Chicago Electric Pianos

made by Smith, Barnes & Strobher Piano Company

Ever since the early Hathaway & Bowers, Inc., days I have long had a mild fascination regarding certain Chicago Electric coin pianos. During the course of business, one fine day a recently purchased collection arrived and in it was a Chicago Electric Style K. The little instrument was in pristine unrestored condition, and I still remember it vividly, and its distinctive "eyebrow" art glass panel. It was the first Chicago Electric coin piano I had seen and there was a sense of deep mystery surrounding it. At the time I knew very little about the rare Chicago Electric machines. Looking back, regrettably, I did not have the time to really "get into it" and study it other than in a superficial way, but have never forgotten the allure of this relatively unknown relic. Moving ahead to today, having now researched and written about Chicago Electric, much of the old mystery has been resolved, but new and perhaps more puzzling questions have emerged, take for instance the relationship between Nelson-Wiggen and Smith, Barnes & Strohber, the maker of the Chicago Electric line. Such questions are treated in the following text, even if left unanswered and ripe for future discovery.

Terry Hathaway
August 3, 2013


The Chicago Electric banner.

It Pays As It Plays...

In the Music Trade Review of April 29, 1922, was the following announcement: "CHICAGO ELECTRIC" INTRODUCED--CHICAGO, Ill, April 26--Smith, Barnes & Strohber Company Puts Out Line of Electric Coin-operated Instruments. After many months of preparation the Smith, Barnes & Strohber Company announces this week a line of elaborate coin operated pianos made in its great factory in Chicago. The case designs are extremely attractive and the instruments embrace some interesting mechanical features which will appeal strongly to the trade. The company has just issued its first catalog, showing three models of the Chicago Electric, as the new instruments are called.

Charles Alexander Smith. Smith, Barnes & Strobher Seal.

It is not surprising that Smith, Barnes & Strohber would launch into the coin operated automatic piano business, albeit a late start. The company already had a long history of building player pianos and of making pianos for several leading coin operated piano manufacturers. Smith, Barnes & Strohber keyboard style pianos were used in Seeburg and Marquette pianos (with Smith, Barnes & Strohber serial numbers) and in early Operators pianos. A later style of piano was used in mid to late teens Operators pianos. Smith, Barnes & Strohber had many customers in the coin piano business, and due to their success it is no wonder that Smith, Barnes & Strohber eventually attempted their own line of coin operated instruments. There were many interconnections in the piano and coin piano business. For instance, Byron Waters was a founder of the Marquette Piano Co., along with Axel Larson and J.P. Seeburg. Seeburg left Marquette in 1909, and Larson and Waters left in the mid-teens. Waters went to Cincinnati and took over the old Knabe Bros. piano factory (no connection to the large Knabe firm). After this failed to become successful, he became involved with several other businesses and finally found himself at Smith, Barnes & Strohber in late 1921. Judging by advertising in the music trade magazines, Smith, Barnes & Strohber only made Chicago Electric coin pianos from the time Waters came to work there until he left and joined the new Western Electric Piano Company in 1924. As such, Chicago Electric pianos were yet another Chicago line that had indirect ties to Marquette, Seeburg, Western Electric, and Nelson-Wiggen.

The Smith, Barnes & Strohber Piano Company started out in 1884 as C.A. Smith & Company, with their factory located on Clybourn Street in Chicago, Illinois. In 1891, G. K. Barnes joined the company and it was then incorporated as Smith & Barnes Piano Company. In 1906 the business of the Strohber Piano Company, of Chicago, was taken over and the name again changed to the Smith, Barnes & Strohber Company. The new organization manufactured pianos under the names of Smith & Barnes, Strohber, Hoffman, Lessing, and Willard. In 1924 the firm was purchased by the Continental Piano Company, and they continued the Smith & Barnes name up until the Great Depression.

Model Variations

Chicago Electric Style EL-2. The 'new" Chicago Electric pianos were introduced late in the coin-piano trade and as a consequence only a few cabinet and keyboard case designs ever made it to the light of day. Considering this relative original scarcity of instruments and a low survival rate it is no wonder that Chicago Electric coin pianos are comparatively rare today. Chicago Electric instruments used pumps and spoolboxes purchased from Monarch Tool & Die, located in Kentucky, a firm that is still in business today making coin mechanisms. Confusing the issue, At least two Chicago Electric keyboardless cabinet pianos are known to exist that were fitted with Nelson-Wiggen parts, such as spoolboxes, pumps, associated linkages, and xylophone. Did Smith, Barnes & Strohber have some sort of business relationship with Nelson-Wiggen, if only a temporary and/or intermittent one? Were some Chicago Electric cabinet machines assembled by Nelson-Wiggen using many parts of their own design, instead of buying them from Monarch Tool & Mfr. Company and/or other suppliers? Then there is the lingering question of the furniture cases for Smith, Barnes & Strohber coin operated instruments, which look very similar if not identical to the cabinets used by some other coin operated piano builders, such as cabinets used by Operators Piano Company, who manufactured the Coinola brand. This obvious similarity has led to speculation that Smith, Barnes & Strohber bought the cases for its coin-operated line from some outside supplier.

From articles found in issues of Presto published during the year 1922, "The Chicago Electric" is described by the slogan, "It Pays as it Plays." The company also had two other slogans that were "household words from ocean to ocean," namely: "Pianos of Character," which was the wholesale and retail slogan, and "Music Makes the Heart Glad," which was the slogan for introducing the instrument into the home. The April, 1922, introductory brochure declares a "New tine of Smith, Barnes & Strohber `Musical Money Makers' Is Ready." Two styles are described thusly: "The Art Design is a substantial-looking [keyboard style] piano, with exquisitely decorated panels. It is Model EL-2. It is a massive instrument with mandolin attachment. It plays a ten-tune standard rewind roll. Model K [cabinet style] of the Chicago Electric is in Gothic design. It has the new ribbed art glass panels, and is equipped with expression device and runs with absolute quiet."

Chicago Electric EL-1 keyboard piano. In September of 1922, also in an article from Presto, a "new" catalogue was issued, which described the instruments as follows: "Three styles are illustrated and described in the little book—Chicago Electric Model EL-1, Popular Design; Chicago Electric Model EL-2, Art Design; Chicago Electric Model K, a new design built especially to meet a demand requiring less floor space than the regular piano, but having the same range, and operating with the standard rewind music roll." These seem to be the same instruments as were in the introductory catalogue of April, with the Style EL-1 described as having a mission finish, the EL-2 with a Flemish Mission finish, and the Style K with a Gothic design in mission finish. All three played the standard A roll, common to many other piano models built by Cremona, Nelson-Wiggen, Seeburg, and others. There is no mention of instrumentation, although the basic piano with mandolin attachment is assumed.

Chicago Electric Model Casino cabinet piano.

In June of 1924 yet another Presto article details another new catalogue, which boasts even more detailed descriptions, along with the announcement of the "Little Casino" model: "Three models are shown in colors which truly represent the handsome appearance of pianos. Electric Model EL-1 plays ten-tune standard rewind rolls, piano and solo mandolin and xylophone can be furnished if desired. Electric Model EL-2 is in a massive art case designed for artistic rooms and public parlors. It has a full 88-notc action, plays piano and mandolin with xylophone if desired, and has measurements: Height, 4 feet 9 inches; length, 5 feet 4-1/4 inches; and depth, 2 feet 5 inches." It should be noted that this 1924 catalogue by omission suggests that the Casino model replaced the earlier Model K cabinet piano.

Describing the Casino. the catalog states: "The Casino is a real musical instrument. Its volume and tone and the way it renders the latest in popular music of all kinds attracts the public and offers you a chance to increase your business and profits. One of the most striking features of this new type instrument is its remarkable tone qualities. None of the strings have been left off in order to make it small. It plays the entire ten tune standard rewind music roll. No notes left off or coupled up. This provides you with the largest and most up-to-date library of music to select from."

This latest catalog also describes the exclusive features of the Chicago Electric:

Chicago Electric cabinet piano.

Unfortunately, trade journal articles and the Chicago Electric catalogues observed to date do not shed any light on other observed cabinet variations for the little Style K and/or Casino. There are several Chicago Electric cabinet machines that appears to be earlier model and/or case style iterations that are somewhat of a mystery. They are in in quartered oak cases reminiscent of cabinet styles common circa 1910 or earlier. When Smith, Barnes & Strohber initially experimented with and/or first introduced the cabinet model Chicago Electric did they somehow find and/or use up some old style cases, perhaps left behind by customers of earlier years? This questions will probably remain unanswered, but perhaps worthy speculation nonetheless.

Instrumentation

Instrumentation in the keyboard style Chicago Electric pianos seems to have been simple and basic, a piano with mandolin attachment, and by 1924 the addition of a xylophone was mentioned as optional. It is unknown whether any of the keyboard style pianos were ever originally fitted with a xylophone; to date none with a xylophone are known. The 1922 introductory brochure showing the "new" Model K cabinet style does not mention whether this little instrument had a xylophone, or not, or whether this was an option. Thus it is possible that some Model K pianos did not contain xylophones, although the known surviving specimens do have the xylophone originally installed. Examining surviving literature it seems that the only additional instrumentation option (over the basic piano with mandolin attachment) ever offered by Chicago Electric was a xylophone. There are no known official references to or instances of any originally outfitted Chicago Electric pianos with pipework or trapwork, other than the aforementioned optional xylophone. It is thought that all Chicago Electric pianos played the standard A roll, which is cut for piano, mandolin attachment, and one additional instrument, which is this case would have been a xylophone. The known instances of the cabinet style instruments, such as the Model K or the Model Casino, have a horizontal xylophone located at the top of the instrument just under the top lid.

Stacks
(Valve Chest with 2 or 3 Tiers of Motor Pneumatics)

In a Music Trade Review advertisement of September, 1920, Smith, Barnes & Strohber were mentioned as a customer of the Standard Pneumatic Action Company of New York City, for which the company probably used Standard Player Actions to at least some extent in their line of standard 88-note home player pianos. But did the company use modified or differently designed Standard Player Action stacks in their coin operated pianos? For the keyboard style instruments the company is known to have made use of a 2-tier stack with horizontal valves and deck mounted motor pneumatics. The design is suspiciously similar in appearance to a Standard Player Action stack, but is only two-tier and without the usual top mounted primary valve chest common in the player piano versions. However, it is unknown whether this same type of stack arrangement was used in all Chicago Electric keyboard style coin pianos. In the 1924 catalogue the two keyboard models could optionally be equipped with a xylophone, but the normal configuration of the two-tier stacks observed in pre-1924 models do not easily permit the addition of an extra instrument. So did Smith, Barnes & Strohber modify the stack type they had been using up to 1924, or did they install a different type of stack altogether, such as a Simplex Player Action stack? For the time being, however, the statistical sampling of surviving keyboard specimens is far to shallow to determine anything one way or another.

But what about the little cabinet models? What kind of stack did they use? This is where the subject gets complicated. The photographic evidence, albeit the sampling of extant specimens is minimal, seems to suggest that the Style K and at least some of the Casino models used something akin to a Standard Player Action stack. However, Art Reblitz recently photographed a Style K stack and from looking at the design of the piano pneumatics it definitely does not look to be a Standard Player Action stack. So who made it? Did Smith, Barnes & Strohber make some of their own stacks for the cabinet models? Adding to the confusion, a photograph has surfaced with the xylophone tubing coming out of the front cover of the stack, which suggests that they also used some variant of it or perhaps an altogether different type of stack. But if so what was the variant? It has also been observed that some of the later Casino models had a Nelson-Wiggen spoolbox, pump and interconnecting drives and linkages, and xylophone. What type of stack was used in these Nelson-Wiggen equipped Chicago Electric instruments? Was it the Standard Player Action type of design with horizontal valves, or a Simplex Player Action stack, which was the brand of stack used by Nelson-Wiggen? Or was it altogether something else?

How can the Smith, Barnes & Strohber installed stacks and Simplex Player Action type of stack be easily identified?

Please keep in mind that the bulleted items above only describes two stack options relative to Chicago Electric coin pianos, which may or may not be correct. It does, however, reflect what seems to be the case for Smith, Barnes & Strohber made coin pianos at this time. Because the sampling of Chicago Electric pianos is so limited by rarity and/or due to inaccessibility to existing specimens, there may be other stack types discovered in the future that are currently unanticipated. Thus, we encourage readers to submit what information they can through the Survey Form located at the bottom of this page.

Spoolboxes, Pumps and Related Linkages

Monarch Tool & Mfr. Company Advertisement.It appears to be that Smith, Barnes & Strohber installed rewind type spoolboxes and pumps bought from Monarch Tool & Mfr. Company in most, if not all, of their EL-1 and EL-2 keyboard style coin pianos. But this commonality of installed components is not the case for the small cabinet style instruments. The earlier models seem to have the same Monarch spoolbox and pump components, but some of the later Model Casino cabinet pianos have been observed that instead have a Nelson-Wiggen spoolbox and pump. As mentioned earlier, it is unknown what the relationship was between Smith, Barnes & Strohber and the Nelson-Wiggen Company.

Using the Information on this Page

This page contains detailed descriptions and photos of various features, which are deemed important for a truly useful understanding of both the database reports and to effectively fill in the Survey Reporting Form. The actual database reports and survey form can be accessed in the Distribution of Database Information section and then clicking on the large Download button at the bottom of this page.

The Chicago Electric Database

The primary information that went into building up the Chicago Electric database has been gathered over a period of several years by Art Reblitz and Terry Hathaway, both longtime mechanical music enthusiasts. Whenever either person has had access to Chicago Electric piano information they have carefully recorded any available mechanical and historical details of interest. Many other people, listed under Acknowledgements in the Introduction to the Registry, also submitted information, which is presented in an orderly, easy to read format in the report offered below.

By default, current ownership information is not integral to the database project, but a provision exists whereby the current owner's name information can be accommodated and then shown in database reports. However, this will be done only if and when specific written permission is granted to the Mechanical Music Press specifically authorizing us to show and/or distribute individual ownership information. Furthermore, if and when such authorization is granted the Mechanical Music Press and/or its authors shall assume no liability or responsibility of any kind, nor to any extent, regarding any inferred, purported, or actual privacy intrusions, incidents, or claims.

Updating the Database and Reporting Errors

We cordially invite and solicit additional information for the database on Chicago Electric pianos that are not in this list, and additional details for pianos that are already listed but that have little information.

To ADD ANOTHER ITEM TO THE DATABASE or to facilitate the reporting of errors regarding Chicago Electric pianos please click on the Survey Reporting Form button in the options panel below. Please note: We welcome any survey information, whether it be only the brand, model, and serial number, or all requested details. We realized that it can be difficult (even for an experienced restorer) to find certain serial numbers without partially disassembling an instrument. Nonetheless, please submit a form regardless of how many spaces you can currently fill in.

All database report information is offered "as is," without any guarantee or warranty whatsoever of any kind, neither stated, implied, nor inferred, as to the accuracy, correctness, exactness, suitability, or usefulness of any content.


Distribution of Database Information
Last Updated on January 9, 2017

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Credits:

Compiled by Terry Hathaway and Art Reblitz, and transferred into database format by Terry Hathaway.

Graphics:

Terry Hathaway, Dana Johnson, Art Reblitz, and Dan Hecker.