Golden Age union struggles and how Steinway & Sons moved to Astoria – Queens Daily Eagle
By Prameet Kumar
Walking around West Queens, a name that comes up time and time again is “Steinway”. There is Steinway Street and the Steinway Street subway station. People may know that the “Steinway” in these names is a reference to Steinway & Sons, the famous piano manufacturing company whose products are synonymous with concert grand pianos. Steinway & Sons still has a working factory in the area, employing hundreds of workers.
But how did Manhattan-based Steinway & Sons end up in Astoria? The answer to this question lies surprisingly in the historic working relationship between Steinway & Sons and the workers it employed at the end of the 19th century. The answer is also tied to the larger history of the American labor struggle, particularly the emerging labor movements and the Gilded Age America eight-hour working day labor movements.
Foundations and growth of Steinway & Sons
Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg, the founder of Steinway & Sons, was born in North West Germany. It was there that he started a piano business in 1835, making up to two pianos per month at home. In 1850, Heinrich moved his family from Germany to New York. Already familiar with piano making, Heinrich and his sons went to work for the best piano manufacturers in New York City to learn the latest production methods.
Three years later, on March 5, 1853, they decided to start their own piano making business in a small rented apartment building on Varick Street, naming it “Steinway & Sons”.
“They seem to have thought that anglicizing their name would improve sales,” historian Richard K. Lieberman wrote in his company history in 1995. Steinway & Sons. They sold eleven pianos in their first year of operation, all handcrafted by the family. The following year, they hired their first five employees and moved to a larger building on Walker Street.
The big breakthrough for Steinway & Sons came at the 1855 American Institute Fair held at the Crystal Palace in New York, at which the firm exhibited one of its pianos. A journalist for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Diary raving, “The Steinway Square Piano has reached its current state of perfection, which seems impossible to improve upon.” This positive press led Steinway’s sales to skyrocket from 74 pianos in 1854 to 208 pianos in 1856.
The popularity of Steinway’s pianos was so strong around this time that sales were able to withstand the panic of 1857, a national economic collapse sparked by defaults on railway bonds and the bankruptcy of major financial institutions. New York, which was the financial capital of the United States, was hit particularly hard by the panic. Thousands of businesses have gone bankrupt and unemployment has skyrocketed. The unemployed demanded government action, including a rally of 4,000 people in Tompkins Square.
The experience of Steinway employees during the panic of 1857 could not have been more different from that of those unemployed. As the nation reeled in financial ruin, Steinway “felt invulnerable and rehired their eighty workers within the year – this at a time when most piano factories had fewer than thirty workers. Steinway not only prospered, but in 1857, during America’s worst depression before the war, he shipped more pianos (413) than he had had in all previous years combined ” , wrote Lieberman. Not only did Steinway workers have secure jobs during this turbulent time, they were relatively well paid in those jobs. While the average annual income of industrial workers was $ 300, even the lowest paid employees at Steinway earned over $ 400.
With sales booming, Steinway quickly overtook its Walker Street factory. The company bought a site and built a new facility between Park and Lexington Avenues at 52nd to 53rd Street. “In a remarkably short period of time, between March 5, 1853, when they went into business, and April 1, 1860, when they opened their new factory, the Steinway family had triumphed in America,” said writes Lieberman. The company achieved success beyond Heinrich’s expectations when he made two pianos per month in his home in Germany; it now employed 350 workers and produced up to 35 pianos per week in New York City.
The Piano Manufacturers Union
While Steinway was successful, his workers struggled to share a larger share of the booty, including through unionization of the workforce. But the American legal system took a dim view of this kind of worker activism.
In New York, the legislature enshrined anti-union sentiment into law in 1829, criminalizing any labor conspiracy “prejudicial to public health, public morals, or commerce or commerce.” In 1835, in the New York affair People c. Fisher, the state upheld the statute of the 1829 legislature and ruled that the striking shoemakers in the city of Geneva acted in a manner detrimental to trade and commerce. Law historian Wythe Holt has written that in New York “the courts and the law have stood resolutely and openly on the side of the employers.” It was not until 1870 that the legislator promulgated a law annulling People c. Fisher and enable workers to take collective action. In the case of 1880 Johnston Harvester Co. v. Meinhardt, the New York Supreme Court upheld this status until union members showed “sufficient evidence of violence, force, intimidation or coercion.”