David and Art - Participatory Art
A century ago, pianos were a common presence in houses all over the country. Now, not so much.
I remember several years ago I was walking through the living room of my parents’ house and an episode of the old TV show “Mythbusters” was on. My dad really liked that show. The hosts were busily engaged in dropping upright pianos onto a house with a crane, apparently trying to see if they would go through the roof. I was largely unaware of whatever myth was behind this stunt, so I sat down and watched for a while.
To my surprise the only way they were able to get a piano to go all the way through the roof was to fill it to the brim with sandbags, which somehow seemed like cheating. Meanwhile, piano sales, by contrast, have for years been crashing all the way through to the basement.
In the 1890s, pianos were so central to what was understood to comprise a home that the Sears & Roebuck catalog featured a “New American Home” model upright parlor piano for $98.50. In the 1894 catalog there was a “Beckwith Palace Grand Piano” (which despite its name was an upright) for $115. I think it was the most expensive item in the whole catalog. Bear in mind that people who ordered things from Sears weren’t aristocratic city folk. They lived in the country, and the catalog was one of the only ways they could take part in what was then popular culture.
A piano was, then, the center of a home’s cultural life, much the way a television is today. According to the Blue Book of Piano Sales, in 1900, the first year they have figures, there were 171,000 pianos sold in the United States. That increased each year to a peak in 1909 when Americans bought 364,500. (And remember, the population then was a lot less then than it is now.). Apparently, 1925 was the last year that over 300,000 pianos were sold annually. The depression knocked that number down as low as 27,000 in 1932, but it was back up to 90,000 in 1936, and then 159,000 the year the United States entered WWII.
Fast forward to 1990, and that number was down to about 111,000; by 2010, it was about 43,000; and by 2020, down to about 21,000.
While this is surely bad news for the piano industry, it’s also bad news for American culture in general. The decline of pianos and piano playing represents the larger decline of a more participatory artistic culture and its replacement by something very different.