19 · Square Piano

Full Description

American, 19th century
By Alpheus Babcock, Boston, ca. 1820

Compass: six octaves, plus one note: FF to f’’’’
Length 168.0 cm; width 65.4 cm; 32.0; depth of case 31.7 cm; octave span 16.0 cm
String scale: c’’ = 28.6 cm

A brass plaque on the nameboard is inscribed: “Made by / A. Babcock, / for R. Mackay / Boston”. The case, in Federal style, is veneered with mahogany with rosewood marquetry and brass band inlay. It is supported by six carved reeded legs with gilded brass ferrules at their tops. The instrument is duple strung throughout its compass.  The mechanism is the “English double action.” The hammers are covered with leather. The natural keys are covered with ivory, the sharps with ebony.  There are two pedals: the left raises the dampers; the right raises a muffler batten from the afterlengths of the strings. [Survives in playing condition]

American makers played a significant role in the 19th-century development of the piano. There were already piano makers in America in Colonial times, but they only imitated the instruments imported from Europe. Owing to the strain put upon wooden objects by the more severe climate in this country, and especially by the rigors of domestic heating in the winter, these pianos often did not fare well over time.  Alpheus Babcock, for one, began to construct his instruments more sturdily than his predecessors. Compared with its English counterparts, this square piano by Babcock is significantly more massively framed. Babcock’s craftsmanship and well-engineered design resulted in a piano that has remained stable and playable for nearly two centuries.

Shortly after he made this instrument, Babcock went on to apply his Yankee ingenuity to developing and patenting a unitary cast iron frame for square pianos. This ingenious invention removed all tension from the wooden case of the instrument. The Chickering firm in Boston subsequently hired Babcock and applied his invention to grand pianos.

The Belle Skinner Collection                                       
Accession No. 4990.1960

Musical Example:

Julia Blue Raspe, soprano, and Nicholas Renouf, piano, performing Ah, May the Red Rose Live Alway, by Stephen Foster
Yale University Collection of Musical Instruments, 27 April 1986