They Laughed When I Sat Down To Read Piano 300 October 26, 2009 – Tags: , , , , ,

On March 8, 2000, the National Museum of American History opened Piano 300 in the Smithsonian Institution‘s International Gallery in Washington D.C.

Celebrating the tricentennial of the piano’s introduction in Florence by Bartolomeo Cristofori, this outstanding exhibition was seen by more than 330,000 visitors from around the world during its twenty-month run.

I’m a sucker for great exhibition catalogs, and that which accompanied Piano 300 is one of the most interesting and visually rewarding that I’ve seen in quite awhile. It is, arguably, be the best, most concise volume about the instrument there is with chapters that include: Early Stages; The Rise of the Public Perfomer; Pianos at Home; Americans Take the Lead; The Afro-American Legacy; Tin Pan Alley; etc.

If you love music in general and the piano in particular Piano 300: Celebrating Three Centuries of People and Pianos is a must-have. Perfectly pitched, there’s not a flat in word or image. If, like me, you enjoy exhibition (and trade) catalogs, this will make an excellent addition to your collection.

Piano, 1926 By: Daizaburo Nakamura, 1926 (Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art)

Not just a lavishly illustrated souvenir of the exhibition with over 250 photographs, many in full color, the catalog provides an excellent technical and social history of the instrument highlighting the innovative craftsmen, manufacturers, entrepreneurs, teachers, performers, and composers who helped make the piano the most popular musical instrument of modern times.

Giraffe Piano, 1809-1811. Maker: André Stein, Vienna.

Sewing Table Piano in open and closed positions. Unknown Austrian or German maker, 1820-1840.

Square Piano, 1850. Maker: Chickering, Boston.

Whole Lotta Piano Goin’ On: Liberace at Baldwin grand piano, 1980s; and his love-children,
Jerry Lee Lewis, 1950s, and Elton John, 1980s.

The catalog is becoming rare. At this time there are only eleven copies being offered throughout the world, at prices from $1 (yes, from a penny-seller) in poor condition to $138 for a mint condition copy.

I have only one quibble; there is no mention of advertising copywriter John Caples’ enormously successful and now classic print ad for the U.S. School of Music, which played a huge role in popularizing the piano as an instrument for the average home that anyone could learn to play:

Advertisement written in 1926 by John Caples of agency Ruthrauff & Ryan. Full text here.


Hoover, Cynthia Adams. Patrick Rucker. Edwin M. Good. Piano 300: Celebrating Three Centuries of People and Pianos. Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American History and NAMM-International Music Products Association, 2001. 80 pages. Photo-illustrated wrappers.

FTC Alert: Piano 300 co-writer and former curator of the Smithsonian’s piano collection, Patrick Rucker, is a life-long friend of this author yet he didn’t even have the courtesy to offer me swag, payola, or gratuities of any nature in exchange for writing about this book.

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