The records of Sohmer & Co., date from 1872 through 1989. They fall into fourteen series based primarily on function. Legal, financial, inventory & appraisal, manufacturing, marketing, advertising, and sales are the major series. Photographs, awards, family papers, publications about Sohmer, general publications, "miscellaneous" and correspondence are the remaining series. The records are especially strong in the areas of advertising, finances, and marketing. The collection does not contain corporate records, articles of incorporation, executive records, minutes, annual reports, or personnel records such as payrolls or job descriptions.
The collection is divided into 14 series.
Series 1: Stock and Legal Records, 1882-1985
Series 2: Financial Records, 1887-1962
Series 3: Inventory & Appraisal Records, 1891-1980
Series 4: Manufacturing Records, 1872-1967
Series 5: Marketing, 1901-1989
Series 6: Advertising Records, 1880-1983
Series 7: Sales Records, 1923-1982
Series 8: Photographs, circa 1920-1964
Series 9: Awards, 1876-1976
Serioes 10: Sohmer Family Papers, 1945-1970
Series 11: Publications about Sohmer, 1883-1986
Series 12: General Publications, 1912-1985
Series 13: Miscellaneous Records, 1894-1983
Series 14: Correspondence, 1892-1987
When Sohmer & Co. was founded in 1872 by Hugo Sohmer and his partner Joseph Kuder, it became one of 171 piano manufacturers in New York City. Over the next 110 years, Sohmer & Co. was one of the few active and successful family-owned and operated piano-making ventures in the United States. Nationally known for tonal quality and fine craftmanship, the firm's product, in the music trade, came to be referred to as "The Piano-Maker's Piano."
Born to an eminent physician in Dunningen, Wurtemberg, Germany on November 11, 1846, Hugo Sohmer enjoyed a first class education. Riding the last major wave of German immigration, which had brought piano makers such as Albert Weber, George Steck, John and Charles Fischer, and Henry E. Steinway to America, Hugo arrived in New York City in 1862. He became an apprentice in the piano making house of Schuetze & Ludolf. To learn more about European piano making, Hugo returned to Germany in 1868 and travelled extensively throughout Europe. In 1870 he returned to New York and by 1872 the 26 year old Sohmer and his partner, Josef Kuder, began manufacturing pianos in the 149 East 14th Street factory previously utilized by J.H. Boernhoeft and most recently by Marschall & Mittauer.
Josef Kuder, originally from Bohemia, Austria Hungary, learned piano making in Vienna between 1847 and 1854. Kuder arrived in New York in 1854 and became a pianomaker with Steinway & Sons which had been founded in 1853. In 1861 he returned to Vienna; he worked there until returning to New York in 1864, where he worked for Marschall & Mittauer until joining Sohmer.
Concentrating on tonal quality and response, Sohmer & Co. began producing pianos which were recognized in 1876 by an award from the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. In the waning years of the nineteenth century Sohmer & Co. received other awards including a diploma from the Exposition Provinciale in Montreal, Quebec in 1881, the gold medal at the Great New England Fair in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1889, and an award from the World's Columbian Commission in 1893 in Chicago.
By 1883 additional factory space, located on East 23rd Street and formerly used by Carhart & Needham, was occupied to accomodate increased production. In three years this space proved inadequate and forced the renting of an extension to the original factory. The main office and salesrooms were located at 31 West 57th Street in New York City. Meanwhile, in 1884 Sohmer invented the first five foot "baby" grand piano which was applauded for its musical brilliance and depth of tone. In the early 1900's Sohmer produced grand pianos in four sizes: Concert, Parlor, Baby & Cupid.
Limited space and increased production soon became issues again, and in 1887 the company moved its factory and special machinery to Astoria, Long Island. This factory, located at 31st Avenue and Vernon Boulevard, remained in continuous operation until 1982, when the Adirondack Chair Co. bought the building and Pratt Read acquired the company.
During the 1880s a number of letters patent were granted to Sohmer for such piano improvements as the agraffe bar for tone augmentation, and the aliquot string, which were auxiliary strings "arranged in conjunction with the regular strings for the purpose of giving forth reverberatory or sympathetic waves of sound, thus augmenting the general tone results of each unison." (Spillane, History, 256.)
In 1894 Hugo Sohmer took competitor Sebastian Sommer to court for stenciling the name "Sommer" on the fallboard of his pianos. Sohmer declared that "Sohmer" was a trademark used as an emblem to distinguish the piano from others, especially the Sommer piano which he considered inferior. The court in this equity case dismissed the case on the grounds that Sohmer had not proven damages accruing from the advertising and sale of the Sommer piano.
By 1907 Sohmer & Co. was producing 2,000 pianos per year. Additionally, with Farrand & Co. of Detroit, Sohmer was making the Sohmer Cecilian player piano. On June 8, 1913 Hugo Sohmer died in Scarsdale, N.Y.; 20 days later, Josef Kuder died as well. Hugo was survived by his wife, Elizabeth; a daughter, Adelaide S. Weber; and a son, Harry J. Sohmer, born in 1886. Company leadership was assumed by Harry J. Sohmer after Hugo's death.
During the 1920s Sohmer began a special department in its plant for the manufacture of period pianos. According to Harry Sohmer, the 1930s were difficult. He recalled that, once only one piano in 29 days was shipped. The number of American piano manufacturers dropped from 140 to 22 during this time. It was during this time that Harry's cousins, Frank and Paul Sohmer joined the company as consultants. However, through its pioneering efforts in the introduction of a console vertical piano known as a "Spinet," Sohmer revitalized the industry. (Taylor, "Piano Family.") This console vertical piano has been called "The Musicians' Console.
Primarily because of its concentration on the console vertical pianos Sohmer & Co. never cultivated famous performers in the way that Steinway and Baldwin did. While publicly acknowledging that it never entered into the competition for artistic endorsement (an acknowledgement which perhaps worked to its favor), Sohmer & Co. relied upon a most comprehensive and innovative advertising strategy stressing integrity, quality and craftsmanship in the pursuit of the ideal tone and touch.
In 1940 Harry incorporated the company as Sohmer & Co. and led it, with his sons Harry J. Sohmer, Jr., (born 1917) as production manager and Robert H. Sohmer (born 1920), as process engineer. By 1969 Harry Jr. was vice president in charge of production and Robert was production engineer/
treasurer. In 1971 Harry Sr. died and Harry Jr. became president.
In 1982 Pratt Read Corporation, a long established manufacturer of piano keyboards, acquired Sohmer & Co. for an undisclosed amount, and moved the operations to its Ivoryton, Connecticut factory, while retaining the Sohmer name. The Sohmer brothers retained their positions in the company. At the time of its purchase Sohmer & Co. employed 120 people, produced 2500 pianos yearly, and grossed $5 million in sales. Harry J. Sohmer, Jr., grandson of the founder, in expressing his feelings about the move and the Sohmer piano, compared his piano to old New York beers saying that "they were strictly New York products and in a way so were we." He concluded by saying, "We were always identified with this city. Sohmer was a New York piano." (Prial, "Sohmer Piano.")
By July 1983 under Pratt Read's management Sohmer was producing 6 pianos per day, only 50% of the expected capacity according to H.B. Comstock, president of Pratt Read. In 1986 the Ivoryton factory was sold to a group of investors organized as Sohmer Holding Co., who continued to make pianos there until a lack of skilled workers and financial losses forced its closing in December 1988. In an effort to fill the backlog of orders, Sohmer president Tom Bradshaw opened a new facility in Elysburg, Pennsylvania. A retail showroom was maintained in Ivoryton. In 1989, the Sohmer company was sold to the Falcone Custom Grand Piano Company of Haverhill, Massachusetts.
Cox, Erin. "Labor Woes a Main Factor in Sohmer Closing," The Pictorial Gazette West, 3 (December 8, 1988), 1, 22.
Dolge, Alfred. Piano and their Makers. 1911; rpt. New York: Dover Publications, 1973.
Loesser, Arthur. Men, Women and Pianos: A Social History. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1954.
Musical Merchandise Review. "Sohmer Pianos Underway at Conn. Pratt Read," July 1983, 91.
The Music Trades. "Pratt, Read Acquires Sohmer & Co. Piano Maker,"August 1982, 18.
Piano and Organ Purchaser's Guide, 1907, 1930. Prial, Frank J. "Sohmer Piano, and 110 Years of Craft, will leave Astoria," New York Times, August 13, 1982, B1, B4.
Purchaser's Guide to the Music Industries. 1956, New York: The Music Trades, 1956, 58 60.
Spillane, Daniel. History of the American Pianoforte: Its Technical Development, and the Trade. 1890; rpt. New York: Da Capo Press, 1969.
Taylor, Carol. "Piano Family Stays in Tune," New York World Telegram & Sun, August 15, 1958.
Materials in the Archives Center, National Museum of American History:
Pratt Read Corp. Records (AC0320)
Chickering & Sons Records (AC0264)
Steinway Piano Co. Collection (AC0178)
Collection donated by Pratt Read Corporation, August 11, 1989.
Collection is open for research.
Collection is open for research.
Collection items available for reproduction, but the Archives Center makes no guarantees concerning copyright restrictions. Other intellectual property rights may apply. Archives Center cost-recovery and use fees may apply when requesting reproductions.
Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. Search this
7.5 Cubic feet (15 boxes )
1996 November 11-16
This week-long event explored the intersection of technology and music in the 20th century; it included oral and video histories, exhibitions, concerts, and a symposium discussing the cultural significance of the electric guitar as instrument, technology, and symbol.
Scope and Contents:
The collection contains original, master, and reference videos in several formats: BetaCam SP, 3⁄4" U-matic, 1⁄2" VHS, digital audio tape (DAT), and compact disks (CD). The collection documents Electrified, Amplified, and Deified: The Electric Guitar, Its Makers, and Its Players, as part of the Lemelson Center's series of New Perspectives. Through a series of public events, the Lemelson Center explored the intersection of technology and music in the 20th century. The week-long event included oral and video histories, exhibitions, concerts, and a symposium discussing the cultural significance of the electric guitar as instrument, technology, and symbol and an electronic fieldtrip for school age children.
The collection is arranged into four series: Series 1, Oral Histories, 1996; Series 2, Symposium and Other Programs, 1996; Series 3, Innovative Lives and Electronic Fieldtrip Presentation, 1996; and Series 4, Miscellaneous, 1996, undated. Each series is further divided into subseries arranged by format—BetaCam SP, digital audio tape (DAT), 3⁄4" U-Matic, and 1⁄2" VHS. The symposium footage has multiple camera angles resulting in Camera A and Camera B.
The oral histories contain interviews with some of the best known electric guitar manufacturers, luthiers, and accessory makers discussing major twentieth-century technological and cultural trends. The interviews were conduct by Reuben Jackson, Marge Oustrushko, Robert Santelli and Matt Watson. The interviewees include: Junior Brown; John Ingram; Duke Kramer; Ted McCarty; Pat Metheny; Les Paul; G.E. Smith; Paul Reed Smith; Joe Louis Walker; and Tom Wheeler.
Les Paul was interviewed as part of the Lemelson Center's series Portraits of Invention. Legendary guitarist and innovator Les Paul discusses his work with Marc Pachter, Counselor to the Secretary of the Smithsonian. Additionally, Les Paul discusses his work with Matt Watson.
The Acoustic Guitar Concert held at NMAH's Hall of Musical Instruments on November 14, 1996, included a performance by Howard Aldin, guitarist. Martha Morris, Deputy Director, NMAH; Art Molella, Director, Lemelson Center; and James Weaver, Curator, NMAH provided opening remarks.
The symposium, New Sounds, and other programs explored events surrounding the invention of the electric guitar, past and present technological innovations, and contributions made by early pioneers of guitar making. Two evening concerts included performances by some of the country's finest electric guitarists—Howard Aldin, Jim Hall, Junior Brown, Joe Louis Walker, and The Ventures.
New Sounds explores the intersection of technology and music in the 20th century, focusing on the invention and diffusion of the electric guitar. The symposium brings together inventors, historians, and musicians for a day of conversation and inquiry.
The morning sessions addressed Inventing and Popularizing the Electric Guitar with National Museum of American (NMAH) Curator, Charles McGovern, and Innovators and Entrepreneurs Panel Discussion with participants Ted McCarty, Duke Kramer, John Hall, Richard R. Smith, and moderator Tom Wheeler.
The afternoon sessions addressed The Electric Guitar in Context with an introduction by NMAH archivist, Reuben Jackson, and historians, Susan Horning, James Kraft, and Rebecca McSwain discussing relationships among invention, economics, labor, race, and technological enthusiasm. After the session the panelists fielded audience questions.
The Innovative Lives Presentation and Electronic Fieldtrip were presented in cooperation with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, OH. Robert Santelli, Director of Education at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, along with Paul Reed Smith and G.E. Smith, described the invention of the electric guitar, demonstrated the different types of music played on a variety of guitars, and answered student questions about musical innovation and the electric guitar. Student's participation included: Kenmore Middle School (Arlington, VA); Robert Frost Middle School (Rockville, MD); Paul Junior High School (Washington, D.C.); Elkhart Community Schools (Indiana); and Cleveland, OH area middle schools.
The Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation was founded in 1995 at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History through a generous gift from the Lemelson Foundation. The Center's mission is: to document, interpret, and disseminate information about invention and innovation; to encourage inventive creativity in young people; and to foster an appreciation for the central role invention and innovation play in the history of the United States. The Innovative Lives series brings together Museum visitors and especially, school age children, and American inventors to discuss inventions and the creative process and to experiment and play with hands-on activities related to each inventor's product. This collection was recorded by the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.
Series 3, Innovative Lives and Electronic Fieldtrip Presentation, 1996
Subseries 1, BetaCam SP, 1996 (original)
Subseries 2, BetaCam SP, 1996 (masters)
Subseries 3, 1⁄2" VHS, 1996 (reference copies)
Series 4, Miscellaneous, 1996, undated
Subseries 1, BetaCam SP, undated (originals)
Subseries 2, BetaCam SP, undated (masters)
Subseries 3, Digital Audio Tape (DAT), 1996 (originals)
Subseries 4, 1⁄2" VHS, undated
Subseries 5, CD-ROM (reference copy), 1996
Biographical / Historical:
Just the words "electric guitar" can conjure up images in our minds. Jimi Hendrix playing "The Star-Spangled Banner." The neighbor's kid whose band practices in the garage. Leather jackets, motorcycles, and slicked-back hair. A Fender Stratocaster. Or a Gibson Flying V or Les Paul. Music that is, depending on your generation, either too loud or not quite loud enough. Rock and roll. Jazz. Blues. Country. The sound of an electric guitar is familiar to most of us. How did that happen? Why has the work of the people who invented, designed, and popularized this instrument become so much a part of everyday life?
These questions and others were raised during Electrified, Amplified, and Deified: The Electric Guitar, Its Makers, and Its Players, the second in the Lemelson Center's annual series on New Perspectives on Invention and Innovation. From November 9-16, 1996, the Center, in cooperation with the National Museum of American History Division of Cultural History, sponsored concerts, movies, interviews, makers' displays, an exhibit, and a symposium, all spotlighting those inventors and players who plugged in and forever changed the sound of American music.
This collection was created by the Lemelson Center and NMAH staff from the Division of Music, Sports and Entertainment in November of 1996.
The collection is open for research use. Series 1, Oral Histories, the Les Paul oral history interviews are restricted; see repository for details.
Collection items available for reproduction, but the Archives Center makes no guarantees concerning intellectual property rights. Archives Center cost-recovery and use fees may apply when requesting reproductions.
Musical instruments industry -- 20th century Search this