Description by Dwight Newton, 2006.
There are a lot of images here. Hit your Stop or Back button to escape. Click for larger views. The larger views have been much reduced from the original hi-resolution images.
This instrument was in an antique shop in Lexington, Kentucky, and was purchased by my colleague, Nikos Pappas, a musicologist at the University of Kentucky who has a research interest in the music of colonial and federalist era American music. Some of these images were shot in the store with difficult space and lighting conditions.
This is a 6-octave crudely built square pianoforte (or as they might have said "pianaforty") with an Empire-style case and legs. The dealer says it was in the original family of the maker since it was made and that it came from the neighboring town of Winchester. There is a loose, hand written note that says:
"Piano built in 1818 by grandfather of Mr. O.C. Ramsey [or Rainsey]."
Its condition is not good, but we've seen a lot worse. It appears to be an important document of piano making in the early pioneer West, not long after Lewis and Clark. We have seen other pianos of this era made in Lexington after English or New York models, but this one is rather more "hand-crafted."
It is clear that the maker was very concerned about the possibility of warping/twisting in the classic way of clavichords. The heavy reinforcement applied to the instrument was, alas, to some extent in vain as it is somewhat twisted, though not as badly as we first thought. Despite this, most of the hammers play and it actually has a very big sound for an old wood square. The dampers rest an eighth inch or more above the strings. The wear on the ivory key tops and other signs indicate that the piano was well used.
The case, legs and pedal harp are all veneered in mahogany. The antique dealer says there was a veneer merchant in Winchester at the time in question.
The piano has two tuners in wrought iron, One of which is broken (presumably the original)
A loose cherry board which may or may not be part of the original instrument has nearly invisible writing on the back in pencil which we have not yet been able to decipher, though it does seem (with significant image enhancement) to have the words "March the (???) 1824." This seems a more likely date than the 1818 given on the loose note.
The center plank in the back has a significant bow. One suggestion is that this is intentional and it almost seems the only explanation for it, but I don't see what purpose it would serve.
There is a large timber bolted to the bottom in the direction of the strings. The bolt heads can be seen from the top and run through the instrument. The patterns of the tuning and hitch pins clearly demonstrate that this is original.
The bulky design of the pedal harp is likely intended to provide strength. but the numerous holes where it is evident the the attachment screws pulled free suggests that the weakness is there.
Wood identification expert Dr. Terry Conners and musicologist Nikos Pappas from the University of Kentucky. Dr. Conners only saw the instrument in the shop and was not able to take samples, but we hope to have him do a more invasive examination soon.
The heavy square legs have round tenons that fit loosely into holes in the bottom of the case. In the shop the back end of the piano was supported by a table positioned under it. Two or three of the leg tenons had dowel screws, but the screw holes are worn out and these may not be original. The mortises are lined with sections of what appear to be galvanized steel pipe. These reinforcements may also not be original. The fit and alignment of the legs is a bit precarious. By inserting sheet metal shims into the pipe sections, we were able to provide a tighter fit for a bit more stability.
The instrument is double strung throughout. We have seen local (Goodman in Frankfort) and London (Astor Horwood in Louisville) made pianos that were single strung. The strings appear to be in remarkably good condition and may not be the original set, thought some have the open winding typical of earlier squares.
The bridge is a single piece deep arch.
This curious brace is bolted at one end in a slot that suggests that it is intended to move, but is otherwise apparently just glued to the soundboard. We have not tried yet to remove the screw to see if the plank would move.
There is writing on the soundboard -- the initials "E P T" in pencil.
The piano has a very simple single action without escapement. It is a typical 6-octaves seen on later squares. It does not have the extension section invented by Southwell and common on pianos of this era, but is rather a continuous single rack.
The hammers rest on a pillow of three layers of cloth: yellow, green and white. The hammer shafts and head cores are mahogany.
Dampers are typical mopheads that appear to be mahogany with two layers of leather and/or felt. After cleaning out the debris inside the body so the bottom rear damper rail (the one that lifts the dampers when the pedal is depressed) can sit flush with the body, the dampers still hang an eighth inch or a bit less above the strings. It's not clear what problem in the geometry is causing this.
The bottom ends of the dampers are glued to the lifters with a felt or leather pad that compresses and flexes as needed.
There is a curious strip of vellum glued to a place at the back of the soundboard. It's not clear what this is for.
The keyboard is fairly straightforward except for the black keys in the first octave above middle C. For some reason these appear to have full ebony keytops, while the rest of them have a thin (maybe a quarter inch or less) ebony layer on top of what appears to be a rosewood underlayer.
Copyright 2006 by Dwight Newton. All rights reserved.
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