Before the Civil War, most of the pianos in America were imported. In the years after the Civil War until the Great Depression, the American piano industry grew to manufacture about half of the pianos in the world.
A piano in the home suggested that this was a refined, educated household. [Related: September 18, 1899: Scott Joplin] Music retail stores quickly realized that if they could stock a piano with their own brand or store name label, it would be seen as evidence of their excellence and good-standing in the community. Some piano manufacturers built instruments to retailer requested specifications and then placed that retailers’ name on them. Other times mass produced pianos simply had another name added as a decal, or stencil.
Then, here we have the story of a small, independent piano builder in Galesburg, Illinois. Much of the story about this piano has been lost to history, but armed with a a few facts, knowledge of common practices of the day, and some persistent digging, here is what I could find.
The Galesburg Piano Company was founded by F. W. Rockwell. They were in business from about 1899 until 1917. Rockwell named his piano line Lombard.
Lombard is a familiar name around Galesburg. Lombard College was founded in 1853 and closed in 1930. Among its notable alumni is Carl Sandburg. After the closing of the college, the campus became Lombard Junior High, and later Lombard Middle School.
Naming the piano Lombard might have been a bold move. Lombard wasn’t the only college in town. Galesburg was founded on the plan of building a college which came to be known as Knox College. Founded along with the town in 1837, Knox College continues to this day. I can’t help but wonder how the Knox alums and students of that time felt about owning a Lombard piano, regardless of the quality. It is also important to note that the Galesburg Piano Company may have been the only piano manufacturer in the area, but it was not the only piano retailer in town. Ah, the joys of competition!
The Galesburg Piano Company was located on the southeast corner of Cherry and Simmons Streets. This beautiful building was built in 1895, and is still in use today. It has housed many businesses through the years. We think the showroom and offices of the Galesburg Piano Company were there in 1902 and we know they were there in 1909.
At one time the factory was on South Kellogg Street (exact address unknown). There were 50 to 75 instruments under construction at any one time. The Galesburg Piano Company held patents on their designs and the name Lombard was their registered trade mark. Some of the components for the piano were made under contract, but the piano action, tone making, and finishing work were all done locally. The trade mark is cast into the iron plate of each piano.
Rockwell relied heavily on advertising. The large display ads for his pianos appeared in over 300 newspapers across the country. Many offered contests for free pianos. It is not surprising to learn that in response to those ads, the Galesburg Piano Company had a massive mail-order operation. It was reported than one average month over 12,000 letters passed through the office. They ordered catalogs in lots of 25,000 at a time.
In 1907, the Galesburg Piano Co. officers were President F. W. Rockwell, Vice President Fred H. Cartan, and Superintendent E. R. McManiman.
By 1913, the showroom, offices and factory were located on North Cherry St. They remained at this location until they closed in 1917.
We can still find these 100+ year-old pianos today, but their numbers are quickly dwindling. I was delighted to find two Lombard pianos in Galesburg, Illinois, at the Galesburg Historical Society Museum. On a Sunday afternoon, I met with Ron Peck, Curator of the Historical Society Museum, for a tour.
Just like many products, serial numbers can provide clues to the age of an item. In the case of one of the museum’s Lombard pianos, the last three digits of the serial number are used on other parts of the piano, suggesting those components were built for a single specific instrument. (Their other instrument is not complete so we cannot compare the two instruments.) The Pierce Piano Atlas has only one listing for Lombard pianos, serial number 57894 “made about 1905.” The serial numbers on the museum’s pianos are much less, suggesting an earlier instrument. My guess is about 1902.
Oh, what stories those keys could tell! I will keep searching and add more information as I find it.