The rise and fall of the US piano industry

A wry look at the arguments that are mounted to defend the bailout of the US car industry. Strictly speaking, a part of the US car industry that is failing, not the robust part that is doing OK. “Too big, too important to lose”.

The same could have been said of the US piano industry.

Today the highest-price good that people buy besides their houses is their car, and this reality leads people to believe that we can’t possibly let the American car industry die. We couldn’t possibly be a real country and a powerful nation without our beloved auto industry, which is so essential to our national well-being. In any case, this is what spokesmen for the big three say.

What about the time before the car? Look at the years between 1870 and 1930. As surprising as this may sound today, the biggest-ticket item on every household budget besides the house itself was its piano. Everyone had to have one. Those who didn’t have one aspired to have one. It was a prize, an essential part of life, and they sold by the millions and millions.

That too was new. Americans before 1850 mostly imported their pianos. American manufacturing was nearly nonexistent. After 1850, that changed dramatically with the flowering of what would become a gigantic US piano industry. The Gilded Age saw a vast increase in its popularity. By 1890, Americans fed half the world market for pianos. Between 1890 and 1928, sales ranged from 172,000 to 364,000 thousand per year. It was a case of relentless and astounding growth.

All of this changed again in 1930, which was the last great year of the American piano. Sales fell and continued to fall when times were tough. The companies that were beloved by all Americans fell on hard times and began to go belly up one by one. After World War II the trend continued, as ever more pianos began to be made overseas.

In 1960, we began to see the first major international challenge to what was left of the US market position. Japan was already manufacturing half as many pianos as the United States. By 1970, a revolution occurred as Japan’s production outstripped the United States, and it has been straight down ever since. By 1980, Japan made twice as many as the United States. Then production shifted to Korea. Today China is the center of world piano production. You probably see them in your local hotel bar.

Does anyone care that much? Not too many. Have we been devastated as a nation and a people because of it? Not at all. It was just a matter of the economic facts. The demand went down and production costs for the pianos that were wanted were much cheaper elsewhere.

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15 years ago

mm, did anyone ever ask for candlemakers to be bailed out from protection against the sun?

15 years ago

Letting the US piano industry die out would be an utter disgrace! It’s an ICON!

Hmmm. Maybe shift the piano industry to Detroit, all the former auto-industry workers could shift to the aesthetic sphere and start manufacturing pianos?

Maybe that’s not possible, but Detroit was once famous for a mid-20th-century musical phenomenon…

Don Arthur
Don Arthur
15 years ago

Does anyone care that much?

As it happens, the US piano industry has lobbied hard to obtain government protection against foreign competition.

15 years ago

Detroit was a deciding factor in World War II, as US tanks were generally considered inferior to Nazi tanks on the battlefield, but the US had substantially higher rates of production. Given that the US govt’s primary purpose is to maintain the US military, it is hardly surprising that the automotive industry has more strategic significance than the piano industry.

It is often said that every military force spends its peaceful time preparing for the previous war. Tanks are probably less significant in ground war than they used to be (witness Hezbolla peasants smashing Israeli battle tanks), but I doubt such arguments would convince the Pentagon.