Layered History Captured and Exposed: The Blasius Piano Photobook
On the first day of books connoisseurship, librarian Emily Guthrie introduced us to twenty-five character-filled books. She instructed us to each choose two to explore for our final projects. The project had two parts, complete a catalog survey for each book and choose one to write a longer catalog entry. As I sifted through the pile of books, I came across a late 18th century Staffordshire ceramics trade catalog. Of course that would be my top choice. But as everyone else found multiple books which immediately caught their interest, I couldn’t find a second. As time ran out, I quickly grabbed a book from the discarded stack and stuck it in my pile. It was just a survey after all.
As I began to explore the ceramics trade catalog, I found that it certainly was a treasure. It was relatively rare to begin with, but this particular copy contained several pencil sketches of tureens and multiple pages of accounting information scrawled into the back.
Detail of the tureen sketches on thin paper protecting the plate below with images of actual dishes sold by the manufacturer. In: James & Charles Whitehead, Designs of Sundry Articles of Earthenware: At the Same Manufacturer May be Had A Great Variety of Other Articles, Both Useful and Ornamental, As Well Printed, Painted, & Enameled; As Likewise Dry Bodies, such as Egyptian, Black, Jasper, etc., etc. Birmingham, UK: Printed by Thomas Pearson, 1798. The Winterthur Library Collection of Rare Books and Trade Catalogs.
I pulled out the second book to start the survey. I expected to just run through the survey, answer the questions and get back to my ceramics catalog, but of course that is never how research works.
Beneath the ultra-Victorian synthetic leather binding stamped “The Blasius Piano” were forty-five plates of albumen photographs. The first few featured the exteriors of the Blasius workshops. The next bunch featured Blasius workers constructing the pianos, then photographs of soundboards, completed Blasius pianos and lastly a few of the interiors these pianos graced. In the back of the book laid an envelope. Inside was a loose black and white photograph from around 1970 of a Woodbury, NJ firetruck and a destroyed building. What could this all mean?
So naturally, I dug for hours and hours through city directories, newspapers, and anything else I could find. I had caught the research bug. This wasn’t “just a survey” anymore.
The front office of the Blasius Piano Factory. Detail of photograph in the Blasius Piano Photoboook. Albumen. Ca. 1890. Winterthur Library Collection of Rare Books and Trade Catalogs. The Winterthur Library Collection of Rare Books and Trade Catalogs.
Belber Trunk Factory, former site of the Blasius Piano Factory after fire. Detail of photograph laid into the Blasius Piano Photobook. Ca. 1970. The Winterthur Library Collection of Rare Books and Trade Catalogs.
The Blasius Piano Company produced high-end pianos from 1855 to 1929 out of their five-city block warehouse in Woodbury, NJ and showrooms at 1101, 1103 and 1119 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia. According to the company they built and sold over 5000 pianos a year for much of that period, winning accolades from famous political figures, musicians, composers and even Thomas Edison. Their pianos were selected for the interiors of homes, hotels, the ill-fated U.S.S. Maine and even the San Francisco Special – a railway which ran from 1888-1889 boasting a 104-hour trip duration from New York to San Francisco. Their advertisements frequently graced Philadelphia newspapers and they produced several informational pamphlets explaining their unique and scientific formula for creating the highest end pianos at the lowest price. They were even featured at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. In 1917 Blasius sold their Woodbury factory. While the site continued to operate as a factory for various companies, by the time of the Great Depression Blasius had given up their holdings in Philadelphia and closed for good. In 1970, the Belber Trunk factory, once the Blasius Piano site in Woodbury, burned down in what was heralded “the greatest fire in county history.”
Blasius & Sons always featured prominently in the Philadelphia City Directory. They sold new and used as well as rented out pianos. U.S. City Directories. “Charles Blasius.” 1891. Courtesy of Ancestry.com.
Blasius & Sons focused heavily on their quality of advertising. They produced various pamphlets comprised of both testimonials and educational didactics which explained the science behind producing a piano and the various innovations Blasius offered. They believed by arming their clients with an education in the science of music, they would continually choose Blasius’s cutting-edge products. Blasius & Sons. The Blasius Piano: Fifty-Five Points of Superiority. Woodbury, NJ: Blasius & Sons, 1896-8. The Winterthur Library Collection of Rare Books and Trade Catalogs.
Blasius offered custom pianos for up to $3000. At least one of these rococo revival pianos is extant in a private collection. Detail from Blasius & Sons. The Blasius Piano: Fifty-Five Points of Superiority. Woodbury, NJ: Blasius & Sons, 1896-8. The Winterthur Library Collection of Rare Books and Trade Catalogs.
The more common Blasius models, and the ones which feature in the photobook were upright, with only a few carvings. These cost closer to $1000. Blasius & Sons. The Blasius Piano: Fifty-Five Points of Superiority. Woodbury, NJ: Blasius & Sons, 1896-8. The Winterthur Library Collection of Rare Books and Trade Catalogs.
Color Image of the Belber Trunk Factory, former Blasius Piano Factory site, after the fire. 1970. Courtesy of WFC Photo Preservation Project.
The albumen photographs then capture otherwise lost moments in the history of the piano factory. They record materials, tools, techniques, methods of manufacture, working conditions, the kinds of garments worn by employees and so much more. They expose the interiors of a workshop central to a small community on the out-skirts of Philadelphia – interiors which since were destroyed by a famous fire. They illustrate the unique Blasius sound board technology and at the same time interiors of high-end train cars and homes. The bound photograph book itself is a part of the material culture of exhibitions – suggesting the influence of didactic learning in late 19th century. I had expected to find an “interesting enough” book for a survey, but what I actually found was an incredible resource for researchers. As it turns out, despite initially being my second choice, I will be writing my Books Block project on the Blasius Piano Book instead.
By Becca Duffy, WPAMC Class of 2018