- “You Will Certainly Have Something that Will Give Great Pleasure, and Be a Marvel in Pittsburgh”: Henry Clay Frick and American Millionaires Living with Mechanical Music, 1872–1919
The heyday of self-playing or automatic musical instruments in the United States roughly coincided with the introduction and industrialization of recorded sound, that is, from approximately 1880 to 1930. During this time, thousands of automatic pianos, music boxes, and orchestrions were imported to and constructed in this country, and they were important to American technological, musical, and social life. When phonographs finally usurped the position of automatic instruments in musical life, the instruments fell into disuse and were largely discarded until there was a resurgence of interest in them by collectors and historians in the 1950s; many instruments were lost before then to the ravages of neglect and sometimes purposeful destruction, so what machines are left are rare, valuable, and mostly in the hands of private collectors. Many books have appeared since the 1950s chronicling the technology and business of mechanical music, but most of these have been written from collectors’ viewpoints, and the history provided focuses on mechanical information and, to a lesser extent, where the instruments were originally located. [End Page 377]
This is only a small part of the picture, however. There is much more to be gleaned from musicological and sociological analysis of other aspects of mechanical music; fascinating as music machines themselves are, the actual music they play and how it is played provide new research areas for sound recording historians and musicologists to explore. The repertoire issued for orchestrions, the largest self-playing instruments of the late nineteenth century, was intended for a clientele scholars assumed to be interested in “culture” and willing to spend great sums to enjoy and display its tastes. Mechanical musical instruments’ pinned cylinders and music rolls are technologically derived music media, and they are perhaps the first long-playing music media. How orchestrion music was arranged on cylinders and paper rolls reflects conscious sonic and durational editing choices analogous to choices made by musicians and engineers in recording studios. Also, what companies chose to arrange for their instruments, as evidenced by extant catalogs, and what consumers chose to buy, exemplified by the few intact original roll collections and receipts for music roll purchases, detail the everyday life of marketers and consumers with mechanical music. Collectors and historians have written about who owned orchestrions and about which instruments have and have not survived, but little has been written about what we might call the instruments’ “social history”: What were they like to live with? Their placement in the home? Their maintenance? Most importantly, their music?
Orchestrions were not for the masses’ homes. People at the very top of the social and economic scale in the late nineteenth century, those who in an earlier age would have had private human orchestras (traditional European and Asiatic nobility and wealthy “gentlemen of means”), invested heavily in these instruments. In America the new industrial/economic aristocracy invested equally heavily in orchestrions, and most installations were in commercial cities in the Northeast, with only a very few in the Midwest.
Pittsburgh and the surrounding heavily industrialized Ohio Valley, extending north through Cleveland (the most “eastern” oriented of U.S. midwestern cities culturally), provide something of a microcosm of how the wealthy appreciated mechanical music. In this region, quite a few late nineteenth-century wealthy residents purchased large German-built orchestrions, and luckily, a number of instruments and research documents remain to chronicle them after the passage of over a century. A major exhibition at the Western Reserve Historical Society in 2005 showcasing Cleveland’s “Millionaire’s Row”—Euclid Avenue, which included the residences of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller—had as a centerpiece a photograph of a mansion’s main parlor with one of these gigantic instruments dominating the room, but with no comment on it. Industrialist Henry Clay Frick’s instrument in his Pittsburgh mansion, Clayton, is one of the very few in the world in its original installation [End Page 378] location, and other industrialists in the area owned similar instruments that still exist, or at least documentation and...