by Erin Feith, Research Assistant
December 5. 2023
200 years ago, piano maker Jonas Chickering quickly scaled to the top of the 19th-century music scene, creating instruments that set the standard and achieved international acclaim. Dubbed the first significant piano manufacturer in the United States, his commitment to innovation and design, cemented his company’s role in the industry, leaving a legacy whose reverberations can still be heard today.
Jonas Chickering’s first company, Stewart & Chickering, was formed in partnership with John Stewart in 1823. Only a few years later, he instead entered into business with sea captain John Mackay, whose extensive travels both helped to export their pianos abroad and import high-quality woods like rosewood and mahogany for their construction. Using the finest materials, Chickering incorporated the latest technology into his pianos, including the cast-iron plate which he patented in 1840. The frame enabled better sound quality by allowing for greater tension to be applied to the instrument’s strings. He also developed a design for stacking strings, which further set his pianos apart from others of the day.
Following Mackay’s passing in 1841, Chickering transformed his business into a family-run operation known as Chickering & Sons. When he died unexpectedly in 1853, his sons assumed ownership of the company, opening a state-of-the- art factory with 400 employees the same year. Committed to their father’s principle of piano-making as an art form, they assigned each of their employees a specialized task to ensure uniformity in production. Over the following decades, Chickering & Sons continued to flourish under their leadership, receiving the highest award at the Paris Exposition of 1867 as well as the Imperial Cross of the Legion of Honor from Emperor Napoleon III for its contributions to the industry. The company’s success reached its zenith in the latter half of the 19th century, garnering praise from renowned artists, including Franz Liszt, and opening 1500-seat “Chickering Halls” in Boston and New York where they operated a store, warehouse, and venue for concerts and lectures.
As the 20th century dawned, Chickering & Sons expanded their reach by becoming a part of the American Piano Company in 1908. Subsequently, under the respective banners of Aeolian, Wurlitzer, and Baldwin, the Chickering brand continued to be manufactured through the early 2000s. Although no longer in operation today, Chickering & Sons pianos, with their pioneering technology and craftsmanship, left a legacy of Chickering pianos plays on.