San Jose’s first piano
(Part of our “From the Piano Bench” series, reprints from the San Jose Historical Museum newsletter archives)
By Anne-Louise Heigho
Martha “Patty” Reed Lewis in Capitola, circa 1910 (History San Jose)
An article in the San Jose Mercury of December 22, 1941, traces the history of the first piano in San Jose: it was a rosewood square grand, made by an Albany builder named Burns in 1849. Purchased by a Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, it then made the voyage by ship around the Horn to San Francisco. Mrs. Wilson insisted that the instrument be accessible for playing, not consigned to the hold for ballast [what effect do you suppose that had on its tune and condition?], and that was her last chance to enjoy it. Upon arrival at Yerba Buena (as the fledgling city was still called], her husband pawned it to the newly rich James Frazer Reed for $1000. If the Wilsons were successful in the diggings they could redeem the instrument; otherwise, another $500 would give Reed absolute ownership. [This, in a time when you could build a large house for about $100…] The piano was moved to San Jose by wagon — why not by water, when there were no responsible roads? Again, we question the effect on the hapless instrument.
James Frazer Reed, survivor of the infamous Donner-Reed overland party, had himself struck a Golconda in the goldfields and returned to San Jose to buy up much of the downtown property between the SJSU campus and route 280. Local streets are named for his family: Margaret, Martha, Virginia, Reed, etc. He wanted the piano for his daughter, Virginia, to use, and contracted with a local Frenchman named Love for a series of piano lessons for $175. Another kind of love interfered with that project, for Virginia soon quit and got married. The rest of the lessons were snapped up by younger sister Martha [nicknamed Patty], who was apparently more receptive to music, for she persisted in the art. Patty’s succeeding teacher, Jessie B. Winlack, was luckless enough to be returning to her Scottish family by way of the steamer Jenny Lind when it blew up at Alviso in 1858, killing her and most of the other passengers.
Patty had later connections with the Pacific Conservatory, whose faculty member J. M. Moody wrote a series of “Nine Songs,” and dedicated one to Patty, now designated as Martha Reed Lewis. She had married and moved to Capitola, where she was one of the founders of St. Johns’ Episcopal Church. According to the newspaper article, the “first piano” had come with her and was still in the family home in 1941.
Read more about History San Jose’s Music Collection.
Gems from San Jose’s historic music journals
(Part of our “From the Piano Bench” series of reprints from the San Jose Historical Museum newsletter archives)
By Anne-Louise Heigho
San Jose was a vibrant participant in the turn-of-the-century music scene. Local music publishers, and branches of larger West Coast firms, were located on San Jose’s South First and Second Streets. They issued their own music journals of information and advertisement. A survey of History San Jose’s collection of these journals, published between 1880 and 1900, produced these gems:
From Sherman & Hyde’s Musical Review (March, 1877): “Last Wednesday morning, Mr. Morton of San Jose sold two Weber pianos, a Standard Organ, and a very fine guitar, all before lunch.”
From the Musical Circular of Wiley B. Allen (March, 1880). (The store was next to the Post Office, then located in the Hensley House on Santa Clara at 2nd Street). “More people came to the recital of Professor King’s pupils, at the College of the Pacific Conservatory [uptown on the Alameda, now Bellarmine Prep], than there were street cars to take them home — the transport system should be more alert and responsive to such demands.”
Editorial headline in the same issue: “Why Can’t We Have a Normal Music Department?” The San Jose Normal School, later Teachers College, was the nucleus of today’s San Jose State College; its music department is the sole survivor of four major music conservatories operating downtown from 1876 through the mid-1920s.
From the Musical Journal of the Music Hall Store (C. H. Maddox, proprietor, September 1882): “There are 125,000 music teachers in the United States.” San Jose’s city directories from 1885 to 1893 listed about 50-60 each year.
In the same issue: “a Miss Griswold (Bret Harte’s niece) has won the first prize for singing, and a second for operatic singing, at the Paris Conservatoire competition, the first occasion on which first prize for singing has been taken by an English-speaking pupil.”
Also in that issue, a portent of things to come: “Music performed in Harrisburg, by the aid of appliances for transmitting sound, was heard in Philadelphia, a distance of some 105 miles. The notes were said to be perfectly distinct, even to those who stood 25 feet from the receiver!”
One of the first publications printed in San Francisco after the great earthquake and fire of 1906 was the New San Francisco Magazine, “dedicated to the development of the State of California and the rebuilding of a new and greater San Francisco.” The first issue, called the “Salamander Number” in imitation of the salamander which emerges from the mud and thrives after forest fire, observed the local street scene: “Then, too, there is music. In some way a piano was saved from a ruined mansion on Nob Hill. Every night there are wags who gather around it and jangle merriment on its keys. Also there are phonographs. Many of these were saved from the ruins, and in the parks and squares where the homeless are located their strange melody is going on day and night.”
In the back pages of a song collection of that era is an advertisement by the Ruff Organ Co. of St. Louis, presenting a new instrument “guaranteed to be dust and mouse-proof.”
Read more about History San Jose’s Music Collection