Steinway's diary to be shown at American History Museum, searchable online

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2010; 9:59 PM

William Steinway, the son of the founder of the piano manufacturer, emigrated from Germany to New York City at 15, joining the family business a few years later. Life around him was changing so quickly, he began a diary eight days after the Civil War started.

He wrote faithfully for 36 years, documenting the racial, ethnic and social struggles of the 19th century.

His diary grew to nine volumes and was kept by the family after his death.

When Smithsonian curator Cynthia Adams Hoover went to the Steinway factory in Astoria, Queens, on June 13, 1966, to find material for an exhibition, she was struck by the historic value of the diary and the diligence of the writer.

Now, 44 years later, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History is showing part of the diary. An exhibition on the volumes and the Steinway family opens Friday in the museum's Albert H. Small Documents Gallery, along with complete online display.

The Steinway Diary Project was coordinated by Hoover and Edwin M. Good, a retired Stanford University professor, with 100 volunteers, who read every page, researched 19th-century colloquialisms in English and German, and annotated events that Steinway witnessed or commented on.

That's 2,500 pages. Entries include the 1863 draft riots and the building of the New York City subway, Steinway's friendship with Grover Cleveland, financial panics of the time, labor issues and the piano wars of the 1870s.

Hoover, sitting in a conference room of the museum with a dramatic view of the Washington Monument, said she never gave up on the project. "On that first visit, I was shown the diary on the file cabinets. I thought - whew - all this firsthand material," said Hoover, curator emerita of musical instruments.

When Hoover first become interested in the diary, the American History building was new, and she had other curatorial goals.

But the diary was an irresistible artifact, and the records of Steinway family a logical place to start any collection. "The diary itself - William's entries are succinct, terse and the writing in English is very good," she said.

Anna Karvellas, the managing editor of the Steinway project, said one value of the entries is their uniqueness. "We don't know of anyone else who kept a diary to this extent," Karvellas said. "William Steinway was an immigrant, trying to prove himself. One thing was he went out almost every night. Whatever the rage was at the time, he was there."

With all the historic detail, Hoover wanted the volumes to be accessible to the public and scholars, but the idea of transcribing the diaries was formidable. Some of the binding was frayed and taped.Microfilming was urgent and was finished in 1981. Nearly 25 years later, the diary was scanned.

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