Behning & Sons Piano Company

The Behning Piano Company, established in 1861 in New York, survived for nearly 100 years, and has a colorful history. I’ve decided to show its history in a time line format, as the ownership/management underwent several changes over the years.

  • 1861 ~ Henry Behning establishes Behning Piano Company in New York City on East 128th Street
  • 1864 ~ Behning partners with Mr. Albrecht Klix, building pianos under the name of Behning & Klix
  • 1873 ~ Behning terminates partnership with Klix and continues building pianos under his own name
  • c.1875 ~ Behning partners with Mr. Diehl
  • 1878 ~ Behning terminates partnership with Mr. Diehl
  • 1881 ~ Behning partners with son Henry, and name changes to Behning & Son
  • 1920 ~ both sons, Henry and Gustave, take over the company and expand to East 133rd Street and Alexander; name changes to Behning & Sons
  • 1931 ~ Gustave runs the company on his own and moves it to West 51st Street
  • 1932 ~ Kohler & Campbell acquire the company
  • 1956 ~ production under Kohler & Campbell ceases

Pianos and The Great Depression

When you think of old pianos, do you think of ornate carvings? The fancy pianos are the ones made in the early 1900s and before. Behning & Sons certainly made some of the finest, most ornate pianos I have ever seen, according to photos I’ve come across on the Internet. The Behning & Sons piano that was given to me was marked with Serial #48409, indicating that it was manufactured in 1922, when the two sons were running the company. I don’t recall much about what this piano looked like, except that it was plain. This one came into existence right on the heels of the Great Depression. People did not have money for extravagance. Their lives had been stripped of frills and “extras.” They had no use for ornate things; now they wanted more practical items in their homes. This is why piano makers, including Behning & Sons, started producing the plain, boxy style cabinets for their upright pianos. Shorter pianos also became more popular because they took up less visual space in the room, as rooms were smaller than before. Grands and baby grands were still being produced, and the styles of their cases were also simplified.

Quality Pianos

Piano manufacturers also learned how to make “economy” pianos so that people could still enjoy music on a tighter budget. Sometimes the result meant a sacrifice in quality, but often it was more a sacrifice in aesthetics, with still a pleasing sound from the instrument. Behning & Sons did not sacrifice quality. In fact, they were known for producing high-quality, expensive pianos, and enjoyed a great deal of success. They even made the Wendland player piano during the years between 1910 and 1930. Perhaps it was their self-imposed standard of high quality that made it hard for them to survive the Great Depression, for not too long after that period, the younger son, Gustave, being left alone with the company, was compelled to sell it to Kohler & Campbell, who kept the name alive for nearly another quarter of a century. (I thought this was interesting, since I’ve also come across a 1915 Kohler & Campbell piano.)

My photos of this piano are not impressive, but are mostly “for the record.” Usually I take the entire piano away when I acquire one, but this was one of the rare occasions when I got to disassemble it on-site and take only what I could carry. With the seats all folded down in the minivan (not the van in the photo), we were able to take everything but what was firmly attached to the cast iron plate. In other words, I did not keep the strings or the soundboard, nor the side boards or back boards, but I kept everything else. I got good photos of the markings on the plate because I knew I would never see it again, and those markings are how I identify the piano.

Also in the photos you will see the son of the dear folks who gave me the piano, my son who helps me with most of the moves, and our indispensable Dolly.

If you own a Behning & Sons piano, you can be proud of the fine-quality, American-made musical instrument that graces your home, and I hope you will care for it and play it often.


Bibliography

Pierce, W. Robert. Pierce Piano Atlas. 12th Edition. Larry E. Ashley Publishing: Albuquerque, NM, 2008

antiquepianoshop.com

rayspiano.com


 

 

Kohler & Campbell: King of the Industry

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A Perfect Match

Charles Kohler was only twenty years old in 1894, when he and John Calvin Campbell united forces to establish Kohler & Campbell Industries, Inc., in New York City. Though a young man, Kohler was considered a genius as a businessman and factory superintendent. His partner, J. C. Campbell, was a machinist skilled in working with both wood and iron, and he used these skills to improve the manufacturing of pianos and earn Kohler & Campbell their reputation for offering “the best value for the dollar.” These two men were a perfect match in business, and their company grew to become one of the all-time giants in the piano manufacturing industry.

Bought and Sold

Campbell died unexpectedly in 1908, and Charles Kohler took control of the company. The business continued to expand, as they absorbed less successful names, such as Autopiano (ca. 1920), Waldorf (mid-1920s), Behning (1926), and Newton (ca. 1930). During the pre-Depression era, the Standard Pneumatic Action Company, a subsidiary of Kohler & Campbell, manufactured an impressive 50,000 player piano actions, and more, per year. Kohler & Campbell grands were made by Brambach in Granite Falls, NC, and in 1954, all production was moved to Granite Falls.

For 100 years the company thrived in the United States as a supplier to major retailers across the country. However, they hit hard times in 1985 and suspended manufacturing. After negotiations, Sherman Clay bought the Kohler & Campbell name and contracted Samick USA to build Kohler grand pianos for retail stores. Later, Samick USA bought the name from Sherman Clay and expanded distribution to South Korea.

Kohler pianos are still being produced today, and the line has now been expanded to include digital pianos in both baby grand and upright cabinet styles. Once the king of the industry, Kohler is still a major presence. If you own a Kohler piano, or a Kohler & Campbell, you may be proud of its amazing history.

The One I Acquired

The Kohler & Campbell piano that was given to me was an upright grand, serial number 163634, which dates to 1902, meaning this piano was built when the company was only eight years old, and it was 113 years old when it joined the Encore! family. Unfortunately, it suffered much water damage while in storage, but I was able to use the keys and the action. I still have many pieces of the case, but have not tried to restore them. Soon I will.

A friend and fellow choir member gave me the piano, so I thought it would be appropriate to use pieces from this piano to make Christmas gifts for the choir members. And that’s exactly what I did. The choir director got a Conductor made of whippen and sticker assemblies (technically not from this piano), and each choir member received an ornament for their Christmas tree. They were able to choose from a hammer ornament or a diamond-shaped ornament cut from the soundboard. This piano had a most unusual action piece that I had never seen anywhere else. It was shaped like a bell (see photos), and I used it to decorate a second set of soundboard ornaments which we gave to the members of my daughter’s handbell choir.

All the ornaments were personalized on the back with the year and the name of the choir. I still love pulling mine out each year and hanging it on the tree, even though we’ve since moved to another state and sing in another choir. When I look at that ornament, I’m reminded of the friends whose voices used to blend with mine in praise to God. I see their faces, and I smile. That, my friends, is why I make art from these old pianos.

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Bibliography

Pierce, W. Robert. Pierce Piano Atlas. 12th Edition. Larry E. Ashley Publishing: Albuquerque, NM, 2008

antiquepianoshop.com

kohleryandcampbell.com

kohlerdigitalpianos.com