Unique items found in the Howe Collection of Musical Instrument Literature

September 25, 2018
Gurudarshan Khalsa
Large carved wooden poster for J.B. Dunham Piano Company

The Howe Collection of Musical Instrument Literature has now been processed and is available for research. The collection was created by Richard J. Howe, an oil company executive and mechanical engineer as well as a collector of mechanical musical instruments and associated literature. The Howe Collection of Musical Instrument Literature, one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of its kind, documents the development of the music industry and the manufacture of pianos, organs, and mechanical musical instruments. The materials in the collection include catalogs, books, magazines, correspondence, photographs, broadsides, advertisements, and price lists. The Howe collection was originally donated to the Institute of Piano Music at the University of Maryland and later transferred to Stanford to support the Player Piano Project.

Three of the unique items found in this collection are a large carved wooden 'poster' used as advertising for the J.B. Dunham Piano Company (pictured above), a photograph of officers listening to an Autopiano Company player piano aboard the USS Connecticut in 1911, and a demonstration model for the key action of a Mason & Hamlin player piano.

The USS Connecticut, commissioned in 1906, was one of the last battleships built before the start of the dreadnought era made its class obsolete. In 1907 the Connecticut took part in the Jamestown Exposition celebrating the 300th anniversary of the founding of U.S. Naval officers listening to an Autopiano Company player piano aboard the battleship USS Connecticut, 1911Jamestown in the Virginia Colony. Following the conclusion of the Jamestown Exposition, the Connecticut served as the flagship during the Great White Fleet’s (named because the ships were painted white in the U.S. Navy’s peacetime color scheme) circumnavigation of the world. The Fleet was ordered by President Theodore Roosevelt to visit domestic and foreign ports promoting diplomatic ties and demonstrating America’s growing military strength and blue-navy capabilities. During World War I the Connecticut patrolled the Atlantic coast of America and was used as a troop transport at the end of the war bringing soldiers from Europe back to America. After the war the Connecticut served as a training ship. Following the ratification of the Washington Naval Treaty, which sought to curtail a naval arms race among signatory nations, the USS Connecticut was decommissioned and sold for scrap in 1923.

The caption on the photograph pictured above reads, “After dining on board the U.S. battleship Connecticut junior officers mess. A Good cigar-and the Autopiano May 14, 1911. This Autopiano is in use over 4 and a half years.” An article in the Music Trades Review from 1910 recounts how an Autopiano was originally purchased in San Francisco by the crew of a single battleship to entertain and educate the crew “and since then the fame and popularity of the Autopiano has spread throughout the entire navy and now there are over thirty Autopianos on board as many battleships…”

When the Howe Collection was brought to the Archive of Recorded Sound for processing, among the archival Mason and Hamlin player piano key action demonstration modelboxes was a large wooden crate marked “fragile” and fastened by numerous screws. We were not exactly sure what was in the crate and could not find any information in the collection’s documentation. I opened the crate and found what looked to me to be a large piece of a musical instrument. I asked my colleagues, Benjamin Bates, Frank Ferko and Jerry McBride, for their opinions on how to describe the item. The best description that we came up with was that it was a ‘demonstration model for the key action of a Mason & Hamlin player piano'. [Update from December of 2021: This demonstration model is of the Clarence N. Hickman action as realized with a Mason and Hamlin model. More on the model can be found in the Amica Bulletin, 1992, Volume 29, Issue 3, pp. 22-25. Identification of this model was made possible by the help of Bradley Cerra. - Nathan Coy]

These are just three of the many interesting and unique items that can be found in the Howe Collection of Musical Instrument Literature.

The finding aid for the Howe Collection can be viewed here:


For further reading: