Baldwin Piano

D.H. Baldwin, a music teacher in Cincinnati, began selling pianos in about 1862; his stock included Chickering and Steinway products. In 1865, he hired a Civil War veteran name Lucien Wulsin as a clerk. Their success as dealers grew, and Baldwin and Wulsin, partners from 1873, opened showrooms in other cities. They lost their Steinway franchise in 1887; they determined to produce high-end grand pianos to replace the Steinway niche. In 1890, Baldwin and Wulsin bought an abandoned lumber plaining mill in what was then part of Eden Park west of Gilbert Avenue. The business did well, and the single factory site became a large campus. Baldwin died in 1899, and Lucien Wulsin took over the firm. (His son and grandson, both also named Lucien, ran the concern for substantial stretches through the 1970’s.)
In 1900, a Baldwin grand won a “Grand Prize” at the Paris exhibition, and first prize at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904. Igor Stravinsky, Bela Bartok and Aaron Copeland were Baldwin artists, and later Dave Brubeck and Marian McPartland preferred the brand. But the great profitability of the business depended, like Cincinnati buggies, on low cost, mass produced household instruments. Wulsin pioneered corporate financing of his product: dealers could pay only shipping for their inventory until the time of the sale; consumers could pay Baldwin for their new pianos in installments. These capital-intensive sales processes brought in the orders.
Baldwin built a huge, attractive new factory in its Gilbert Avenue campus in 1921, eight stories tall with a clock tower concealing the water tank for a fire sprinkler system. Budgeted at a million dollars, it came in at $1.25 million. The building is nearly as high as the Eden Park hills across Gilbert Avenue. The photo taken from the downtown side shows the 1891 Water Tower in the park just to the left of the clock tower; from some vantage points the Baldwin tower seems about the same height as the original Art Museum tower in the park. The teens and twenties represented a high point in the business. The piano became a practical necessity in middle-class households, and piano lessons an accoutrement for the well-rounded young woman. Sheet music drove popular tastes; Ragtime, Tin Pan Alley and Jazz presented thoroughly modern forms of musical expression. Churches, schools, civic organizations, bars and restaurants all purchased pianos. The player piano became all the rage in the roaring twenties, fully half the piano market, and Baldwin supplied the remarkable technological novelty.
The thirties and early forties produced a complete reversal in the industry’s fortunes. Pianos, even modest ones, remained expensive commodities unaffordable to most middle class households during the depression. Radio, recordings, electronic amplification and the displacement of silent movies by “talkies” all cut the demand for the all-purpose piano accompaniment, and player sales tanked. Only a large “reserve fund” carried the firm through those lean years; Wulsin in fact initiated acoustic studies in cooperation with the University of Cincinnati. Yet Baldwin recovered during the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, aiming its sales pitches at the parents of the baby boomers as that generation reached grade school. Yet the brand increasingly moved down market. In 1974, the Baldwin Company sold its millionth piano – Steinway with a twenty-year head start only recently reached 600,000.
A major 1964 fire in the wood storage building put an end to production in the Cincinnati factory; most of Baldwin’s pianos had been produced at lower cost factories in the South. The company realized in the ‘70’s that it in fact made more money financing its pianos that selling them, and launched in to a major financial services adventure. It turns out that not all borrowers are as dependable as parents purchasing pianos, and the company’s $9 billion bankruptcy in 1983 was by far the largest in US history up to that point. The failure had nothing to do with the musical instrument business, and that unit was sold off in the financial disaster. While the corporation continued, it abandoned its presence in the Cincinnati.