By Mary McTamaney
Imagine walking to the foot of Broadway in the decade before the Civil War. Newburgh was still a village. The harbor was full of sloops and schooners. The clop of horse hooves was heard moving in every direction. Wagons hauled every kind of material along the wide dirt road: bales of hay, bars of iron, bags of flour, yards of cloth, sacks of groceries and so much more. Among the wagonloads of goods were pedestrians wending their way among herds of pigs and sheep.
Amidst that commerce there was an interesting mix of creative enterprises where passerby could hear the thud of mallets, the drag of saw blades and planes, the soft sounds of sandpaper. One of those enterprises was the factory of Carman and Fancher on the corner of Western Avenue (Broadway still held its original name as the way west) and Washington Place (now South Colden Street).
William Carman and Darius Fancher made pianofortes. That was the full name for pianos, defined as an instrument where sound is produced by felt pads striking tuned wires. Every step of piano manufacture was carried out at their shop. The Newburgh Daily News reported on the business in their October 19, 1858 issue.
The article described all the steps of piano making from selecting the woods, drying the planks in drying rooms, and meticulously cutting the wood in the case rooms. There the oblong boxes were assembled making sure every joint was true and tight. The bottom sounding boards, which echoed the vibration of the strings , were made of white spruce, sometimes chosen down at the Newburgh docks from heavy packing case wood brought into the port of Newburgh. The piano cases of pine or sugar maple were veneered, usually with rosewood and then varnished. To achieve the protective sheen that customers expected from a quality instrument, the workers at Carman and Fancher applied dozen coats of varnish over the course of two to three months and hand-rubbed each to a dull hard finish once it dried thoroughly. A key-making department, meanwhile, marked out the scale of keys and cut them carefully to size with jigsaws. The ends of each key were tipped with white holly wood and the tops with ivory. Correct “action” was calibrated as the pressure was adjusted for each key and wires were stretched to register each note precisely. Felt pads were meticulously applied to each key’s hammer. After the turned legs were crafted and installed, the lyre – a decorative piece in which the pedals were placed – was attached and tested. Tongues of cloth were cut and positioned to move into place between the hammers and wires when a second pedal was depressed. All this was personally overseen by Messrs. Carman and Fancher and a team of professional musicians who were able to recognize, as they played each key and chord and pedal, when the instruments had achieved the best quality of distinct and mingled sounds.
The cost of a Carman and Fancher pianoforte in 1858 attests to its quality. A square piano from their Newburgh factory sold for about $400. The Newburgh Daily News article claimed that their instruments had a reputation “second to very few in the Union.” Although Chickering was the preeminent American piano company of the mid-nineteenth centruy, the reporter states that several professional pianists of the highest reputation preferred Carman and Fanchers to Chickerings. In the 1850’s pianos were of three common types: upright, grand and square. Square, the type we see far less in modern times, was the most common then and the one illustrated here.
This piano manufactory had a long life in Newburgh. It was established in 1843 by a Mr. Travor who trained William Carman and Darius Fancher. They bought the business around 1850. It was the job of a lifetime for them since they carried it on to 1885.
One Carman and Fanchar Pianoforte is know to remain in Newburgh today. It stands in the parlor of the Crawford House, headquarters of the Historical Society of Newburgh Bay and the Highlands. One like it could have been a possession of the Crawford family during their time in Newburgh but the Cantline family owned this particular one down through their generations. They were the generous donors who gave it to the Society for posterity.
The above article by Mary McTamaney, City of Newburgh Historian and Society board member, has been adapted from column originally printed in the April 12, 2017 issue of the Mid-Hudson Times. Posted here with permission.