Invariably we come before a square piano and want to know how old it is. Generally, the most satisfying answer would take us to an exact year. The reality is that this is not always possible, even for pianos made for very well known firms. With the understanding that the information presented here is subject to refinement and updating, we will begin with a few of the better known firms and move to the lesser known pianos as information builds up.
Style and construction are strong indicators of the general period a piano was made. The earliest pianos are all petite in appearance, generally shallow in case height, and less than 5 feet long. They are often on trestle stands, which may or may not be original, and the nameboard inlay may use a traditional ogee point outline. Such a piano, a Frederick Beck of 1773 is given below with a guideline for when the general trestle stand was in style.
Fortunately for the researcher, the majority of early pianos by the principle makers were dated on the nameboards, removing much doubt of when they were made. An example of a Beck signed and dated 1777 on the soundboard but 1778 on the nameboard simply indicates a late year production.
Atypically, James Longman had a tradition of NOT putting the date on the name board, such that Longman and Lukey/ Longman and Broderip are typically undated. Only in their last two years of production do we find L&B pianos occasionally with the date of 1796. Other examples are unknown.
A second general style sat the piano on a “French Frame” or apron stand that fully enclosed the bottom edge of the piano, and often allowed a lower shelf for music or similar. This style began in the late 1770s (typically without the lower shelf; a Kirckman has surfaced with what appears to be the original French stand and dating to 1777) and continued until the early teens of the 19th C. Pianos were sometimes refitted for French Frame stands early in their life to keep up with changing styles and currency. A Broadwood of 1787 owned by the author is drilled for a trestle stand, used sparingly (indication of one or two ‘fittings’ into the piano bottom) then converted to a French Frame by Broadwood or a competent frame maker who matched the inlay and mahogany color rather well.
Kirckman of 1777, possibly the first appearance of a French stand in England
Around 1807, a six legged version was introduced, possibly to accommodate the increasing size of the instrument, and to keep in style. Turned legs replaced square tapered legs, and added embellishments of brass collars, turned and reeded, teardrop shapes, etc. were added. This style would continue through the 1830s.
The last style, introduced in the early 1820s (a Clementi has surfaced at auction in Dec. 2011, SN 15123, so ~1821, with 4 original legs), returns to four legs, turned or octaganol in shape, which would continue in Europe until the end of square piano production. American pianos would move into ornate cabriole carved legs, sometimes with astonishing designs. Occasionally other legs styles were also used such as pedestals, lyres, and other fanciful leg shapes.
In addition to style, we can sometimes further refine our dating from the serial number that may be on the piano. Serial numbers give us plenty of room for interpretation sometimes, depending on shop practice. Numbers rarely began with 1, and might start at 100 for instance. Shop practice may involve numbering various components seperately with the final number assigned at various points of construction. The use of serial numbers as a general shop practice widely held began around 1783 or so. For labels that used multiple builders such as Longman and Broderip, some system of assigning blocks of serial numbers to various builders was in play, so that a lower number may be made after a higher one, based on which shop got which number set, though it is suspected this was maintained up to date within a calendar year.
This aside, some effort has been made to collect dated instruments and use their serial numbers to produce a trend line for dating instruments. This information is presented below.
Broadwood is unique in having a well maintained and readable pedigree, thanks in part to the records remaining intact and the company still in existence. Broadwood pianos were dated from 1780 until 1805, and less frequently until about 1809. This gives us a nearly gap free dating of Broadwood squares.
18th century serial numbers
Serial numbers from 1800 to 1820.
Serial numbers from 1820 to 1866, and the last Broadwood square produced.
Longman & Broderip
Longman and Broderip began numbering in late 1783 or 1784, and infrequent pianos are found dated on a key, under the soundboard, back of name board, residual paperwork, and similar. From this, the first series of 5 octave instruments can be given as below:
The second series, used on 5 1/2 octave pianos by way of the Southwell patent, began in 1795. Four pianos are known and dated 1796 on the enamel plaque, with numbers from 291 to 470. A Longman and Clementi of 1799 is numbered 1355, so we can assume the second series bridges these end points.
Clementi picked up with the second series and continued as below. There is some confusion as to exactly which dated pianos match to given serial numbers due to the following problem: When Clementi took over, they continued the numbering scheme established by Longman and Borderip, and continued to stamp this number in the left-hand cheek well as with earlier pianos. But they also began to add an inked number on the wrestplank at the far right. This number began with a very low value, perhaps the number 1, and represents the cumulative total of all square made, including those for Astor and others, such that it began as a much smaller number, and ultimately became a much larger number than that stamped in the cheek. Dual numbering was perpetuated, so researchers must record two serial numbers, or at the minimum describe which number they are quoting. Happily, the famed researcher Leif Sahlqvist has generated a competent SN chart for dating Clementi pianos. We now replace our earlier chart with Leif’s, the cheif point of deviation from ouor earlier chart having come after about 1820, where ur former SNs were too high against actual dates.
Older chart, now replaced by the one above, is retained below for now.
Thomas Tomkison began building quality pianos around 1798, and was highly thought of as a builder, on a smaller scale than Broadwood and Clementi, but influential. See the excellent history on the Friends Of Square Pianos site. Tim Harding, Norman MacSween, and other dedicated researchers have now brought us a first assembly of serial numbers against known good dates. Tim advises that the later years are still uncertain (but a firm date for 1838!), and we should stand by for data that will alter and improve our understanding here, but the serial numbers from the majority of the pianos found can be seen here. We are grateful to Tim for this critical information.
Geib in America
John Geib Sr. brought his family to America in 1797, and began building organs and pianos almost immediately on arrival, shifting his operation to New York from Philadelphia within his first year here. These pianos were usually not dated, so assembling a correlation to date has been challenging. However, through the Clinkscale documentation efforts, enough information has accumulated to propose the following dates with serial number. There remains some debate on the established date of 1809 with piano # 5455 (family history attributes the piano to the 18th birthday of Eliza Ann Ferris, July 10 1809, but then incorrectly states her marriage date by many years), but the documentation is as good as we will have, and while a date of 1812 works more smoothly here, we will present the facts as known today. These are for pianos made by John Sr. and Jr. (1800 – 1814) John Jr. on his own (1814 to 1816) John and Adam (1816-1818) John, Adam and William (1818-1824), Adam and William (1824-1827), and William alone to ~ 1832. Dates are approximate, and a refined and enlarged version of this information should be forthcoming in future months.
Robert Nunns, Clark & Co.
Recent work on the firm of Robert and William Nunns (Updated Feb 21, 2015), and the subsequent firm of Robert Nunns, Clark & Co. reveals the following probable serial number chart. We have some reasonably convincing dates to pin the chart to, but we should keep in mind that data remains scarce for establishing exact dates to SN for this maker. Two new pianos that entered the collection this year have served to refine the early years. Treat this information as circa, to perhaps +/- 1 year, until more is known. It is clear that thngs began to get busy in the Nunns shop around the end of 1828, as newspaper advertisement and notices are far more frequent from 1829 onward.