1859 Chickering upright "Keene"

This piano was owned by the famous actress Laura Keene, and was present in the Ford Theater on the day of Lincoln's assassination. For more on that story, click here.

Jonas Chickering founded his piano manufacturing business in 1823, and by the time of his death in 1853, it had become the largest and most prestigious piano maker in the United States. Chickering hired Alpheus Babcock in 1837, and soon thereafter adapted Babcock's invention, the one piece cast iron frame, later patenting a version for the grand piano. By the 1850s, Chickering's production had risen to 1500 per year, of which the vast majority were square pianos, along with about one grand piano per week.

Upright pianos like this had been common in Europe from the 1820s, essentially displacing the square piano there by 1850. In the United States, however, the square piano had continued to thrive, becoming larger and more ornate into the 1860s, while upright pianos were quite rare. Chickering had manufactured a few upright pianos in its early years, in styles from the first half of the 19th century, but it was only in 1858 that the company began making uprights in the style that would later become universal, and of which this piano is an early example. 

Chickering had begun exhibiting in Europe at the expositions in Paris and London, and was influenced by European designs to a large extent, but included American innovations. The straight strung, semi-oblique layout is French, but with an American full cast iron plate, with agraffes cast into the plate. The action has an over-damper system, allowing for the soft pedal to shift the hammer rail to create an una corda effect, leaving the dampers in place.


The case is veneered in Brazilian rosewood.

The handle on the side was intended as an aid for moving, not mere decoration.

The action includes over dampers: the dampers contacting the strings above the hammers.

The strings are aligned in a mild angle from top left to bottom right, referred to as "semi-oblique."

The bass bridge is separate from the treble bridge, but the strings remain parallel. Cross stringing would begin to predominate within the next decades. The plate is one piece, with two struts leading from the hitchpin area to the plate webbing.

The soundboard crack shows the orientation of the grain - more or less at right angles to the treble bridge.

The agraffes are cast into the plate. If you look closely, you will see that the note names - letters and sharps - written on them in pen. These correspond to similar labels placed on the plate above the tuning pins in the treble, where there is more room.

Here you can see the letters and sharps above the tuning pins, as an aid to the tuner.

The serial number was altered, as is obvious on close inspection (e.g., the final 0 seems to be inked over what was a 5). Neither 20730 nor 20735 corresponds to an upright in the factory log books. It seems likely, though, that the correct number is close to that depicted, based on the various features of the piano. 

The back posts are aligned parallel the the strings, to resist their pull and prevent the case from twisting.

The ribs are also in line with the strings, with the soundboard grain at right angles.

This area is simply filler, no soundboard.

The over damper action has the characteristic wires, called "bayonets" by the French (for their shape), leading from the front of the wippen to the damper levers.

Note the line of holes between the hammer and wippen flanges. This is where the heads of the let off screws are accessed (they must be adjusted with the action out, or leaned back).

The lowest wippen has been removed, to show the leather strip that covers the let off screw. The jack has a slanted profile that rubs against this leather. (This design, common in the early 19th century, eventually disappeared in favor of the jack with a tender of the modern design).

The spring on the bass side of the action frame serves to return the hammer flange rail, when it is shifted from the other side.

This lever on the treble side of the action frame is activated by the soft pedal to shift the hammers and wippens, like the una corda pedal in a grand piano. To see it in action, click here.

The damper rail is to the top left, and pivots on a screw at the treble end. The damper trap lever presses against the mortise at the very top left, and the coil spring returns the dampers to the strings.

This shows the right angled pivoting damper lever, activated by a rod rising from the trap work.

A finger taking the place of the damper lever.

The trap work pivots on a pin close to the toe rail.

KeyCapstan.jpgIn place of a capstan screw, the key has a simple slotted screw, with a felt flap above it.