William Steinway was born in Seesen, Germany, on March 5, 1835, and passed away on November 30, 1896 in New York City. He was the son of Heinrich Engelhard Steinway (originally Steinweg) who emigrated from Germany to New York City in 1850. By 1853, Heinrich and his sons had opened their own Steinway & Sons shop dedicated to selling their namesake pianos. William was the entrepreneurial genius of his family; his promotional and marketing techniques, cultivation of eminent musicians, and extensive participation in the musical life of New York City made Steinway & Sons extraordinarily successful.
William Steinway's nine-volume, 2500-page diary provides an intimate view of the life of one of the piano world's great innovators, a prominent German-American, and a key figure in the musical, cultural, political, financial and physical development of New York City. Spanning 36 years, the Diary begins three days before William's marriage in 1861 and ends three weeks before his death in 1896.
In near-daily entries, William records the evolution of his business and family life-two worlds that were closely intertwined; the fact that almost all Steinway men worked at Steinway & Sons underscores this fact. William recorded the firm's most public celebrations, such as international recognition at the 1867 Paris Exposition, as well as its labor issues and the fierce competition between 19th-century pianomakers. Likewise, William shared more intimate aspects of his life, including a painful divorce, the births of stillborn children, and his physical suffering from rheumatism and gout. Daily entries further reflect current events, such as the defense of the Steinway & Sons factory during the 1863 New York City Draft Riots, as well as the centrality of the German community to his life, especially the Liederkranz singing society. William's hand in the development of Western Queens, particularly Steinway Village and Astoria, is a recurring theme in the Diary, as is his key role in the development of New York City's rapid transit system and the Bowery Bay/North Beach Amusement Park (now LaGuardia Airport) which rivaled Coney Island in its day. William's entries are sometimes terse, providing enough detail for him to recall a situation but not enough for later readers to understand. Lapses into German, liberal use of abbreviation, and coded marginalia can further complicate one's comprehension of the Diary.
William Steinway Diaries, Steinway & Sons Records and Family Papers, 1857-1919, Archives Center, National Museum of American History