Universal York

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Weaver building before 1904, when the pediments were removed from the first building and the fourth floor added

York’s Weaver Organ and Piano Company 1870-1959

Who knows how many thousands of sturdy musical instruments emanated out of the growing complex of buildings that stood imposingly for 136 years at the intersection of Broad and Philadelphia streets in York? The York County History Center Library/Archives has 16 volumes of shipping records, up through 1944, and it would be a task to enumerate them all, not to mention estimating the last 15 years of production.

Since the tragic March 2018 fire, which resulted in the lost lives of two York City firemen, Ivan Flanscha and Zachary Anthony, only part of the 1892 section still stands. The rest is blackened rubble.

After the March 2018 fire

Weaver memories still abound. Some of the workers are still around, perhaps in your family. And I would bet more families than not have members that remember doodling around on grandparents’ parlor organs or taking lessons on the formidable uprights or more fashionable 20th century spinets.

Weaver instruments were shipped all over the world. No doubt they are still played in areas far and wide. See below for my recent York Sunday News column on the Weaver history and links to some previous blog posts with more illustrations. I will sharing more photos and information in future posts.

What are your ties to York’s Weaver organs and pianos?

There is a good chance you have had an encounter with a Weaver made piano or organ. Many thousands of the instruments were manufactured during the 89 years of the company’s existence. In 1929, for example, their 200 skilled workers were turning out 45 pianos a day to be shipped all over the world.

A 1936 issue of Weaver Piano News published “For benefit of Weaver Piano Owners, Dealers and Salesmen,” includes photos of Weaver pianos being hauled 25 miles from the nearest railroad station by donkey cart over snowy roads to Yenchin University in Peiping [now Beijing], China. The article included a reproduced letter from Bliss Wiant, music professor and representative of the Methodist Board of Foreign Missions, explaining that he is using a Weaver grand piano and “quite a few” upright Weavers and Yorks in his mission of developing American music in China. He attests that the pianos stand up to the hot, humid Chinese summers and very cold, dry winters without loss of tone or action.

J. Oliver Weaver (1849-1885), York musician and teacher, started assembling organs in a warehouse near Farmer’s Market on West Market Street in 1870. The Weaver Organ Company was incorporated in 1882 and built their own building, designed by the noted Dempwolf architects, that year on Broad Street between Philadelphia and Walnut streets. The factory manufactured pump organs in their entirety, mainly the parlor type for homes. After J.O. Weaver’s early death the firm grew under members of the Gibson and Bond families.

A full page advertisement in the 1904 book York, Pennsylvania, celebrating York ‘s manufacturing success, shows the facility greatly expanded, with sizable additions in 1892, 1898, and 1904 until it covered a city block bounded by Philadelphia, Broad and Walnut streets and Chain Avenue. Weaver closed down in 1959, but the building stood until the tragic March 2018 fire that cost the lives of two York City firefighters and destroyed much of the complex.

Weaver organs were popular for decades, living up to the slogan “Easy to operate. Hard to wear out.” My grandparents were among the thousands with an organ in the parlor; as a child I would amuse myself on it while the grownups visited in the more casual living room. Catalogs in the extensive Weaver Organ and Piano archival collection at the York County History Center show the wide variety of woods and finishes available.

By 1908 Weaver was running full production lines for both pianos and organs. Tastes were changing in the 20th century, and organs were discontinued around 1916. The company name was changed to the Weaver Piano Company, concentrating on grand and upright pianos, including upright player pianos. These pianos also came in a variety of woods, finishes and styles. The York County History Center has copyright registrations for the familiar Weaver, Livingston and York brands, each showing their own distinctive font. Research indicates Weaver also produced Lincoln and Mercer branded pianos as well as private brands for stores such as York’s Everhart Organ and Piano Company at 124-127 South George Street.

Weaver’s offered piano lessons, taught by “modern methods” in their own studio. A group of their students,” all from families with new Weaver pianos,” are shown in their July 1932 newsletter. The Weaver retail showroom was in the heart of town at 39 West Market Street. Newsletter, catalogs and ads also carried endorsements by musical luminaries of the day, such as composer and conductor Victor Herbert and singer Jessica Dragonette.

The Weaver Piano Company fully participated in World War II production, developing a “plastic plywood plate piano” that reduced the metal content of a spinet piano from 165 pounds to 38 pounds while still keeping a good tone. This Weaver Field Type piano was used by the Army, Navy, Red Cross, USO and others for camps, field hospitals, hospital ships and canteens all over the world. More than half of all United States built pianos in 1943 and 1944 were these Weaver field pianos.

On the home front, demand for smaller pianos had grown, down from the upright to the studio and console and the smallest, the spinet. In the late 1930s Weaver introduced the Vertiforte and also the Verti-Mignon, emphasizing their quality and tone as well as their being more compatible with modern home furnishings. Shoppers again had the choice of various styles, from Colonial to Louis XV.

Reputation for quality workmanship and the willingness to adapt to changing tastes in size and design over the years carried the Weaver company through the Great Depression and World War II. By the time of the 1959 plant closing, radio, television and phonographs were more popular alternatives to gathering around the piano in the home. One source says there were 280 United States piano manufacturers in 1920 with only 18 left by 1959. The economy was also becoming more global, opening the door to imported pianos.

I wonder too if the durability of the Weaver products themselves might have also contributed to less demand. In my family an upright York lasted several generations. And once you had one of those behemoths it was not an easy item to get rid of. I think I kept taking piano lessons as a teen for seven years (with mediocre results) just because it was there.

I would be happy to hear your experiences with those very durable Weaver pianos and organs.

The drawings for the original 1882 Weaver factory are in the Dempwolf architectural collection at the York County History Center.

This post illustrates how the Weaver factory grew.

Famed composer and conductor Victor Herbert visited the Weaver factory when he was in town.

Piano student remembers playing in multi-piano concerts.