Explore a 19th Century Diary

William Steinway (1835-1896), a prominent German American and astute entrepreneur, documented more than 36 years of his life through near-daily notes in nine volumes and some 2,500 pages, beginning eight days after the first shots of the Civil War were fired and three days before his wedding.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History features an online edition of The William Steinway Diary to coincide with a special display of the diary that provides a glimpse into the famous piano manufacturer’s life and one of the most dynamic periods in American history. The exhibition, A Gateway to the 19th Century: The William Steinway Diary, 1861–1896, is on view in the Albert H. Small Documents Gallery through April 8, 2011.

The display follows Steinway’s growth from witness to participant in history through select diary passages, Steinway family photographs, maps and advertisements that bring alive the fear and chaos of the 1863 Civil War Draft Riots and his hands-on role in the creation of the New York City subway and the company town of Steinway in Queens, N.Y.

“The breadth and depth of material covered in one man’s personal diary is truly astounding,” said Brent D. Glass, director of the museum. “The passion and diligence of the more than 100 volunteers researching the diary have produced a wealth of knowledge about the dramatic events of the second half of the 19th century.”

Steinway was one of the piano world’s great promotional innovators and a key figure in the cultural, economic, political and physical development of New York City. At age 15 he immigrated to the United States and became a partner in his family’s newly formed piano-making firm at age 21.

Under his direction, Steinway & Sons thrived as it survived the fierce piano manufacturing wars of the time and fed the period’s ravenous musical appetite. When Steinway & Sons incorporated in 1876, he became its first president, a position he held until his death. A proud member of New York’s German American community, Steinway was a classic immigrant success story. His close circle of powerful friends and allies included President Grover Cleveland.

The William Steinway Diary website, for the first time, allows scholars and the public to read and search a complete transcription of the diary alongside high-resolution scans of each handwritten page. The site provides a detailed look at Steinway’s firsthand account of the period’s financial panics, labor unrest and rise of the German immigrant class. Primary source material will be contextualized with more than 100 images from Steinway family archives and related essays. The museum hopes to publish later installments to include more than 30,000 interlinked annotations—one for every three words in the diary—to provide context for sometimes obscure entries.

The online edition of the diary and the companion display are the result of the combined efforts of the museum’s curators and editors along with more than 100 volunteers. Taking more than two decades, The William Steinway Diary project is one of the longest-running and most extensive volunteer projects at the Smithsonian.

Recognizing the diary’s historical significance, the late Henry Ziegler Steinway, Steinway’s grandson and former president of Steinway & Sons, donated the diary to the museum in 1996. He became a central part of the Diary Project and a volunteer researcher until his death in 2008.

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