CHAPTER VI. JONAS CHICKERING.
On Tremont Street, in the City of Boston, near the Roxbury line, there stands an immense building of brick, said to be larger than any edifice in the United States, save the Capitol at Washington. It is built in the form of a hollow square, with a large court-yard in the center, and the building and court-yard together cover an area of five acres. It is five stories in height on the outer side, and six on the inner, the court-yard being one story lower than the street. The building is two hundred and sixty-two feet in length from east to west, and two hundred and forty-five from north to south, the shorter distance being the length on Tremont Street. The width of the building all around the court-yard is fifty feet. It contains nine hundred windows, with eleven thousand panes of glass, and when lighted up at night seems almost a solid mass of fire. From five to six hundred men are employed here in various capacities, and an immense steam engine of one hundred and twenty horse-power furnishes the motive power for the machinery. Altogether, it is one of the most prominent and interesting of all the sights of Boston, and the visitor is surprised to learn that it is due entirely to the energy and genius of one who, but thirty-four years previous to its erection, came to Boston a penniless stranger. The building is the famous piano-forte manufactory of Chickering & Sons, and its founder was Jonas Chickering, the subject of this sketch.
Jonas Chickering was born at New Ipswich, New Hampshire, on the 5th of April, 1798. His father was a blacksmith by trade, and employed his leisure time in cultivating a small farm of which he was the owner. He was esteemed by his neighbors as an upright, reliable man, and prudent and careful in his temporal affairs. The family being poor, young Jonas was required to do his share toward cultivating the farm, and received only such education as was afforded by the district schools in the vicinity. He was noted at an early age for his passionate love of music. When a mere child, he learned to play on the fife, and was such a proficient performer that he was called upon with the town drummer to furnish music for the militia musters, which were then the pride of the town. These were happy days for the lad, but his pleasure was marred by the ridicule which the contrast between his slender figure and the stalwart frame of the "six-foot drummer" caused the fun-loving towns-people to indulge in. Soon after this he learned to play on the clarionet, and when only seventeen or eighteen years old, was so advanced in his art that he could read at sight music of the most difficult character.
At the age of seventeen he was apprenticed to a cabinet-maker to learn his trade, and remained with him for three years, exerting himself to become thorough master of every detail of the business. Toward the close of his apprenticeship, an event occurred which changed the whole current of his life, and placed him in what proved to him the road to fame and fortune.
One of the wealthiest citizens of New Ipswich was the fortunate owner of a piano, the only instrument of the kind in the place; but his treasure was almost useless to him, for the reason that it was out of tune and seriously damaged in some respects. It had lain in this condition for a long time, no one in or near the place being able to make the necessary repairs. In this extremity the owner bethought him of Jonas Chickering, who had acquired an enviable reputation for skill in his trade, and it was thought that a good cabinet-maker ought of necessity to be a clever piano-maker. Young Chickering, thus appealed to, consented to undertake the task, as much for the purpose of becoming familiar with the instrument as of earning the sum the owner of it proposed to pay for the repairs. He had not the slightest knowledge of its internal organization, but he believed that by patient investigation he could master it, and he knew that the correctness of his ear would enable him to tune it. He made a careful study of the instrument and of every separate part, spent days over the task, discovered the injury and the cause of it, and not only took the instrument to pieces and restored it to its former condition, but did his work so well that the piano was pronounced fully as good in every respect as when it was new. This was not all. He discovered defects in the instrument which even its maker was not able to remedy, and his fertile brain at once suggested to him a plan for removing them.
Here was a chance for him, and he resolved to profit by it. He would abandon cabinet-making and learn the manufacture of pianos. Then, when master of his trade, he would make use of his discoveries, and earn both fame and fortune. When his determination to change his business was made known, his friends attributed it to his desire to be in the midst of musical instruments, and where he could gratify his love of music; but this was only a part of the motive which influenced him. He meant to rise in the world, and he was sure that he held in his hands the means of doing so.
In 1818, when twenty years old, he removed to Boston, and obtained employment with a cabinet-maker. He did this in order to give him time to look about him, to become familiar with the city and city life, and to acquire such other information as would enable him to decide upon the best means of putting his plans into execution. He saved his wages with the greatest care, and at the end of his first year in Boston had accumulated a modest little sum, which he meant should support him while he was learning his new trade.
On the 15th of February, 1819, without the loss of a day, he began work with a piano-maker.
He had now entered upon what he meant should be the business of his life, and he was resolved that he would be master of it. From the first he took rank in his employer's factory as the most careful workman in it. He spared no pains to make his knowledge full in every detail. Time was of no consequence compared with knowledge, and he was never anxious to hurry through with his work. It soon came to be recognized by his employer and fellow-workmen that he was the best fitted for those portions of the work upon the instrument which required the greatest patience as well as the greatest care, and the most difficult and delicate work was always intrusted to him, his wages being, of course, in proportion. Other men had no thought but to earn a living. This man meant to win fame and fortune, and to enlarge the scope of that art to which he was so passionately devoted. He labored with his mind as well as his hands, familiarizing himself with every detail of the manufacture, and devising in silence the means for improving the instrument and the implements used in its construction. He could afford to wait, to be slower than his fellows. Every moment spent over his task made his workmanship the better, and opened to his mind new sources of improvement. He spent three years as a journeyman, and then went into business for himself. He associated himself with a Mr. Stewart, under the firm of Stewart & Chickering.
Fifty years ago the piano-forte was a wretched piece of mechanism compared with the superb instrument of to-day. It was originally a progressive growth from the ancient lyre, through the harp, psaltery, dulcimer, clavictherium, clavichord, virginal, spinet, harpsichord, to the piano of Christofali in the early years of the last century. At the period of Mr. Chickering's entrance into business, it was still very imperfect, and the various manufacturers of the instrument were earnestly endeavoring to discover some means of remedying the defects of which they were all conscious. There are four divisions in the manufacture of a piano, each of which requires great skill and care. These are: First, The making of the framing and the sound-board; Second, The stringing; Third, The keys and action; Fourth, The case and ornamental work. The framing requires strength and simplicity. It is this portion of the instrument which sustains the tension of the strings, which in full to large-sized pianos is not less than from six to twelve tons, and it is a matter of prime necessity that the portions which serve as a strut or stretcher between the ends of the strings, and which are to resist this enormous pull, must be made correspondingly strong and rigid, since by any gradual yielding under the pull of the strings, their lengths and tensions, and hence their tone, must undergo proportionate change. In the old pianos, the frames were of wood, and it was impossible to use any but small, short strings, for the reason given above. Fullness and power were not to be thought of, and builders were obliged to confine themselves to securing truthfulness of tone. A multitude of causes, among which were the changes in the weather, combined to render it impossible to keep the old-fashioned instrument in tune. It was this defect which first attracted the attention of Jonas Chickering, and his first endeavor was to produce an instrument which would withstand the climatic changes which were so troublesome to the old ones. He was fully aware of the fact that the piano trade in this country was then so unimportant that it offered but little inducement to a man who could manufacture only the old instrument; but he believed that by producing an instrument of better proportions, and one fuller, richer, and more lasting in tone, he could create a demand for it which would insure the sale of all he could manufacture. His hope of success lay not in the old, but in an improved and nobler instrument. That he was correct in his belief, the magnificent instrument of to-day which bears his name, and the lucrative business he has left to his sons, amply demonstrate. Others besides himself were working for the same end, and he knew that he would have to bear the test of determined and intelligent competition. He applied himself to his purpose with enthusiasm. He carefully studied the theory of atmospheric vibration and musical combination, as well as an application of the principles of mechanical philosophy to the construction of the instrument. He went deep into the science involved in his work, into the philosophy of melody. Passionately devoted to music, he was ambitious of placing that which has been so truly called "the king of instruments" within the reach of all lovers of harmony, and to give them the best instrument that human invention could produce—an instrument which should not only withstand atmospheric changes, but which should yield the richest, fullest volume of melody, with the least exertion to the performer. His progress was slow, but it was sure. Beginning with an improvement in the action, he accomplished, in a great measure (in 1838), his plan for preserving the permanence and purity of the tone of the instrument by casting the entire iron framing with the parallel bars in one piece. Iron had for some time before this been in general use for framing, but the frame was cast in a few separate parts, which were put together by means of bolts and screws, a plan which is still used to a considerable extent in Europe. By his plan of casting the frame and its supporting bars in one solid piece, Mr. Chickering not only prevented the frame from yielding to the pull of the strings, thus securing permanence and purity of tone, but was enabled to use larger frames and more strings, which greatly increased the capacity of the instrument.
Several other improvements were made by him, the most important of which was the invention, in 1845, of the circular scale for square pianos, which is now in general use in this country and in Europe. "This consists in giving to the row of tuning pins and wrest-planks—previously straight in these instruments—a curved disposition, answering nearly to an arc of a circle, the advantage being that the strings become less crowded, larger hammers, and a more direct blow can be secured, and the tone is both strengthened and improved." With a rare generosity, Mr. Chickering declined to patent this improvement, which would have enabled him to drive competition out of the market. He regarded it as so necessary to a good piano that he declared that all makers ought to have the use of it, as it would thus be within the power of all persons able to purchase a piano to avail themselves of it, whether they bought a "Chickering" or not. Such generosity is too rare to fail to receive the praise it merits.
Mr. Chickering did not continue long in business with Mr. Stewart. The latter withdrew in a few years, and Mr. Chickering carried on the business alone. In 1830 he formed a partnership with Captain John Mackay, a retired ship-merchant. In the new firm Captain Mackay took charge of the finances and the office business, while Mr. Chickering devoted himself entirely to the mechanical department. The operations of the new house were very successful. The improvements made by Mr. Chickering from the first created a demand for their instruments which was sometimes so great that it was difficult to supply it. This demand continued to increase, until the house was perfectly easy as to money matters, and able to enlarge its facilities very greatly. It was Mr. Chickering's design that each separate instrument should be an improvement upon those which had preceded it, and he was careful that this plan should not miscarry. In a few years the firm was enabled to import the foreign materials needed, by the cargo, thus saving the profit which they had hitherto been compelled to pay the importer. Besides this saving, they were enabled to keep on hand a large stock of the woods used in the instrument, and thus it was allowed to become more thoroughly seasoned than that which they had been compelled to purchase, from time to time, in small quantities. In 1841, Captain Mackay sailed from Boston for South America, for the purpose of obtaining a supply of the woods needed by the firm; but he never returned, and as no tidings of him or his ship were ever received, it is supposed that the vessel went down at sea with all on board.
Mr. Chickering now decided to continue the business without a partner. His friends supposed that in assuming the management of the concern, in addition to the direction of the mechanical department, and the constant mental labor to which he subjected himself in his efforts to improve the piano, he was undertaking more than he was capable of performing. They feared his health would break down under it. Besides, it was generally believed that, in spite of Mr. Chickering's undoubted skill in his own department, he was not much of a business man. He was confident of his own ability, however, and did not hesitate to assume the new responsibility.
The business of which he now became the owner was very heavy and extensive. Soon after the beginning of his connection with Captain Mackay, the firm erected a large factory for the purpose of carrying on their business. One hundred hands were employed in it when opened, but in a few years it was necessary to employ more than twice that number, so rapidly did the business increase. The supply of materials needed was ample and of the very best quality, for Mr. Chickering never allowed an inferior article to be used. The warerooms were large and handsomely fitted up, and were filled with instruments ranging in price from a thousand dollars downward. It was generally believed that while Mr. Chickering's genius had created the demand for the pianos, it was Captain Mackay's business knowledge and experience that had placed affairs on their present footing, and when Mr. Chickering proposed to buy Captain Mackay's interest from his heirs, which was valued at several hundred thousand dollars, there was a very general belief, which found expression, that he was incurring certain ruin. The condition of the sale was that the purchase-money should be divided into installments, for each of which Mr. Chickering should give his note, secured by a mortgage on the premises. At Mr. Chickering's request each note was made payable "on or before" a given day. The lawyer who conducted the transaction smiled skeptically as he inserted this clause, and asked the purchaser if he ever expected to pay the notes at all.
"If I did not expect to pay them promptly, I should not give them," was the simple reply. He was as good as his word. The notes were met promptly, and although Captain Mackay's family requested that they might stand as an investment for them, Mr. Chickering took up the last one at its maturity.
With the business in his own hands, Mr. Chickering continued its operations, displaying an ease in his mercantile transactions which astonished and delighted his friends. The business prospered to a greater degree than before, and all the while Mr. Chickering continued his labors for the improvement of his instruments with still greater success than in former years. His pianos were universally regarded as the best in the market, and his competitors were unable to excel him. Although conducting a business which required the constant exercise of the highest mercantile talent, he did not relax his energy in the mechanical department. To the end of his life, long after he had become a wealthy and prominent man, he had his own little working-cabinet, with an exquisite set of tools, with which he himself put the finishing touch to each of his splendid instruments, a touch he would not intrust to any other hands.
His competitors did all in their power to equal him, but he distanced them all. One of them adopted a most startling expedient. He obtained permission from the Legislature of Massachusetts to change his name to Chickering, and at once sent out his instruments marked with his new name, his object of course being to deceive the public, and Jonas Chickering had the mortification of seeing the inferior instruments of another maker mistaken for his own. He promptly laid before the Legislature a petition for redress, setting forth the facts of the case and the motives of his rival. The result was that the Legislature reconsidered its action, and compelled the bogus Chickering to resume his original name.
Mr. Chickering was noted for his simplicity and straight-forwardness in business transactions. Conscious of his own integrity, he listened to no proposition of a doubtful character, nor would he ever allow his credit as a merchant to be questioned with impunity. Upon one occasion, he applied through his clerk to the bank, with which he had dealt for many years, for an accommodation which he needed. The president of the bank sent for him, and told him that security would be required.
"I shall give you none," he replied. "I have done my business at this bank for a long time, and if you do not know me, I shall apply where I am better known."
The president was firm in his position, and Mr. Chickering applied to another bank, which readily granted him the desired discount, and to which he at once transferred his business, which was worth to the bank about ten thousand dollars a year. Shortly after, a director of the institution at which he had formerly dealt called on him, and urged him to restore his business to the bank, assuring him that in future it would readily grant him any accommodation he might desire.
"No," he replied; "I will deal with no institution which, having had the opportunity of knowing me, suspects my responsibility."
Again having need of accommodation, he sent his notes for a large sum to one of the city banks for discount. The president said an indorser would be required.
"I shall indorse them myself," said Mr. Chickering.
"That will never do," replied the president.
"Very well," was the simple answer, and, without further words, he took the notes to another bank, which promptly loaned him the money on them.
He tolerated no irregularity in his own business. He was true to the spirit as well as to the letter of a contract, and never, during the whole course of his long life, was he guilty of a transaction in which the most rigid moralist could find a taint of sharp practice. What a refutation of the theories of those who hold that cunning and trickery are unavoidable some time in the course of a long and successful mercantile career lies in the story of this man, who, beginning life penniless, filled with a burning ambition to be rich and famous, never swerved from the straight path of integrity, and by the exercise of only the highest traits of his nature more than realized his boyish dreams! Ponder it well, young man, and learn from it that honesty is indeed the best policy in any calling.
Mr. Chickering had married early in life, and now had three sons just entering upon manhood. These were carefully educated at the public schools for which Boston is so justly famed, and then put into their father's factory to learn the mechanical part of the business. It was the father's ambition to be succeeded by his sons, but he was not willing to trust the labor of his life to ignorant or incompetent hands. At the age of seventeen, Thomas Chickering, the eldest son, was taken from school, and, under his father's eye, taught every detail of the mechanical branch of the business, until he understood it as well as the senior Chickering himself. George, the second son, in due time passed through the same course of training; while Francis, the youngest, was brought up in the warehouse. The father thoroughly imbued his sons with his own system and energy, and to-day we see the result. The firm of Chickering & Sons is still the most prominent in America. Thomas is now the acting head of the house, and has led it on to continued success; Francis is the presiding genius of the mechanical department, and has made many important improvements in the field in which his father won success; and George exercises a general supervision at the immense factory in Boston. The mantle of the father has fallen upon the sons, and his labors have found their highest reward in their success.
Mr. Chickering's good fortune was not entirely uninterrupted. On the 1st of December, 1852, his factory was burned to the ground, with all its valuable patterns, stock, etc., involving a loss to him of two hundred thousand dollars. The interruption to his business was very serious, apart from the loss of his property. Expressions of sympathy poured in upon him from his friends, coupled with offers of pecuniary assistance in his efforts to reëstablish his business. His disaster seemed merely to inspire him with fresh energy, but the kindness of his friends entirely overcame him.
He wasted no time in vain regrets, but at once went to work. He was fifty-four years old, but he showed an energy and determination which more than rivaled the fire of his young manhood. The loss of his factory was not only a severe blow to him, but to the three hundred workmen who had been employed in it, and who were dependent upon their wages for their support. His first care was to assure them that they should not suffer, but that they should continue to receive their wages as regularly as though nothing had happened to interrupt their labor. He had always been kind and generous to his employés, paying liberal wages, and rewarding especial merit, but this act of kindness did more to endear him to them than any previous benefaction. Having provided for his men, he set to work to prepare temporary accommodations for his business, and then began his arrangements for the construction of a new factory. He took a great degree of interest in the plans for the new building, the architect being almost entirely guided by his suggestions, and the result of his labors is the magnificent building to which reference was made at the opening of this chapter. He did not live to see it completed, however. He died at the house of a friend from the rupture of a blood-vessel, produced, it is believed, by severe mental labor, on the 8th of December, 1853. His fortune at the time of his death was estimated at a quarter of a million of dollars. His sons assumed the charge of the business, which they still conduct.
The loss of Mr. Chickering was felt by all classes of his fellow-citizens—especially by the poor. To them he had been a kind and generous friend. Distress never appealed to him in vain, and he proved a faithful steward of the riches committed to his care. Yet he performed his charities with such a modesty and reticence that few beside the grateful recipients were aware of them. Indeed, it was his custom to enjoin secrecy upon those whom he assisted; but they would not remain quiet. His liberality is in striking contrast with the closeness of many who were worth more than twenty times his wealth, but who lacked his warm and sympathizing nature.