1820 Thomas Gibson

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 as 1839. 

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 1818 Gibson & Davis 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 time.

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.

Copyright 2008 Greg Flannagan. Please feel free to use my pictures, after sending me an e-mail of intent to greg@oldpianos.com