UK and the Amherst brand was a good proposition for any piano purchaser of the time. The Amherst company's boast was "The Best In The World", this statement was proudly displayed on the name plaque for each instrument. The princess was so pleased with her piano that she gave citations to each on the Amherst craftsman who had worked on it..
The end of the good times
I am sure that it was a shock to the investors and employees alike when the market began to slide. Sales were great in n 1926 but the Amherst N.S. was about to take the hit in 1928 much the same as many of its competitors. Much of the lost interest in the piano came from a number of factors including:
The roll off on piano sales took only a couple of years to have a tremendous impact.
It must have been a long battle with sales over 1927 and 1928 but in reality the 2 year span would be a downward slope for the company's profits and production. The company continued to invest heavily in new venture like organ repair and even building radios for the emerging radio market. I suspect that as piano sales rapidly declined, balancing the cash flow became an ever increasing challenge until the financiers started to display empty pockets.
Even with aggressive sales campaigns the good tomes had now gone and only the strongest most competitive piano builders could survive. The Amherst Pianos Company closed its doors in 1928. Amherst Pianos tried to battle against the loss in sales through incorporating diversity. Organ repair was one of the attempts to keep the Company afloat but sadly it was not enough and was pitched a little too late.
One of the main factors for the companies closer was the failure of the Manufacturers finance Corporation which backed it. Inefficient management was the statement given.
Amherst Pianos made an assignment for bankruptcy on September 28, 1928.
It was October of 1928 when the newspapers reported the collapse of the Piano Company.
No Admittance Notice
As the company shut down, a group of employees acquired some of the parts and set up the Cumberland Piano Company. This company operated for a few years and then also disappeared from the scene.
Spot the Amherst "Best in the world" motif under "Cumberland"
How do Amherst Pianos stand the test of time?
Sadly, many pianos have developed problems and found there way to recycling plants. The Amherst piano ads Stated “Best in the world” and this was a bit of an overstatement.
In their time, the Amherst piano was a decent instrument but its construction lacked some of the design elements needed for longevity of life. As a result, many pianos become difficult or impossible to tune. I have seen pianos that have survived and they sound fine. A good restored piano can be a good companion for many more years to come but the restoration process is costly and many people choose to buy newer instruments.
Some of the worse problems can be:
Amherst Pianos Warranty
Amherst Pianos Advertisment
People know to have had association with the Amherst Pianos Company
McDonald, John Anthony - (December 24, 1875 - December 12, 1948) was a manufacturer, financier and Canadian Senator. Born and educated in Shediac, New Brunswick. He was president of Amherst Pianos, Ltd., of Amherst, Nova Scotia and also served as vice-president of Sterling Securities of Halifax, Nova Scotia and Nova Scotia Trust as well as vice-president of the Colonial Brick Company of Amherst and Moncton Underwear of Moncton, New Brunswick.
In 1921, he was appointed to the Canadian Senate on the advice of Prime Minister Arthur Meighen. He sat as an independent until his death. He represented the province of New Brunswick in the upper house.
Federal Political Experience - Years of Service: 10161 Days (27 years, 9 months, 26 days)
FISHLEIGH, William Peter, Assistant superintendent, Amherst Pianos Ltd. Born Port Hope, Ont, Can Dec 10th, 1865, son of William and Maria Fishleigh. Married Edith Maybee (deceased) and Mildred Clara Garfat, Oct 21, 1898: one son, three daughters. Educated Bowmansville, Ont. Mr Fishleigh has been in the piano business since 1881 holdind superintendencies in several of the largest piano factories in Canada: one of the first player piano makers in Canada, having had charge of all the experimental work and also superintendent of the Otto Higel Player Piano Factory, Toronto, Ont. Also of the Pneumatic Player Co. of Toronto
Member Acacia Lodge A.F. & A.M. Amherst N.S. Anglican. Address Amherst N.S.
Davis, George, Manager in 1921 and may have been the manager for years before and after that date (limited information available).
Lusby, Wilfred, builder and tuner.
Lusby, James Edward, Director A mason from Amherst known as Jim Ed., lived at 53 West Victoria Street
Charles R. Smith, vice-president, A Lawyer who once lived at 2 Lawrence Street. Seemed to have several businees interests in Amherst.
MacDonald, W. W., as secretary-treasurer.
Senator N. Curry, Montreal, Board of Directors
Martin,C. L., Board of Directors
H. N. Stevens, Board of Directors
C.O. MacDonald – Associate of the Company
C.E. Freeman of 7 Eddy Street, Amherst NS – Associate of the Company
Max Sterns, Amherst Furniture Co. Also a professor of music.
W.H Johnson Company – Associate of the company
Canadian patent office record No. 14613 WH Johnson of Maine, patent was for a “Shovel Handle” 19th April 1882
H.A Hillcoat – previous owned of Hillcoat pianos.
Henry "Harry" Adolphus HILLCOAT - (Hellen Gertrude BELL, Hester Wray) was born on 14 Oct 1857 in Keppoch, Lot #48, PEI. CA.. He was christened on 14 Jan 1858 in Richmond, PEI. He died on 23 Feb 1927 in Amherst NS. CA.. He was buried on 25 Feb 1927 in Christ Church Cemetery, lot 5D ,Amherst NS. CA.. Henry married Maude BENT daughter of Edgar A. BENT and Emma Amelia MCNUTT on 25 Sep 1902 in New London, Conn. USA.. Maude was born on 11 Oct 1874 in Pugwash NS.CA.. She died on 14 Feb 1945 in Amherst, NS.CA.. She was buried cem. in Christ Church Cem.Amherst, NS. interred in the Spring..
1896 - Charles Tupper Born in Amherst was named as Canadas 6th Prime Minister on May 1st, 1919
1896 - George Cove (An inventor who lived in Amherst) invented an attachment to a piano that reproduced the music that was just played.
1901 - According to the 1901 T. Eaton Company catalogue, a standard phonograph cost $20; the records ran 50 cents each to $5 per dozen.
1907 - Being a professional engineer with more than 20 years experience in the electrical generation industry I find this next snippet of history to be of great interest. This would be a year of the inauguration of The Maritime, Coal, Railway and Power Co., Ltd., (known later as The Maccan Power Plant). This was the 1st Power Plant to use a long distance cable network for the distribution of power from the plant to other remote locations. As a little bit of background and explanation to this I should note that electricity generation of a large magnitude was still in it’s infancy at this time. Typically a power plant would be built in the city or at the industrial location where the power is going to be used. The Maccan Power Plant was the 1st in the American continent to change that concept. Up to now the main fuel (coal) would be mined then transferred a long distance to the plant for electrical production this was a very costly venture, transportation was not cheap. The new breakthrough here was to build the electricity generation plant at the site of the mine and distribute the electricity through long cables to other remote locations to where it was needed. The breakthrough was that it would prove cheaper to distribute the electricity through a long cable network than it was to transport the coal. Electricity from the plant was transmitted to the sites where it was needed for industry. This was a tremendous move forward and a major breakthrough and it’s now the way that electrical transmission is dealt with on our large national grid and distribution systems in modern day power transmission. A fascinating fact that this was first accomplished in Maccan Nova Scotia for the American Continent. After explaining what was actually accomplished here hopefully you will see what prompted Thomas A. Edison himself to write to the Chairman of the Board of Trade Committee of Amherst to congratulate on this achievement. Thomas A. Edison wrote to H. J. Logan M.P., Chairman of the Board of Trade Committee, Amherst Nova Scotia
Maccan Power Plant
Maccan Power Plant
1912 - The Nova Scotia Carraige and Motor Company announced that it would be moving from Kentville NS to Amherst NS.
1912 - 15 April 1912 RMS Titanic sinks after striking an iceberg.
1912 - Woodrow Wilson was elected president of the United States.
1913 - 24 April 1913 The Nova Scotia Carraige and Motor Company moved to Amherst.
Amherst Daily News Article
1927 - Amhesrt Boot and Shoe Company closes one of the Maritimes biggest companies located in Amherst – A victim of the great depression.
Research and History
Cumberland County Museum
When Amherst Built Pianos (An article by Norma Joan Paul in 1981)
The Cremonaphone (An article by Norman F Brooks)
Amherst Daily News Archives
Various documents obtained through the purchase of Pianos and Memorabilia for the purpose of building an historic representation for Amherst Pianos.
NAMM National Association of Musical Manufacturers USA Archives.
1902 C O McDonald Pianos, organs, sewing machines. The company had been in business for 15 years selling sewing machines when in 1901 Mr. McDonald added a musical line. This was the Amherst branch of the McDonald Piano and music Company.
Piano Types General
These are a budget piano with short strings and short keys. The moving parts that create the striking action on the strings are mounted below the keys and the inefficient mechanism has an effect of losing the feel on the piano keys. The short strings has an effect of losing tonal characteristics associated with better instruments and as such these pianos are not popular with serious students or teachers alike. The main benefits of the spinet are its small size and its low price.
Console Piano (upright)
The console piano more resembles an upright but still has shorter strings. The mechanism is above the keys so has a much better feel than that of the spinet. With the strings being slightly longer than the spinet there is more tone and tuning is more viable.
Console pianos are between 40” to 46” in height.
Studio Piano (upright)
A studio piano is 45 to 47 inches tall. This type of piano is typically a good quality instrument capable of delivering a good tonal sound and would be suitable for producing music in a general environment. That is it say it would be good for teachers, students and background music in a bar. It would be a great piano for most players but would not be classed as a full performance grade.
Player Piano (upright) (Self player piano)
Basically an upright with a player mechanism that allows the piano to reproduce music by means of a mechanical mechanism. The music is reproduced using suction and perforations in a paper roll normally located in the top front portion of the piano. Generally, the piano may be played by conventional means and is basically a regular upright design with added player mechanism. Player pianos were extremely popular in the early 1900’s just because they were excellent for home entertainment.
This would be the uprights with a full length string frame (the upright grand), and they offer a full harmonic reproduction hence good tonal quality.
Grand Piano (Upright or horizontal)
Full sized piano. Can be of horizontal or vertical construction (upright grand), A concert grand would be the larger piano up to 3m long A parlor Grand would be smaller at around 2m long and a baby grand could be smaller. Measurements are only a generalization since different manufacturers classify their own sizes for each piano.
An important note here would be not to assume that the size of the piano ultimately determine its tonal quality. A high quality well constructed console piano can produce sounds that very closely resemble a full size grand.
The Square Piano
This piano has horizontal strings that are strung diagonally across the rectangular frame. the look is very similar to that of the Clavichord.
The origins of the square piano can be traced directly to the clavichord, with which it shares a rectangular (not square) shape and basic layout of strings and soundboard. The keyboard is positioned along one of the broad sides, and the strings run horizontally at right angles to the keys.