I have recently noticed a trend in some of the grandest of Gilded Age private interiors, and that is the 'gold' piano, usually located in the music room, ballroom, or similar gala/entertainment room. Belonging to a category of piano known as the 'art case' piano, these elaborate instruments were often created to match specific and equally opulent rooms, and formed part of the decorative canon by which wealthy Americans distinguished themselves from their middle class counterparts at the turn of the century.
In the nineteenth century the piano enjoyed what connoisseur Maximiliaan Rutten has referred to as a 'Golden Age', which culminated around 1910--by which time the popularity of the piano was eclipsed by more modern and convenient musical inventions, notably, the phonograph--and was all but extinguished by the end of the 1920s. During this peak period, piano production, and particularly American piano production, skyrocketed, and the piano could be found, now playing ragtime as well as the classics, in almost every middle class drawing room in the country. (An article in an 1889 edition of The Musical Courier describes the piano as following 'closely of the Bible and the traditional jug of whisky in the march of civilization'.)
Though the piano had by this time become 'the most democratic of all instruments', it retained its power as a symbol of aristocratic gentility and Western civilization, not to mention prodigious skill. As Rutten notes, to own a piano was to express one's desire 'to belong to that upper echelon of society that had been privileged to make and listen to music for centuries', and which piano one owned seems to have been a matter of utmost importance to those few whose sights were set highest.
Unique, custom built, and incorporating a variety of both highly skilled craftsmanship and lavish materials, the art case piano stood in perfect contrast to the standardized upright that was its more popular counterpart. These rare pianos were specifically designed, ideally, it seems, by a member of the Steinway family (the first Steinway art case piano is believed to have been produced in 1857), decorated by leading artists, and played by the biggest names in music at the grandest private parties America had to offer. They were, as Rutten describes, 'the foremost expressions of the social aspirations of one group to belong to another, wealthier and more prestigious group'. (I would place the emphasis here on 'more prestigious', as there were hardly wealthier groups to be found anywhere in the world.)
Of all of the art case pianos the 'gold' piano seems to have been a particular favorite among 'the gilded set'. Whether this was because gold was perceived as the most luxurious of materials or because the pianos were generally placed in formal gala rooms whose interiors were done in the gold-dominated 'Louis' styles, I do not know (probably both, as these two phenomena were intrinsically related). Detailed information about them is difficult to find, but several examples survive whose visual and material qualities, in addition to their placement and what little commentary accompanies it, tell much about their significance. I will be posting about these examples over the next few days.
Above left: View of the Gold Piano (Steinway concert grand), Steinway & Sons for President Theodore Roosevelt, 1903, giltwood, with painted decoration by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, in the East Room of the White House, Washington, DC, 1905-1938 (Photo by Harris & Ewing, Library of Congress).
Above right: View of the drawing room at Whitehall, the Palm Beach residence of Henry Flagler, featuring a Louis XVI style Steinway art case Model B grand piano, with aluminum leaf and painted decoration by Pottier & Stymus, ca. 1902 (Flagler Museum, date unknown).
'162 Facts About Steinway & Sons and the Pianos They Build', Steinway & Sons (2015), steinwaypianos.com
Humphreys, Mary Gay, 'Elaborate Piano Cases.' The Musical Courier, 19.1 (1889; original print source uknown), 37
Rutten, Maximiliaan, 'The Art Case Piano', The Galpin Society Journal, 58 (2005), 168-72, 227-29