Heinrich Steinweg (Henry Steinway)

Portrait of Steinway Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg was born on February 25, 1797 in the village of Wolfshagen, located in the Harz mountains of Germany. Although the details of his early life are sketchy, it is clear that he settled in the town of Seesen, Germany sometime during the 1820s. The next 30 years of his life were spent there, and it was there that he began making pianos, most likely in his own home. The date when he began to do this, as well as the number that he made, is unclear.

H. Steinweg, Instrumentenmacher, SeesenIn June of 1849, Heinrich’s son Carl became the first member of the Steinweg family to emigrate to America. Six months later, in January of 1850, Heinrich prepared to follow suit by selling his home and land in Seesen, and in May the entire family, minus the eldest son, boarded an America-bound ship in Hamburg.

In New York City, the Steinweg family settled into a home at 199 Hester Street, in a section of town where there were many piano manufacturers. Although the male members of the family worked for other piano manufacturers for a time, it seems that they soon began building pianos in their own residence. In 1856, the Steinway & Sons partnership agreement was signed by the Steinwegs, with the name Steinway used for business purposes. The name change was made legal by 1866, when the members of the family signed a new partnership agreement after the deaths of Henry, Jr. and Charles.

In 1855, at the American Institute Fair, a Steinway piano had the honor of being unanimously named the best in the show. The gold medal awarded for this confirmed the quality of the instruments produced in the Steinway works, and provided an excellent advertising slogan: "Gold Medal Pianos!" In addition to this victory, Steinway and Sons won 34 other awards at various exhibitions by 1862.

Square overstrung pianoAmong the pianos originally built by Steinway and Sons were square overstrung pianos. Unlike uprights, these pianos contained all the same notes as a concert grand, with the long strings strung the length of the piano and the short strings strung atop these the width of the piano. This invention, not typical of pianos of the day, was the brainchild of Frederich Mathushek in 1851. This pioneering of others’ innovations was followed by innovations of their own, as Henry, Jr. obtained several patents on, among other things, piano actions, a method for using agraffes in the treble section of a piano.

It seems clear that the Steinway piano business is a story of America; in America, a man could step outside his dictated social class and rise to fame by making pianos. Heinrich Steinweg, however, despite his name change, never learned English, and did not become an American citizen until 1863. Apparently, he never retired, but continued working alongside his sons in the business that has become an international symbol of excellence in the manufacture of pianos. The company continued to grow and develop well beyond Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg’s death in 1871 of ascites, a type of liver failure. In fact, the success of the company is such that its history overshadows the history of any individual family member in virtually all sources.

Despite the lack of information that has been passed down to us about the specifics of Heinrich Steinweg’s life, the legacy of a man with a passion for excellent pianos is one that lives on.

Additional resources on Heinrich Steinweg

Photos from People and Pianos used by permissions, Steinway & Sons.

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