By: Emily Q Welch

Today, one would be hard-pressed to find parents who would not brag about purchasing their child the latest and greatest gadget or plaything. Toys represent a luxury since they are not a necessity for survival or day-to-day function. More specifically, toys mimicking full-size furniture show that finery is not limited to the adults because it can be additionally afforded to their children. Such is the case with this child’s piano.

Toy Piano, 1890-1910, pine, metal, paint and paper, H: 10 x W: 18 x D: 10 in. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Mrs. John Gardner, N0078.1966. Photographed by Emily Q Welch

Toy Piano, 1890-1910, pine, metal, paint and paper, H: 10 x W: 18 x D: 10 in. Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of Mrs. John Gardner, N0078.1966. Photographed by Emily Q Welch

This toy is made of pine, is hand-planed, and constructed using machine cut dovetail, dado and socket joints. The legs are machine turned and the outside painted in a graining pattern to resemble rosewood. These physical attributes allow us to date this piano to somewhere in the 1890-1910 time range. A. Schoenhut Co. was well known for the high-quality production of toy pianos during this time period.[2] However, there are no marks to indicate it was made by anyone special. The panel behind the keys is uneven. The keys themselves are not even realistic, as the piano key motif is created by simply gluing appropriately colored paper to their tops. This indicates that this piano is a Schoenhut knock-off at best. Yet, the remarkableness of this toy piano does not come from its craftsmanship or realistic attributes, but in the rosewood it was painted to resemble.

In the late 1800’s, rosewood began to replace mahogany as a popular wood to use for decorative purposes, due to mahogany’s dwindling supply and high price point in the U.S. [1] Owning rosewood pieces was a luxury and far out of reach of most Americans at the time. Buying your child a toy made of real rosewood? For most, highly unlikely. Purchasing a toy with a rosewood veneer? A little bit more reasonable perhaps. But for most, the most obvious solution was to purchase a painted toy that utilized a graining technique to resemble rosewood.[1] Painted toys were quite common, especially in New England where toy making was a popular side business for many cabinet makers of the time.[2] The graining pattern done over the pine base of the toy piano indicates the pervasive nature of this popular wood, something that cabinetmakers and other woodworkers would have been well aware of in this time period. Even more interestingly, rosewood is coveted as a material for pianos and xylophones, of which this toy constitutes both.[3] The inner workings of the piano are actually a xylophone that gets struck when the keys are pressed to make the musical noise. Not only does this toy represent a status symbol achieved in an economic way through mimicking the rosewood texture in paint, but it also shows knowledge of woods important to the structure of these instruments.
[1] Falk, Cynthia. Lecture, Cooperstown Graduate Program, Iroquois Storage Facility, NY, September 8, 2015.
[2] O’Brien, Richard. The Story of American Toys: From Puritans to the Present, (New York: Abbeville, 1990), 74.
[3] “Rosewood: Tree and Timber,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed October 16, 2015, http://www.britannica.com/topic/rosewood-tree-and-timber.

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