In June of 1913, with the summer travel season coming on, the Louisville sales office of the Baldwin Company engaged in a direct mail marketing campaign to sell pianos to rural families. According to the letter, sent to Mrs. G. H. Fleck of Jeffersontown, Kentucky, the company had but just then realized that their efforts in advertising in the city of Louisville during the summer went unseen, as so many of the piano-buying urban populace spent their summers on vacation “at the lakes, the sea shore, the mountains and other resorts.” As such, the company contacted Mrs. Fleck in order to make a direct offer to the Flecks, who were already living in “the country,” and therefore presumably would not be heading anywhere for the summer.
At the time the letter was sent, direct mail marketing had only recently come of age, by way of Montgomery Ward’s and Sears’s early efforts to sell directly to rural customers through a catalog and mail-order system. Manufacturers and companies of all kinds of goods entered the direct mail market once the model proved successful. In that time, as well, an area now considered a suburban area of Louisville, in this case Jeffersontown, was considered “the country.” Transportation infrastructure and vehicle ownership we now take for granted were not yet the norm in early 20th century Jefferson County, and the daily trip between J-town and downtown shared by thousands of commuters today would have been nearly unthinkable then.
Direct marketers like those at Baldwin knew what many physical stores knew as well – that women often controlled spending in the home. And while women were for some time discouraged from public musical performance, including in the European classical tradition, by the early 20th century women were often making music in the home on piano, parlor guitar, autoharp, dulcimer, or other instruments.
One potential reason for Baldwin’s direct mail ploy was the increasing competition piano companies were seeing from manufacturers of those other instruments. At the time, pianos were in the middle of an arc that began as luxury item, moved through being something of an attainable household item, only to be replaced later by cheaper and more portable instruments, making them today once again more of a luxury, or at least not the preferred living room centerpiece in the era of recorded music, television, and the iPad.
Chief amongst the piano’s competition was the guitar, quickly gaining popularity for its portability and ease of play, and a growing canon of popular music written for the instrument. Guitars were also much cheaper than pianos, meaning access to this musical instrument was within reach of those who might never have the money or space for a piano.
A photograph from around the same time as the Baldwin letter shows how the guitar could accompany those vacationing in the country, making music portable and accessible at a fraction of the cost (and weight) of a piano. The photo is from the Mattie A. Witherspoon Collection, and depicts a mixed group of men and women of varying ages, including Mattie, with two of the men holding instruments - a fiddle and a guitar. The fiddle is of unknown vintage, but the guitar appears to be a then-current parlor model. The setting appears to be a country cabin, and much of the Witherspoon collection depicts vacation and leisure trips. Anchorage, Kentucky, where many of the Witherspoon photos were taken, would have been considered country at the time just as was Jeffersontown, though neither location is much more than 10 miles from downtown Louisville.Soon after the Baldwin letter and the Witherspoon photo, pianos, guitars, and all other instruments played in the home began seeing major competition from instruments you didn’t have to play – the radio and the phonograph. Rather than your aunt Fanny chipping away at Debussy on the piano or a recent parlor hit on the guitar, why not listen to the greatest performers in the world performing a greater repertoire than most individual musicians could muster? The changes to musicianship and musical education wrought by radio and recording technology are still being felt today, but an instant change was the lessened emphasis on creating your own musical entertainment at home.
The Baldwin Company still sells pianos today, though the company is now a subsidiary of the Gibson Guitar Corporation. Back then, Baldwin maintained large factories in Cincinnati and Chicago, at a time when Gibson was just entering the world of mass manufacturing (it had previously been a small, private operation). It would likely have seemed laughable then for a guitar company to own a piano manufacturer.
Summer vacation still takes many Louisvillians to “the country,” whether somewhere nearby or “at the lakes, the sea shore, the mountains and other resorts.” The current residents of Jeffersontown and Anchorage may also find themselves yearning for a vacation spot more bucolic and rural than home, as highways and development have encroached on almost the entirety of Jefferson County in the last century. Wherever we go for our vacations, though, we are more likely today to bring music with us in the form of digital files than in the form of a fiddle, guitar, or least of all a piano, or the stored musical knowledge and practice required to make those instruments sing.