Now On Display at American History: The Diary of Piano Man William Steinway

The newest exhibit in the American History Museum’s Albert H. Small Documents gallery has been a long time coming

William Steinway Diary
William Steinway Diary American History Museum

The newest exhibit in the American History Museum's Albert H. Small Documents gallery has been a long time coming. The germ of the idea began in 1967 1966 when Cynthia Adams Hoover, then a young curator at the American History Museum, first visited the Steinway family in New York in search of material for an exhibit on American music. Founded in 1853 by German immigrants Henry Engelhard Steinway and his three sons, Charles, Henry and William, Steinway & Sons famously manufactured pianos that are widely used today in popular and classical music.

On that 1966 visit, a diary kept by William Steinway caught Hoover's eye. The entries documented a period from 1861, three days before Steinway's marriage, to around the turn of the 19th century. Hoover found the 2,500-page diary to be a rich chronicle of 19th century America, with commentary on events occurring before the Civil War to urban development to the immigrant experience, all through the lens of a prominent New York businessman. Hoover persuaded the Steinways to let her use the diary for research. More than 40 years later and after more than 25,000 hours of research by one hundred different volunteers, parts of the diary are now on display in an the exhibit "A Gateway to the 19th Century: The William Steinway Diary, 1861-1896."

"We just started , and we didn't have a real strong path, we just wanted to make it available to people," said Hoover at the exhibit opening. Although the American History museum didn't officially acquire the diary until 1996, co-editor Edwin M. Good was able to start transcribing it in the 1980s. In recent years, the project has benefited from the help of retired economists, physicians and others who have taken charge of researching passages in the diary that pertained to their respective fields.

"This is very much a classic German-American immigrant story, but also the story of a young man who is a witness to history," says Anna Karvellas, managing editor of the project. The exhibit delves into the Steinway business, the New York City draft riots that nearly destroyed the Steinway factories, German singing societies that Steinway participated in, the Rapid Transit Commission that he pioneered, and his role in developing Astoria, Queens, where the Steinway factories were located.

"When we started in the 80's, we were thinking books. But no publisher that we talked to wanted to do it. They would do one volume , but that was it," said Hoover. But with the advent of the vast resources of the Internet, Hoover decided to make the diary available as an online resource. Now, with the opening of the exhibit, the project team—including Hoover, Karvellas, Good and project coordinator Dena Adams—has put the entire diary online, complete with a full transcription and some sample annotations for the entries. (The project is ongoing and pending funding, plans are to add more than 30,000 interlinked annotations in the coming years.) The online diary is searchable by topic or keyword, so anyone who wants to can learn about the life of this 19th century New York entrepreneur.

"A Gateway to the 19th Century: The William Steinway Diary, 1861-1896" will be on display in the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery of the American History Museum through April 8, 2011.

Updated 1/6/2011: This post includes new information about the future plans of the diary project.

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