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DATEMARKS IN PIANOS

One of the first things people want to know when they buy an old piano is how old it is. If they are lucky, the previous owners may have some idea, but by the time they have worked out just when it was that Great Aunt Mabel buried her second husband, the odd ten or twenty years can easily get lost! Some dealers are coy about revealing the true age of a reconditioned piano, and will go to extraordinary lengths to paint over or deface datemarks. This is not only annoying, but quite unnecessary, because few people would be shocked to know that a piano is 50 years old, and many are quite excited to learn that it is 100 years old.


 Elysian Date Label
This label (courtesy Barrie Heaton) shows how the "Elysian" pianos were dated, but life is rarely that simple! Dating pianos by their serial numbers is notoriously unreliable, partly because so much misleading information has been published. Datemarks are a much more accurate and reliable guide to the age of an instrument, but it can often be quite a problem finding and interpreting datemarks in pianos, and many instruments are not marked at all.

If one finds a mark on the iron frame which says 500BC, it might seem obvious that this is NOT a datemark (although the ancient egyptians were very clever, perhaps it's a Pyramid Piano?) but something like A.D. 1702 is much more tempting in an antique wood-framed piano, and one could be forgiven for imagining that the piano was made in Anno Domini 1702 whereas A.D. might stand for Andrew Dimoline, and 1702 would be just a number, NOT a year! (I suspect that Dimoline may have been enjoying a little joke here!) Most makers go through a period when their numbers look like years, so it is worth remembering that pianos are hardly ever marked with just a year.

Examples of Misleading Numbers:
1792
John Broadwood square piano in the Mobbs Collection, Bristol has the number 1931 - definitely NOT a date!

Circa 1805
Thomas Tomkison, London, square piano #1965 in the Smithsonian.

1833
John Broadwood & Son upright piano #1778 in the Mobbs Collection, Bristol.

1931?
Dagmar piano #85,425, keys marked 1931, James Smith & Son, sole agents, 76/72 Lord Street Liverpool. Also marked JS&S September 1947, so perhaps 1931 is a just number?

Circa 1931
Two G.Ajello & Sons pianos around #28,500 are dated quite reliably by Malcolm action numbers, in spite of the mark 2.10.9 on the iron frames.

1931
Monington & Weston Piano #50,347 has 2.12.9 on the frame, similar to the example above. Number on bracing #15,502.

DATEMARKS OF KEY MAKERS

The keyboards were usually made by a separate firm, and may have a label under the bottom key, or a date written or imprinted on the side of the bottom key. Occasionally, this is done on the second or third key, so it is worth checking a few if you know how to remove keys safely. Otherwise, ask your tuner to look.

Broadwood uprights used to be dated on the side of the TOP key, as were some german models. German dates may use roman numerals for the month. This label from a Higel action is unusual, some key numbers, names and other marks can also be dated from information in my files, but actions are not usually dated, just numbered. The page on numbers lists many of these.

 Date Card
1936
Shenstone label: This scan from the keyframe of a scrapped
C.W.S. piano gives the following information:
Order No. 24662 Date 4/10/36
Name CWS 6 oct Miniature
Size 9.9 x 6.3 DB. (DB means double-bushed.)
 Order Card



The following are exceptions, possibly just coincidences of numbers, and certainly not normal key markings.

1892
Challen piano #21,300 is dated 10.92 on the keys, which are made by Lowe, and have a number which could be a date code - 13792. The date is also consistent with the published numbers for Challen.
1899?
Craven & Co. piano #6,965, made around the turn of the century: The keys are marked 1899B.
1945
A key maker used the number 1945.

DATEMARKS ON IRON FRAMES

As methods of casting iron frames improved towards the end of the 1800s, it became more common to cast various trademarks and other symbols into the frame, especially from the 1880s onwards. Photo of a strung back These can often be found below keyboard level in an upright piano, and are quite easily accessible by removing the bottom door (the front panel below the keyboard). Most piano firms employed separate iron foundries to cast their frames, so rather than the piano firm, the marks will often indicate the name or trademark of the foundry, such as Harp, Crown, flags, the jug or pitcher mark, or ACB / CAB. Similarly, if datemarks are used, they tend to indicate the date of casting, rather than the date when the piano was completed, and since some models would be ordered in bulk, there could sometimes be a delay of as much as 5 or 6 years before the piano was completed. However, the casting date does tell us that the design existed in that year.

3 Frame markings

Grand frames are easier to see, but they rarely have straightforward datemarks. It's important to remember that american frames seem to abandon logic with their dates, and put the month first, whereas british frames take the units in ascending order - day/ month/ year. Kelly frames (U.S.A.) also encode the year by counting from the year they were established, 1905, so add 5 to the year. Similarly, for Wickham frames, add 15 to the year.

Some frame marks are thinly disguised by turning them upside down, or substituting roman numerals for the month, which may indicate german origin. Surprisingly though, the germans, who often included such fine decorative detail in their castings, rarely provided straightforward datemarks, although some marks may give clues to the age of a piano.

DATEMARKS BY TUNERS etc.

Many tuners write the date of tuning on top of a key, or perhaps on the action if it has wooden standards. Traditionally, the warranty on most pianos would require them to be tuned 3 or 4 times in the first year, so the original tuner might date each of these visits, and such a bunching of dates is often a clue to the year of manufacture, but for example, a Broadwood madein 1842 had tuning marks starting at 1873, so it doesn't always work!

Beware of the years shortened to 2 figures, because they don't specify the century. Tuners sometimes have their own codes, for example I stamp a mark which is my initials WK joined together, on a key number which represents my age at the time I did the work. I was born in 1947, so a WK mark on note number 20 would show that I tuned or repaired the piano in 1967. The system is based on the assumption that I won't be tuning 6-octave pianos if I am more than 73 years old: It will be very inconvenient if I continue tuning to the age of 89!




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