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Pan-American Exposition of 1901

1901 and The New Home Entertainment

Robert J. Berkman

Edison Phonograph ad

Even before the Pan American Exposition, progressive types observed that we were poised for a revolution in the home. Edison's (and his competitors') electric light and power systems were already changing the ambient noise of life from "clank and hiss" to a steady "hum", and soon an array of new devices lightened the homemaker's burden. Some of these were labor-saving devices, others were meant to provide home entertainment to fill the increased leisure hours. Principle among the latter were the phonograph and the player piano, and while one has become a cultural force, the other has virtually faded from view.

Cornetist recording

Edison had invented the phonograph in 1877, but many years passed before it began to emerge as a home entertainment device. Edison's refusal to see it in this light (as opposed to his original conception of it as an office dictating machine) began to erode as competing inventors and entrepreneurs identified it as a new and profitable industry waiting to be born. Enormous systems had to be worked out first - the design and manufacture of reliable, popularly-priced phonographs; the materials and means to mass produce records; and most of all, the great pop culture complex had to grow up, eventually encompassing songwriters, music publishers, theatre owners, celebrity performers of all types, wholesalers, retailers, publicists - not to mention the later addition of Hollywood, radio, television, and the Internet. Such complexes do not spring into being fully formed.

Sousa Band recording Nevertheless, by the mid-1890's the phonograph business was on its way to success. Emile Berliner's convenient disc records were fast becoming serious competitors to the more cumbersome wax cylinders then in use, and following much legal wrangling his patents became the basis of the eponymous Victor Talking Machine Company in 1901. This enterprise led the way to the fulfillment of the phonograph's promise as a home entertainer, at the same time eliminating a key participatory attraction of the cylinder phonograph: Participation in home recording was not possible with discs. This liability (if liability it was) was far outweighed by the discs' ease of use to judge from the thousands who flocked to Victor's exhibit at the Pan, snapping up miniature souvenir records that bore an endorsement from John Philip Sousa. (Victor's major competitor, The Columbia Phonograph Co., was also to offer a Pan Am item. After the assassination of President McKinley, they issued a record of his last speech - though spoken by an actor.)

Sousa Band Disc President McKinley recording

Meanwhile, the mechanical piano had been developing since the late 1860's. At that time owning a piano was a hallmark of American middle-class respectability and remained so well into the 20th century. To use it, however, meant that someone in the home had to learn to play it. The usual someone was a daughter, piano playing being considered largely a "female accomplishment" imposed upon young ladies without regard to their level of innate musical talent. It might be guessed that innate musical talent was as scarce then as now, and that a ready market existed for a mechanical piano player.

The most successful of these piano players was the Pianola, introduced in 1898. Invented by Edwin S. Votey and brilliantly marketed by the Aeolian Company, the Pianola was already a world-wide phenomenon by the time of the Pan. Soon enough a huge library of music rolls was available, listing everything from ragtime to Chopin. The player piano industry also tapped into and contributed to the pop culture complex, including contacts with songwriters, publishers, pianists, - and even the phonograph record companies. The QRS Music Roll Co. (founded 1900) issued special rolls to be played along with favorite Victor Records.

Pianola ad

By 1901, then, both the phonograph and the player piano were in their ascendency. The phonograph, though it has had fallow periods, has been continuously upgraded technologically and flourishes today as the modern CD player. Player piano sales, on the other hand, began to slide after 1923 and virtually came to a halt in 1931. Though there was a nostalgia-driven revival in the 1960's and 70's, that too has subsided to a trickle. Why is this so?

Of course, several reasons seem self-evident. The rise of free entertainment on radio and the onset of the Great Depression clearly sent the player piano hurtling toward oblivion. Compared to any phonograph of the time (not to mention the modern CD player), the player piano was much more expensive and far less portable. The piano itself began to slip from its place of honor in the home, to the point that any keyboard in the home today is likely to be a versatile electronic one interfaced to a computer. And pop music, with its increasingly multi-layered sounds and sonic effects, became less and less suitable for piano adaptation.

Angelus Pianola adBut the main reason may be more a sociological one than a technological one. When playing a Pianola one is actively participating in the making of the music, a selling point stressed in much early advertising. In fact, considerable skill is needed to operate a Pianola if anything like "musical" results are to be obtained. It is not the passive experience that listening to a record is.

While this "selling point" intrigued many would-be pianists in 1901 and continues to interest a tiny band of devotees, the general public ultimately found it too taxing. The player piano's biggest years began in 1916 when, karaoke-like, the song lyrics began to be printed on well-arranged rolls that left little for the public to do but pump the pedals and sing along. Singing along with a player piano is a participatory aspect which requires no skill, just camaraderie and the lack of self-consciousness it inspires. Yet even this level of participation --- gathering around the player piano for a sing-along --- is a type of fun foreign to people who were becoming used to receiving their musical entertainment passively.

Pianola pictureIt is not quite true to say that the mechanical piano has vanished from the scene. Among the wonders of the early 21st Century are new self-playing piano systems that are enjoying considerable success in the marketplace, the paper rolls replaced by hi-tech floppy disks and CDs. These systems are capable of excellent performances, requiring no interaction by the user beyond pushing the "play" button. This suggests that in order to appeal to the 21st Century customer, the mechanical piano needed its participatory aspects eliminated; for while new and wonderful revolutions in daily life undoubtedly loom, it is unlikely they will rekindle in us a desire to work any harder than we have to for our home entertainment.

Sic transit gloria pianola!

© 2001 Robert J. Berkman

Robert J. Berkman is Chief Operating Officer of QRS Music Technologies, Inc., Buffalo, N.Y.