Piano industry off-key Disappearing commodity: Kimball's exit from manufacturing reflects social changes.

February 18, 1996

KIMBALL INTERNATIONAL Inc.'s decision to discontinue its U.S. manufacture of pianos closes a product line that has been synonymous with the Midwestern company since 1885. America's once-thriving piano industry is now down to just a handful of factories, of which Steinway and Baldwin are the most prestigious.

During the heyday of American piano manufacture, roughly from the Civil War to World War I, more than half of the world's pianos were crafted in this country. Pianos were central to middle-class life. They provided entertainment and an acceptable way for young women to improve themselves and attract suitors.

In contrast to many of his rivals, founder William Kimball was neither a musician nor a craftsman but an entrepreneur who knew there was money to be made in manufacturing pianos. He wanted an ideal salesman to be "fresh from the farm himself with the manure still on his heels." Not surprisingly, Kimball was most successful in cornering the piano market among Midwestern farming families.

By the Depression, the piano faced competition from radios, phonographs and automobiles. Then came World War II and many piano factories -- including Baltimore's Knabe and Stieff -- were told to make airplane parts. When peace returned, television was on the horizon.

Since the late 1970s, the U.S. acoustic piano market has shrunk by almost two-thirds, to fewer than 100,000 instruments sold last year. As Japanese and Korean pianos have captured much of the low- and middle-end market, the handful of remaining U.S. manufacturers are trying to find profitable niches. Kimball will concentrate on making cabinets and furniture in the U.S., while continuing its high-end Bosendorfer piano factory in Austria.

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