The Steinway Diary – 1861-1896

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The word “Steinway” conjures up an image of the famous ebony Steinway piano, a fixture on most of the world’s concert stages.   William Steinway (1835-1896), the driving force behind William Steinway & Sons, recorded his experiences for almost 36 years in a daily diary. The diary brings to life scenes  from 19th century New York, and intimate moments in the life of Steinway and his family.  The Smithsonian Institution put all 2,500 pages online. They can be viewed here.

The diary begins three days before William’s marriage to his first wife, Regina Roos.   Happy and excited, William labels the first page: “Daily Diary of Wm. Steinway and wife!” Sixteen years later, an entry records “both my wife and myself are seized with the wildest paroxysms of grief” as the marriage shattered, following the discovery of her numerous affairs.

William Steinway gave an eyewitness account of the Civil War Riots of 1863 in New York: “July 13th Monday. Terrible Excitement throughout the City, resistence to the draft. Row of buildings on third Ave. burning down, also on Lexington Ave. Various other buildings fired by the mob. About 5 P.M. they appear before our factory Charles speaks to them and with the aid of Rev. Father Mahon they draw off towards Yorkville where late in the eve. many buildings are fired. Father Charles & I stay in the factory office til 1 A.M. then go to bed. It rains heavily all night. During his stay with the mob Charles gave the ringleaders $30-40 inc/Money and one a check for $30. It was a terrible scene and we were of course all much exercised atthe prospect of having the factory destroyed.”

A few days ago, I read in a newspaper that auctioneers clearing out the historic Steinway Mansion in Astoria, Queens, made a grisly discovery: a voodoo doll and voodoo masks were hidden in a 19th century trunk in the attic.   “We broke the lock and inside we found five voodoo masks and a doll surrounded by rusty nails in a little coffin.”

The mansion was sold by the Steinways to the Halberian family in the 1920s. “The Halberians do not think one of their relatives would have owned this,” said Michael Capo, the auctioneer. “I think it had been hidden there since the late 19th century. It was hidden away in an area where the owner wouldn’t necessarily go, so perhaps a member of the domestic staff left it there.”

The auctioneer won’t be selling the voodoo masks just yet. “I think we’ll hold on to them and get some research done. There’s a dark story here.”

Could one be hidden somewhere in the diary, I wonder?

5 thoughts on “The Steinway Diary – 1861-1896

  1. I am a board member of East End Seaport Museum & Marine Foundation in Greenport, NY. Here’s our website:
    The museum houses a number artifacts, photographs, and other collections important to the local maritime history. A family donated a diary to the museum. The diary belonged to a whaling capt. who lived and sailed out of Greenport in the 1840s. I am going to work with another museum member to transcribe the diary, and ultimately hope to do an exhibit plotting his two-year voyage to Antarctica and back. I would love to be able to do something interactive that would be fun and educational for both children and adults. I think there is no replacement for the value of these personal witnesses to history. I am busy organizing lighthouse cruises for the museum now through the summer; but when things settle down in the fall I hope to get started on this project. I will certainly keep you posted! Best, Karen

    • Karen,
      Now I am even more enthralled! Antarctica is also a passion of mine. This exhibit sounds awesome. What a great idea!! I can see a lot of potential with all of the ideas you mentioned (plotting his course, making it interactive). Wonderful!

      I’m going to check out the link. Thanks for keeping me posted. Very exciting!

  2. Karen,
    I’m intrigued by your diary project of a whaling captain and will be thrilled to learn more about that.
    I am drawn the romanticism between whaling captains and the sea. A personal goal of mine is to get a hanging wall portrait of a whaling captain. ‘The Ghost & Mrs Muir’ comes to mind.

  3. Susan, I am going to be working on a similar diary project in the next months – helping to decipher the diary of a 19c. whaling capt. out of Greenport, NY; so learning about the Steinway diary caught my imagination. The voodoo story was timely, but completely unexpected and unconnected to my original idea for the post. I just decided this morning to tie the two together. Who knows? As the auctioneer said, there is a good story somewhere! Glad you enjoyed it.

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