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Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016 12:09 am

The piano Lincoln heard

Abraham Lincoln enjoyed listening to parlor music on Ninian Edwards’s square grand piano, now in the process of being restored to playable condition by the Springfield Art Association.


When he moved to Springfield and hung out his shingle as an attorney, Abraham Lincoln effectively completed his transition from a rural working-class laborer to an urban, middle-class gentleman. In his youth, Lincoln was immersed in a much looser folk musical culture, but the middle class had its own prescribed habits of dress and manners, its own tastes for architecture and furnishings and its own music – all of which centered on the household parlor.

Like today’s “living room,” the parlor was where families gathered to interact with each other and the broader culture. Adorned with music, literature and art, it expressed the family’s shared interests and confirmed their status as successful and cultured citizens. And just as the parlor was the locus of the home, the piano was the locus of the parlor.

In Europe, pianos could only been found in the homes of the wealthiest consumers. In 19th century America, however, rapid industrialization made pianos readily affordable and therefore widely available. As American pianos began to sell in increasing numbers from 1830 to 1870, manufacturers dramatically increased their production and lowered prices. In 1860, the piano industry produced 21,000 pianos and about 1 in every 1,500 Americans owned one. Even during the height of the Civil War, Chickering & Sons, America’s largest manufacturer, produced 42 pianos every week. By that time, American pianos sold from about $100 to $250, and their quality was comparable to their best European competitors.

Middle-class Americans, always mimicking the European gentry while simultaneously celebrating America’s egalitarianism, eagerly bought these instruments as status symbols but also as excellent vehicles for family entertainment and camaraderie. Much more than the modern television (the current locus for cultural consumption in the home), the piano engaged all members of the family and their social circle, becoming one of the most cherished products of the young nation.

These instruments didn’t play themselves – at least not yet. The “parlor culture” they inspired was not entirely gendered, but “amateur” playing was largely considered the province of women. Wives or daughters would play pieces while family and/or guests gathered around and appreciated the music or sang along. This created a demand for two additional products: sheet music and instruction. Previously, music teachers had a very limited clientele but, just as the proliferation of pianos made the instruments more affordable and plentiful, so it did for teachers. By mid-century, a new class of traveling piano teachers had arisen, with roughly one for every 2,560 Americans.

The rise of sheet music was more dynamic, as it not only led to the proliferation of music presses but also an aspiring new group of songwriters. Along with a flood of waltzes, marches and other wordless pieces came new genres of popular music, like minstrelsy, and a huge body of sentimental ballads. These ballads were particularly well-suited to parlor performances, as they frequently told long, romantic stories that could be performed by one family member as the rest were swept away by an emotional narrative set to stirring music.

Abraham Lincoln probably enjoyed his first extended interaction with piano and parlor culture at the home of Ninian and Elizabeth Edwards, whom he visited for “4 ys every Sunday” upon his arrival in Springfield. Elizabeth’s sister, Frances, later recalled “[Mr. Lincoln] liked music, although I never in my life heard him attempt to sing...but he liked to hear the piano, and he liked to hear us sing. My sister had a good piano. Mr. Edwards was quite prosperous and lived in very good style.”

The piano mentioned by Frances is a mahogany square grand piano manufactured by Emilius N. Scherr of Philadelphia. This instrument, which dates to c. 1835-40, is now in the collection of the Springfield Art Association. Lincoln would have heard it played on many occasions: lively reels during large legislative parties he attended as a shy young man; sentimental ballads during intimate gatherings he attended as a suitor of Mary Todd; and, as legend has it, a wedding march when he married Mary in her sister’s house  on South Second Street on Nov. 4, 1842.

The piano is currently in the hands of The Piano People in Champaign, where piano technician Steve Schmidt and his team are working on restoring it to playable condition. When it is finished, visitors to Edwards Place will have the opportunity to hear the same music Lincoln heard on the same instrument Lincoln used to hear it. A Kickstarter campaign is underway to fund the restoration of this instrument. As of this week, $5,400 has been raised towards the $7,500 goal; pledges can be made until Jan. 16.

Work on the piano is scheduled to conclude by mid-January. A piano concert will be held on Saturday, Feb. 6, at 7 p.m. in the parlors of Edwards Place. Mr. and Mrs. Edwards will host Mr. Lincoln and ticketed guests for an evening of Mr. Lincoln’s favorite songs, as well as music from Mrs. Edwards’s 1850 songbooks. Tickets are $50 and are available at www.edwardsplace.org or by calling the Art Association at 217-523-2631. Proceeds will be used towards the restoration of the second floor of Edwards Place

Christian McWhirter is an assistant editor at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln, editor of the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, and the author of Battle Hymns: The Power and Popularity of Music During the Civil War. He writes the blog Civil War Pop.

Erika Holst is curator of collections at the Springfield Art Association and the author of
Edwards Place: A Springfield Treasure.

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