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May 2, 2018 Reading Time: 6 minutes

Every push for tariffs is backed by nostalgia for how things used to be – and an attempt to restore them. Lately it’s been about steel, aluminum, textiles, solar panels, and so on. The “golden age” here is the 1970s, when all these industries were centered in the United States.

But why stop there? The years between 1890 and the Second World War were the golden age of the American piano. Pianos were the biggest-ticket item on every household budget besides the house itself. Everyone had to have one. Those who didn’t have one aspired to have one. It was a prize, an essential part of life, and they sold by the millions and millions.

By 1890, Americans fed half the world market for pianos. Between 1890 and 1928, sales ranged from 172,000 to 364,000 per year. It was a case of relentless and astounding growth.

They were used in classrooms everywhere in times when music education was considered to be the foundation of a good education. They were the concert instruments in homes before recorded music and iPods. They were essential for all entertainment. American buyers couldn’t get enough, and private enterprise responded.

New York, Boston, and Chicago were the homes of these companies. There was the great Chickering piano made by a company founded in 1823 and which later led the world in beauty and sound. There was Hallet and Davis in Boston, J. and C. Fischer in New York, as well as Strich and Ziedler, Hazelton, William Knabe, Baldwin, Weber, Mason and Hamlin, Decker and Sons, Wurlizer, Steck, Kimball in Chicago, and, finally, Steinway.

Nostalgia for Domestics

The American piano industry was the greatest in the world, not because the Americans came up with any new and great manufacturing techniques, though there were some innovations, but because the economic conditions made it most favorable to be manufactured here.

With the rise of this industry came a vast marketing apparatus. Piano ads were everywhere, as a tour of old magazines shows. It was widely believed that spending money on a piano wasn’t really spending. It was an investment. The money you paid would be embedded right there in this beautiful and useful item. You can always sell it for more than you paid for it, and this was generally true. So people would make great sacrifices for these instruments.

With the growth of this manufacturing came an explosion of shops that served the piano market all up and down the industry. Piano tuning was a big-time profession. Retail shops with pianos opened everywhere, and the sheet-music business exploded with them. Ever notice how in big cities the music stores are typically family owned and established 40, 50, and even 100 years ago? This is a surviving remnant of our industrial past.

All of this changed again in 1930, which was the last great year of the American piano. Sales fell and continued to fall when times were tough. The companies that were beloved by all Americans fell on hard times and began to go belly up one by one. After World War II the trend continued, as ever more pianos began to be made overseas.

Globalization of the Piano

In 1960, we began to see the first major international challenge to what was left of the US market position. Japan was already manufacturing half as many pianos as the United States. By 1970, a revolution occurred as Japan’s production outstripped the United States, and it has been straight down ever since. By 1980, Japan made twice as many as the United States. Then production shifted to Korea. Today China is the center of world piano production. You probably see them in your local hotel bar.

And what happened to the once-beloved and irreplaceable American piano industry? Steinway survives to make luxury instruments that few can afford. Baldwin is still around today too. But guess what? Their manufacture is outsourced to China today.

Mason & Hamlin has made a great comeback in the high-end market. The rest moved overseas under new ownership or were completely wiped out.

Does anyone care that much? Not too many. Have we been devastated as a nation and a people because of it? Not at all. It was just a matter of the economic facts. The demand went down and production costs for the pianos that were wanted were much cheaper elsewhere.

Times Change

Now, a piano aficionado reading this will say, buddy, you are crass. Listen to the sound of an older model Chickering and you can tell the difference. It was warm and wonderful, nearly symphonic. It is mellow and perfect for the best repertoire. By comparison, this new Chinese piano is sharp and angular and pointed. It sounds like a marimba. You can’t play Schubert or Brahms on such junk. No one wants to hear that thing. Bring back the old days when pianos made sounds that sounded like real music!

Well, you can still get that old Chickering sound, even from a piano made in New York. You can buy a Steinway – still one of the world’s great pianos (I can recognize the sound in less than a minute of listening). Of course you have to pay $50,000 plus and even as much as $120,000, but they are there. You say that is unaffordable? Says you. It is all a matter of priorities. You can forego your house and live in a tiny apartment and still own the most gorgeous instrument money can buy. In any case, it makes no economic sense for you to demand a magnificent piano at a very low price when reality does not make that possible.

In the same way, many people will bemoan the loss of the US car industry and wax eloquent on the glory days of the 1957 Chevy or steel mills in Pittsburgh. But we need to deal with the reality that all that is in the past. Economics demands forward motion, a conforming to the facts on the ground and a relentless and realistic assessment of the relationship between cost and price, supply and demand. We must learn to love these forces in society because they are the only things that keep rationality alive in the way we use resources. Without them, there would be nothing but waste and chaos, and eventual starvation and death. We simply cannot live outside economic reality.

Tariffs Achieve Nothing

Let’s say that FDR had initiated a bailout of the piano industry and then even taken it over and nationalized it. The same firms would have made the same pianos for decades and decades. But that wouldn’t have stopped the Japanese industry from taking off in the 1960s and ’70s. Americans would have far preferred them because they would have been cheaper. American pianos, because they would be state owned, would fall in quality, lower and lower to the point that they would become like a Soviet car in the 1960s.

Of course you could set up tariff barriers. That would have forced American pianos on us. Except for one thing: demand would still have collapsed. The pianos still have to have a market. But let’s say you find a workaround for that problem by requiring everyone to own a piano. You still can’t make people play them and value them.

In the end you have to ask, is it really worth trillions in subsidies, vast tariffs, impositions all around, just to keep what you declare to be an essential industry alive? Well, eventually, as we have learned in the case of pianos, this is not essential. Things come and things go. Such is the world. Such is the course of events. Such is the forward motion of history in a world of relentless progress generated by the free market. Thank goodness that FDR didn’t bother saving the US piano industry! As a result, Americans can get a huge range of instruments from all countries in the world at any price they are willing to pay.

There’s another thing too. You can today acquire wonderful electronic instruments with a key touch that is nearly identical to an acoustic piano, and it can mimic 1,000 digitally sampled sounds. The parts for this remarkable machines are manufactured all over the world but a major market for them is right here in the USA. Unlike the pianos of the interwar period, these are actually affordable by middle-class Americans.

Today government actually believes that by passing legislation it can save and restore industries from the past. It can subsidize and pay for uneconomic activities, shut down competition, and pay ever more every year. The government can also pay millions of people to make apple pie because apple pie is deemed to be an essential industry. You can do this, but at what cost and what would possibly be the point? Eventually, even the government will have to accord itself to the reality that economics reminds us of on a daily basis.

Jeffrey A. Tucker

Jeffrey A. Tucker served as Editorial Director for the American Institute for Economic Research from 2017 to 2021.

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