The Piano Men

by Erin Feith, Research Assistant
August 15, 2023

By the mid-19th Century, there were new ivories to tickle when Mason & Hamlin opened its doors. Starting production with harmoniums, a type of small organ, the company soon diversified its offerings while becoming one of the most well-known instrument manufacturers in the world. Aiding in this success, Mason & Hamlin prioritized craftsmanship and incorporated the latest technologies into their pieces.

1878 Mason & Hamlin advertisement

United by their interest in creating high-quality instruments, Henry Mason and Emmons Hamlin formed a partnership in 1854. Their enterprise quickly stood out from the competition due to a technique developed by Hamlin that enabled voice organ reeds to adopt the sound of other instruments. With this key advancement, they focused on perfecting their line of organ harmoniums before moving onto larger pump organs like the one on display in Acorn Hall’s dining room. Dedicated to craftsmanship, they limited the amount of instruments produced, emphasizing quality over quantity, and further establishing their reputation for creating the best the industry had to offer. Indeed, this reputation was solidified by 1867, when its organs were recognized with the top prize at the Paris Exposition.

The company continued to expand, manufacturing its first pianos by 1881. Maintaining their commitment to crafting the finest instruments in the industry, Mason & Hamlin Organ and Piano Company, as it became known, fitted their pianos with the newest advancements. This included the “screw stringer,” which although not widely adapted, reduced the need to tune. Furthering their efforts into the 1890s, the company hired German designer and pioneer piano-maker, Richard W. Gertz. His “tension resonator,” which ensured the piece retained its original tone quality even after repeated use, made Mason & Hamlin pianos a staple at large universities and popular concert halls of the age.

MCHS’s 19th-Century Mason & Hamlin organ

With Gertz at the helm of the piano department, Mason & Hamlin’s role as one of the foremost instrument manufacturing firms was cemented. However, the high-quality materials and processes that contributed to the company’s success also proved expensive, particularly during the Great Depression. The company experienced numerous changes in ownership until the 1990s, though maintaining its original name and reputation. Today, Mason & Hamlin instruments continue to be manufactured, in harmony with the guiding principles of the past.