This instrument represents a very important era in the
history of the piano, because this instrument does not have an iron plate
for the wires to be strung across. I am guessing at the date of manufacture
on this piano. Gibson & Davis started making pianos in London,
England, and by 1802 the firm had relocated to New York. The firm
discontinued business in 1820, but the Gibson & Davis name was used as late
According to Spillane's History of the American
Pianoforte (printed in 1890): "Thus it is that in 1799 the names of
Morgan Davis and Thomas Gibson appear as "musical instrument makers in
general." These two individuals were evidently legitimate
pianoforte-makers, for they turn up in partnership as Gibson & Davis,
pianoforte makers, in 1801, at 63 Barclay Street, and were well known even
thirty years afterward. Davis must have been a Welshman judging by his
surname, and particularly by his Christian name, which is as peculiar to
Wales as Guido is to Italy, or Ivan to Russia.
"Some of Gibson's decendants are still in New York, and
inquiries made of them elicited the information that their ancestor was a
Scotchman, who had learned his business legitimately in London. Mr.
Henry Hazelton remembers Gibson's shop on Barclay Street. I have
traced Gibson & Davis together through successive directories up to 1820,
when they separate.
"From this date forward Davis makes pianos at 61 Barclay
Street, while Gibson occupies the old number, 63. (See
Gibson Piano) They were in
business up to 1836 in the same street and location precisely. Next
year Davis disappears and presently Gibson follows suit. Both died,
apparently. The names appear nowhere after 1839."
The firm of Gibson & Davis made the pianofortes from the
cabinets they purchased from the famous New York cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe
(1768-1854). Yes, in fact, the cabinet this piano is built into was
indeed made by Duncan Phyfe, the foremost New York furniture maker at the
This makes a good time for a bit of piano construction history.
A modern grand piano has a total tension of 40,000 pounds or
more from the wires stretched across the piano. Before about 1800, pianos (like
this one) were built without the benefit of an iron plate. This greatly limited
the total tension that could be placed on the wires. A publication from around
1808 by the piano makers of Wachtl & Bleyer stated that their pianos had a
tension of 9,000 pounds. It is easy to see that the piano, if it were to be more
powerful, needed something to make it stronger. The answer was in the iron
plate, as an addition to the wood framework of the piano. A lot of experimentation
took place using metal tubes and steel bars for bracing the piano, but nothing
really worked too well. In 1800, John Hawkins tried an iron frame, but it too
was a failure.
The first real attempt that was acceptable was by Allen &
Thom of London around 1820. They used a system of iron tubing, and got a patent
on the idea. They sold their patent to Robert Stodart, who used the iron tubing
to construct a piano that could withstand 13,000 pounds of tension. The firm of
Erard produced a grand piano in 1824 using a number of iron bars for bracing
over the soundboard. In 1825, in Boston, a piano maker by the name of Alpheus
Babcock constructed a square piano with a full iron frame. This was so
successful, that the idea of a full iron frame became the standard for American
built pianos, and Jonas Chickering patented a full iron frame in 1843 that
pretty much looked like the full iron frames used today on grand pianos.
This particular piano, from the design of the cabinet and the
construction, represents the 'state of the art' in square piano construction at
the beginning of the 19th century. It is only about 5 1/2' long by 2 feet
deep, and just over 3 feet tall. You should also notice that this piano only has
68 keys (40 white, 28 black) instead of the modern standard of 88 keys. In
the pictures below, notice the Federal design, with lots of medallions, and
the picture that shows one of the two drawers for storage of sheet music,
and also the original folding music stand.
click on the picture for a full size view:
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