About 300 years ago, Bartolomeo Cristofori, a harpsichord maker, came up with the idea of crossing a Hammered Dulcimer with a keyboard similar to a Harpsichord. This invention was called the Piano-Forte, meaning “soft and loud”. These early Pianos looked very much like the then traditional Harpsichord in shape and size, with their strings stretching from the front to the back of the instrument.
In 18th Century Europe, the Piano-Forte was becoming increasingly popular. In about 1760, makers began building small rectangular shaped Piano-Fortes based on the shape and size of the Clavichord. The strings in these instruments ran from left to right rather than front to back as they did in grand piano-fortes. These early rectangular pianos quickly gained popularity because they were smaller and more stylistically accepted in most European households. These early instruments were to be the first Square Grand Pianos.
By the turn of the 19th Century, a handful of makers created some of the first Square Grand Pianos in America. For the next 100 years, the Square Grand Piano would evolve into a larger, heavier, and more mechanically refined instrument. During the 19th Century, American Piano Makers built and sold more Square Grand Pianos than Grand or Upright Pianos. These Square Grand Pianos sold for as much as $800 in the mid-19th Century – the cost of a small house. By about 1880-1890, the American Upright Piano began to capture more of the market as being more fashionable and smaller, taking up less floor space. The Upright Piano caused the Square Grand Piano to become obsolete by 1900.
Square Grand Pianos were very large and very heavy musical instruments. They were not easily moved. They were reminders of the gilded Victorian age. As 20th Century America began to streamline in style and become a modern industrialized nation, these beautiful Pianos quickly became outdated and served as garish reminders of another time. Sadly, for the past 100 years, Square Grand Pianos have nearly gone extinct. They have consistently been chopped up, burned, or otherwise destroyed and lost forever.
Today collectors and musicians alike are beginning to appreciate and preserve these amazing instruments. There is evidence that much of 19th Century America did not like the loud and powerful sound of the evolving “Modern Piano.” Some described the tone as “harsh” and “overbearing”, and they preferred the softer, harp-like tones of the earlier the Square Grand that they were accustomed to. We believe that this the prime reason that the softer toned Square Grand Piano continued to be the most popular type of Piano built and sold up until the last part of the 19th Century. (Source: https://antiquepianoshop.com/square-grand-pianos/ viewed 10/30/2020)
The Delaware County Historical Society was given a rare Rosewood Square Grand Piano which is on display in the Meeker Homestead Museum’s Drawing Room. Built in Boston about 1847 by Hallett & Allen, the keyboard is smaller than a typical 88 key piano, consisting of 6 octaves and 75 keys. The piano also has a matching period piano stool. The piano is playable and in great shape. The donor was Nancy Ferguson from New Albany.
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