Kimball Pianos | A History of one of the largest Piano Manufacturers
During the golden age of grand pianos, many different piano manufacturers competed to gain market share and establish themselves as an industry leader. Kimball specifically became one of the giants in the space, juggling both quality and affordability, while churning out grand and upright pianos on a scale seldom seen by piano manufacturers anywhere. However, like many of the great piano creators before and after, Kimball too would eventually find itself transitioning away from the piano business. Below we’ll go into the rise and fall of this grand piano titan and the legacy they’ve left behind. Here is the history of Kimball pianos.
1857 | THE FOUNDING OF KIMBALL
William Wallace Kimball was born in Rumford, Maine in 1828. Working as a real estate broker in his younger years, he liquidated his investments and moved to Chicago, Illinois. In 1857 he founded W.W. Kimball and Company as a piano and organ dealership. Based in Chicago, the company sold a number of brands such as Chickering and Sons, Hallet-Davis and other leading companies at that time. W.W. Kimball began assembling reed organs for sale in 1877. Utilizing actions made by J.G. Earhuff and cases made by other contractors, he slowly moved toward full, in-house production. In three years that goal was achieved and he began offering organs for sale that were made entirely by his company. In 1882 a large factory was built for the manufacturing of organs and it was soon churning out as many as 15,000 of these instruments per year. Kimball would continue to see success and go on to produce over 400,000 organs throughout their time in business.
KIMBALL ROLLS INTO THE 20th CENTURY
As the piano grew in wild popularity toward the end of the 19th century, Kimball grew to meet the growing demand. In 1887 an imposing five-story factory was constructed for the building of Kimball pianos. With the early instruments suffering from mediocrity, he quickly hired piano veterans from companies like Steinway & Sons and Bechstein to improve the build quality of the instruments. These early years saw Kimball push their pianos very aggressively, especially in the Midwest. Utilizing an army of door-to-door salesmen and dealerships, Kimball was able to make his pianos a household name. The W.W. Kimball Company continued to expand through the years with player pianos being experimented with during 1901 and phonographs produced between 1915 and 1925.
“Music For The Millions.” – Past Kimball Slogan [Very similar to Wulitzer’s slogan.]
Like many other piano companies, Kimball produced items for the war effort during World War II. The Kimball factory-made aircraft parts for major military contractors during this period of global unrest.
After the war ended, the normal production of pianos resumed at the company. However, W.W. Kimball went into a financial decline due to questionable decisions by family management. As the years went on the company fought to stay afloat. In the mid-1950s a new Melrose Park, Illinois piano factory was built. This huge facility however was plagued by poor performance and high costs, which caused the Kimball Company to fall into an even deeper financial hole. The mighty Kimball Piano Company fell from being the largest piano company in the world to seventh.
1959 | THE SALE OF KIMBALL
By 1959, only 15-25 pianos were completed each day at Kimball’s Melrose Park factory. This was nothing compared to the production of earlier times; and as a result, 1959 brought major changes to the company. Kimball became part of The Jasper Corporation and piano production was moved to West Baden, Indiana. The Jasper Corporation was a furniture maker and had done very well by specializing in television and stereo cabinets. William W. Kimball (the great-nephew of the founder of the company) stayed on as their National Marketing Director until his passing in 1987. (Thanks to William W. Kimball III for this information!) The first Kimball pianos made in Indiana were hit or miss and were known to be plagued by quality control issues. As the years went on Kimball regained its footing and they returned to the top as the largest producer of pianos in the world. Jasper expanded their piano divisions and purchased the famed Bosendorfer piano company and the New York-based Krakauer Brothers. The acquisition of Bosendorfer and their expertise was utilized to improve Kimball’s American-made pianos’ quality and prestige. Several models of ‘Viennese’ Kimballs were manufactured utilizing design elements of Bosendorfer pianos. The name ‘Kimball’ became so well known that Jasper International actually changed their name to Kimball International, a name they continued to use even after the discontinuation of all piano manufacturing.
1996 | THE END OF KIMBALL PIANO MANUFACTURING
During the final years of the 20th century, piano sales saw a massive decline in the United States. Changing times and tastes rocked the longtime musical industry. Kimball Piano and Organ was one of the companies that fell during this period. In 1996 the decision was made to cease production. The piano division was closed with the resources from that division shifted to support the furniture manufacturing. The last Kimball grand piano was completed and signed by the factory workers and company executives. It is still on display at the Kimball showroom in Jasper, Indiana. In 2002 Bosendorfer was sold off to Austrian investors (who later sold the company to Yamaha) and Kimball International refocused on furniture design and manufacturing. Kimball International is still in business today, albeit without the production of any musical instruments.
Kimball’s pianos were very popular in the United States (specifically the Midwest) and were considered to be mid-to-low tier instruments. Due to the extremely high number of pianos made and their fairly recent closure, it is still common to see them in use by individuals and institutions. They made for fairly inexpensive starter and home instruments which resulted in them being quite popular (Overall, Kimball’s acquisition of Bosendorfer did not do much to boost their middle to low tier reputation.) Today, the Kimball name has recently been attached to pianos being produced by Kimball Piano USA, Inc. who acquired the rights to the name from Kimball International. These pianos’ cabinets are made in China with final assembly being completed in Chicago. These instruments are unrelated to ‘historic’ Kimball pianos in their design.
Kimball International as it sits today is currently set up with three separate furniture divisions: Office, National Office Furniture, and Kimball Hospitality. Still based in Jasper, Indiana, they are a large company boasting over 3,000 employees and $6M in annual revenue. [Their Hospitality division has furnished over 14,000 rooms in Las Vegas hotels and casinos alone.] Their legacy as a piano manufacturer may be over, but their works still live on in the homes of music lovers across the United States and beyond.
KIMBALL GRAND PIANO RESTORATIONS
Even during their peak, Kimball pianos were seen as lower to middle-tier instruments. Although sturdy and overall solid pianos, we normally do not recommend fully restoring these instruments unless there is a significant emotional or historical connection. Quality control varied during their time in business, so it really comes down to the individual piano in question. That said, we have sold and serviced a number of these instruments and are available to answer questions you might have about Kimball and other brands of pianos. If you have a Kimball piano you want us to take a look at, give us a call and contact us today!
Kimball Facts – Provided by William W. Kimball III
- “John Steinway sent the founder a number of pianos (I vaguely remember 100) to get started again after the Great Chicago Fire.” (At this time, Kimball was still operating solely as an instrument dealership.)
- “Priscilla Presley had us build a gold painted Kimball baby grand for Elvis – it’s still there at Graceland.”
- The “Madams” at the notorious Everleigh Club in Chicago asked WW (William W. Kimball) to build them a gold piano – he refused due to their “reputation”.