From grand to upright to electronic, the piano has undergone a number of reinventions over the past three hundred years as musical tastes and needs have changed. With the start of National Piano Month on September 1, the IDHH would like to explore the history and influence of this versatile instrument on the wide world of music. Most sources point to the Italian instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofori di Francesco as the inventor of the early piano. While the exact timeline of Cristofori’s work is murky, he undeniably had mastered the elements of modern piano action and created a piano (the fortepiano) by the early 1700s. While older keyboard instruments such as the clavichord and the harpsichord allowed for either dynamic control over individual notes or access to a loud, resonant sound, Cristofori’s fortepiano was revolutionary because it enabled players’ greater command of the instrument’s expressive tone and volume.
Over the next three centuries, variations in piano shape and design would multiply as renowned composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Frédéric Chopin wrote pieces specifically for the instrument, bringing greater attention and demand for the piano. By the 1860s, the upright piano had become a more practical and accessible musical option for use in private homes, as groups could now listen to simplified piano arrangements of popular music and enjoy an evening of tuneful entertainment together. Further innovations to piano design and construction were developed in the 20th century with the advent of electric and digital instruments, applying the technological advances of the era to the art of music making. Illinois has had its own role in the history of the piano, from William Wallace Kimball’s successful Kimball Piano Company in Chicago, to the numerous talented pianists such as Lillian (Lil) Hardin Armstrong who made Illinois their artistic home and contributed to the vibrant musical culture of the state.
Below are a few of our favorite items featuring the versatility of the piano:
Are you traveling somewhere for the holidays? Take a moment to relax and imagine yourself in some of the more ideal accommodations from Pullman State Historic Site as found in their vintage advertisements from The Saturday Evening Post and National Geographic. The Pullman State Historic Site collection includes nearly 5,000 digitized items from the Pullman Historic Site, the former planned industrial community that specialized in luxury sleeper cars, providing a unique lens into a very intentional joining of civic and everyday life and manufacturing. Far before the Midwest bloc was referred to as “fly-over country”, Pullman cars contributed to a modernized image of the prairie, consistently promoting a “comfortable, convenient, and safe” alternative to cramped travel. In her recent book The Heartland: An American History Kristin Hoganson argues that “The heartland myth insists that there is a stone-solid core at the center of the nation,” which is isolationist, resistant to change, and geographically static. These advertisements directly support that argument representing a historic change of persisting economic growth in the Midwest’s legacy of movement, migration, and seizure. The Pullman advertisements’ specific brand of modernism and modernizing travel depicts spacious, comfortable cars that are conducive for individual and family travel, and suitable even for silent-film star Gloria Swanson. Compare her experience to your probable one on the road, or in the air this Thanksgiving.
I personally really love the grid system that gets repeated in these advertisements, that build out the entire Pullman itinerary, including the “Short Lesson in Anatomy”.
Additional Sources: Hoganson, Kristin L. The Heartland: An American History. Penguin Books, 2019.