Detail of a square piano made by Charles Albrecht, Philadelphia, ca. 1790

Detail of a square piano made by Charles Albrecht, Philadelphia, ca. 1790

Charles Albrecht

(ca. 1760-1848)

Charles Albrecht was one of the most important musical instrument makers in early America. He immigrated to Philadelphia in the mid-1780s and by 1789 went into business as a piano maker. His business thrived for nearly thirty years in a very competitive market, as more instrument makers settled in Philadelphia and imported pianos became increasingly common. By 1825, Albrecht had earned sufficient wealth to retire from the instrument-making business and became a leisured gentleman.


Charles Albrecht (born c. 1760 most likely in Electoral Palatinate; died June 28, 1848, in Montgomeryville, PA) was one of the most important musical instrument makers in early America. He immigrated to Philadelphia in the mid-1780s, was married in 1787 to Mary Fox, and by 1789 went into business as a piano maker. During the 1790s, his brother, George Albrecht, assisted him in the trade. Through numerous advertisements and more than twenty surviving examples of his work, Charles Albrecht can be documented as a highly competent immigrant entrepreneur. His business thrived for nearly thirty years in a very competitive market, as more instrument makers settled in Philadelphia and imported pianos became increasingly common. By 1825, Albrecht had earned sufficient wealth to retire from the instrument-making business and became a leisured gentleman. Although he had no children of his own, he left generous bequests to numerous family members upon his death in 1848.[1]

Family and Ethnic Background

Much of Charles Albrecht’s background remains obscure, including his exact date of birth. He emigrated from Europe in the mid-1780s and may have been the “Jno Carl Allbrink” (as the ship captain spelled it) who arrived in Philadelphia on the Hamburgh on October 11, 1785. [2] On June 17, 1787, Albrecht married the widow Mary Fox (1752–1837) at St. Michael’s and Zion Lutheran Church in Philadelphia.[3] She was eight years older than Charles and had two children from her first marriage but none with Charles. Her first husband, John Fox/Fuchs (1746–1780), was a cabinetmaker and left a sizeable estate when he died, including lumber worth £80, two “Carpenter or Joyners Benches,” a “Chest & Joyners Tools” valued at £800, and “Sundries in the Shop,” probably unfinished furniture, worth £200.[4] Among his household furnishings were a “Low Case of Wallnut Drawers,” a high case of drawers and dressing table, mahogany stand, eight-day clock, tea table, silver spoons, a globe, and a fiddle. The entire estate was valued at £5,960.10.0. No evidence of these items being sold after John Fox’s death has been found, thus when Charles Albrecht married Mary Fox, he likely gained access to her late husband’s workshop and tools in addition to a well-furnished home.[5]

For a recent immigrant, marriage was also a quick way to gain the support of a family network. By all appearances Charles became quite close with his in-laws, who introduced him to a larger circle of German-speaking craftsmen. His wife Mary was the daughter of John and Maria Barbara Knies, who were members of First Reformed Church in Philadelphia. Her younger sister, Elizabeth Knies (b. 1765), married storekeeper Jacob Deal in 1787. In 1793, Elizabeth and Jacob named one of their children Charles Albrecht Deal (he later worked for Charles), and in 1808 Jacob appointed his “esteemed Friend Charles Albrecht” as co-executor of his estate. Peter Deal Jr. (c. 1751–after 1830), Jacob’s brother, was a house carpenter. A third brother, Daniel Deal, was a blacksmith. The patriarch of the Deal family, Peter Sr., lived at 130 Vine Street in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia. Charles and Mary Albrecht lived next door at 128 Vine Street after their marriage before moving to 95 Vine Street in 1793. In September of 1792, Charles Albrecht’s brothers, George and Henry, immigrated on the Columbia. George (c. 1767–1802) worked with Charles for a time in Philadelphia before moving to Baltimore, where he married Ann Scriver in 1800 but died only two years later without a known issue. Henry Albrecht went back to Europe to rejoin his family but returned to Pennsylvania in 1804 together with his wife, Margaret, and two children. Soon more relatives immigrated, including Charles’ nephew Philip Albrecht (c. 1777–1860) in 1805 and his niece, Carolina Scheib, her husband Henry, and sons Cassimer and William Scheib. Philip was a cabinetmaker and settled in Reading; the Scheibs were carpenters and both settled in Berks County.[6]

Music in Early America

Music was an important part of everyday life in early America. Bells called people to worship, announced the time, and marked important events. When the infamous Stamp Act was announced in 1765, Philadelphia’s ministers were asked to muffle their church bells and toll them in mourning as a sign of protest. Because the Quakers largely eschewed music, German-speaking immigrants were among the first to promote both sacred and secular music in colonial Pennsylvania. Due to its large ethnic and culturally German population, Philadelphia attracted numerous German-speaking émigré instrument makers and soon became the leading center of musical-instrument making in colonial America and the early republic. The city was particularly noted for the production of keyboard instruments and dominated the manufacturing of pianos in America from 1775 until the 1830s, when New York and Boston took over.[7]

One of the first keyboard instrument makers in the colonies was Johann Gottlob Klemm (1690–1762), a Moravian. In 1733 he immigrated to Philadelphia, where he made and signed a spinet six years later that is the earliest American-made keyboard instrument. Also in 1739, Klemm completed an organ for Gloria Dei, the Swedish Lutheran Church of Philadelphia. Music was an expected part of German Lutheran, Reformed, and Moravian worship, and their churches were among the first to acquire organs. The earliest known use of an organ in the American colonies was in Philadelphia in 1703 at the ordination of Justus Falckner at the Gloria Dei Church of Philadelphia. By 1742, St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Germantown owned a small organ, as did First Moravian in Philadelphia by 1743. St. Michael’s Lutheran Church of Philadelphia dedicated an organ in May of 1751, built by Johann Adam Schmahl of Heilbronn, Germany; that same year Augustus Lutheran Church in Trappe acquired an organ built by Klemm.[8]

Due to the nature of their construction, keyboard instruments were a highly specialized area of cabinetmaking. In addition to technical expertise, instrument makers needed a detailed knowledge of many different types of wood and their properties relative to the special needs of musical instruments. For example, the tuning pins of a piano are inserted into a wrest plank, which in America is typically made of maple and may be up to one-and-one-half inches thick; it is often of laminated construction with alternating grain to prevent splitting. The soundboard, which produced the tone of the piano, was a thin sheet of wood (often spruce or white pine) that covered about one-third of the right side of the piano interior. To this was affixed the bridge, which transmitted the vibrations to the soundboard that were caused by the hammer striking the piano wires. The keys also had to be cut from wood; in America basswood or tulip poplar was preferred. The naturals were then covered in ivory and the sharps in ebony or the wood dyed black. Many instrument makers were first trained as joiners and later specialized in instruments or developed it as a sideline trade. Demand was an important factor, as in many areas there was not enough to support instrument-making as a full-time occupation. Instruments were also complicated to build; a large organ could take a single craftsman a year or more to finish, while a piano might take anywhere from 57 to 143 working days depending on its complexity. Most eighteenth-century instrument making workshops were probably quite small, operated by a master with the assistance of an apprentice or two.[9]

Both Klemm and his protégé – David Tannenberg (1728–1804) of Berthelsdorf, Electorate of Saxony – worked as joiners. After Klemm died in 1762, Tannenberg was directed by the Moravian authorities to return to cabinetmaking, likely because another Moravian, Philip Feyring, had arrived in Philadelphia and built several instruments, including an organ for Christ Church in 1766. Tannenberg began building organs again by 1765, however, and would become the most prolific and renowned organ builder in early America – producing nearly fifty organs before his death in 1804. His masterpiece was the three-manual organ with thirty-four stops which he completed for Philadelphia’s Zion Lutheran Church in 1790; tragically, it was destroyed in a 1794 fire which gutted the church. His son, David Jr., followed his father in the cabinetmaking trade and later worked in the shop of organ builders John and Andrew Krauss, who were Schwenkfelders. These interactions between German-speakers of various faiths as well as the commissions from Lutheran and Anglican churches for organs built by Moravian craftsmen suggest that denominational lines were frequently crossed as there were just so few people capable of building musical instruments. In Lancaster, Conrad Doll was described in the tax lists from 1799 to 1814 as a “spinet and organ maker” and in an 1805 deed as a “joiner and cabinetmaker.” When Johannes Scheible of New Holland, Lancaster County, died in 1793, the inventory of his estate included an unfinished fortepiano and unfinished house organ as well as patterns for clock cases; a painted chest, one chest “not painted without hindges,” and “1 unfinished Wallnut Chest.” Scheible also had walnut, cherry, and poplar boards; a work bench and lathe; seven new spinning wheels, spinning wheel parts, and bedsteads; tea table tops and feet; carpenter’s tools and unspecified carpentry books; saws, files, bits, chisels, gouges, and thirty-seven molding planes in addition to four “Croofing” or grooving planes; two plough planes; paint brushes; and one “Sea Cow Tooth,” probably a walrus tusk. When Charles Albrecht’s brother, George, died in 1802, his inventory included six pianos, ranging in value from $70 to $110, along with twenty-five feet of half-inch mahogany boards, a piece of “purple wood,” ivory, and a box of music wire. Items in his “Worck Shop” included two stoves, sixteen planes, four saws, seventeen hand screws (probably used to clamp veneer), a piece of ebony, two work benches, sundry tools, a glue pot, three boxes with lathes, and a “Frame & unfinished case for a Forte Piano.”[10]

With the exception of the rare house or chamber organ, most keyboard instruments in colonial American homes were harpsichords and other related instruments (spinets, virginals, or clavichords), which use a plectra (often made of quills) to pluck the wire strings. Mechanical devices such as stops and dampers helped vary the instrument’s tone and volume, but in a limited fashion. By the late 1700s, harpsichords were rapidly becoming obsolete due to the rising popularity of the piano – generally credited as being invented by Bartolomeo Cristofori of Florence in the late 1600s. Distinguished by the use of small hammers that strike the strings, a piano enabled the player to control the sound to a much greater extent simply by varying the pressure applied to the keys. Although keyboard instruments were referred to by many names, often incorrectly or inconsistently, the term fortepiano (pianoforte in French), literally meaning “loud-soft,” came into use by the early 1700s and was widely used to differentiate hammered from plucked string keyboard instruments. Most pianos used in a domestic setting were of an oblong, rectangular shape that resembled the harpsichord; the form was called a square piano or, in German, a Tafelklavier. The piano quickly became popular with German musicians and instrument-makers, who introduced it to England in the mid-1700s. One of these émigré craftsmen, Johannes Zumpe, settled in London and by 1766 is said to have built the first square piano made in England. Another German instrument-maker, Johannes Geib, moved to London where he received several patents for his inventions, including the so-called English double or grasshopper-action piano movement in 1786; he immigrated in 1797 to New York, where he made pianos well into the 1800s.[11]

The earliest known reference to a piano made in America was in Philadelphia by Johann Michael Behrent (d. 1780), “Joiner and Instrument Maker,” who in March of 1775 announced that he had “just finished for sale, an extraordinary instrument, by the name of PIANOFORTE, of Mohogany, in the manner of an harpsichord, with hammers.” Eight years later, James Juhan moved to Philadelphia and advertised “that he makes the great North American forte pianos, the mechanical part of them being entirely of his own invention.” In 1789, Charles Albrecht built what is the oldest known dated American-made piano. Constructed of highly figured mahogany with square tapered legs and string inlay, it is also the earliest known piece of dated Federal furniture from Philadelphia and possibly even America. The nameboard of the piano bears a long, horizontal oval plaque on which the inscription “Charles Albrecht Philadelphia 1789” was carefully inscribed, then infilled with a black substance, possibly mastic, to contrast with the satinwood veneer. The lettering, particularly the “C” and “A,” is rendered in an elaborate font resembling the German Fraktur typeface. The piano, which employs Broadwood’s single action and has the tuning pins along the back, once had two pedals that raised the dampers and controlled an overhead mute.[12]

Business Development

Charles Albrecht was a prolific instrument maker. By 1798 his shop had made at least 93 pianos. More than twenty examples survive, including one with a serial number of 166. Unfortunately, very little information about his workshop or customers is known to exist. Most likely, given the luxury nature of the piano-making business and limited clientele for such expensive instruments, Albrecht operated a relatively small shop with only a few assistants and apprentices. A piano dated 1789 is Albrecht’s earliest known instrument; three others with similar nameboards survive, all inscribed “Charles Albrecht Fecit Philadelphia” in elaborate lettering. Although probably rendered by a professional calligrapher, the lettering closely resembles an alphabet identified as “German Text” in George Bickham’s popular writing manual, The Universal Penman (London, 1743). The decoration on Albrecht’s nameboards evolved over time and is one means of determining the relative sequence of his pianos. From the earliest examples with incised and filled lettering, the ornament shifted to inlaid and then gilded and painted, reflecting the growing popularity of Fancy decoration by the turn of the nineteenth century. Four Albrecht pianos with inlaid nameboards are known; they feature a small oval plaque at the center, surmounted by a bowknot and flanked by undulating, flowering vines that terminate in a kylix urn at either end and two paterae. The inscriptions within the plaques vary slightly; one is inscribed in Roman lettering “CHARLES ALBRECHT / MAKER / Philadelphia”; another is inscribed in German-style lettering “Charles Albrecht / Philadelphia”; and one is inscribed in italicized Roman font “CHARLES ALBRECHT / Philadelphia.” A fourth piano with related inlay was made by Charles Albrecht’s brother, George, and is the only known example of his work. Inscribed “George Allbright / Philadelphia” on the central plaque, the nameboard has a smaller flowering vine and a different, more leafy paterae at either end of the key well. Nearly identical paterae appear on a piano signed and dated by Charles Taws of Philadelphia in 1794, indicating that it was likely acquired from a specialist outside of the Albrecht workshop. It is also noteworthy that George spelled his surname as “Allbright,” whereas Charles consistently spelled his surname “Albrecht” on all but one piano.[13]

The third and most common style of nameboard decoration features a small, pointed oval cartouche flanked by a swagged floral garland and bowknots. It appears that Albrecht switched to this nameboard style early on and then continued using it, as it is found on pianos with the serial numbers 24 and 166. The inscription is typically rendered in gilt lettering as “CHARLES ALBRECHT / MAKER / Philadelphia,” though on some his first name is abbreviated as “CHA’S.” These nameboards were likely decorated by an ornamental painter, who could also do the ornamental lettering of Albrecht’s name. The piano illustrated in figure 5 is inscribed with both the serial number (166) and the signature “Joshua Baker Maker” on the key bed. Born in 1773, Baker was almost certainly trained by Albrecht; Baker’s wife, Mary Deal, was the daughter of Albrecht’s sister-in-law, Elizabeth Knies, and her husband Jacob Deal. Two other Albrecht pianos are known that are signed by Baker on the interior. From 1810 until 1816, Baker is listed in the Philadelphia city directories as an instrument or piano maker at 130 Vine Street (previously the residence of his wife’s grandfather); he died in 1821. A rare variation on Albrecht’s typical painted nameboards uses oak leaves rather than flowers for the swagged ornament. Another variant that appears on two known examples has the pointed oval cartouche, but rather than swags of flowers it is flanked to either side by a long, flowering vine of pink roses that extends across most of the nameboard.[14]

Although the nameboard decoration on the pianos varies, in general the cases are similar. This began to change by 1813, when Albrecht’s shop produced a piano with six round, reeded legs and matching foot pedal, shallow drawers, and rounded front corners. This piano is signed on the interior: “C. Deal Philadelphia [ill.] 1813 / No 71.” Deal was Albrecht’s nephew and namesake, born Charles Albrecht Deal in 1793. He was also the brother-in-law of Joshua Baker, another member of Albrecht’s shop. The piano also contains a handwritten note that was concealed underneath a board covering the wedge-shaped hollow area between the tuning pin block and inside corner of the frame. Placed there during construction, the note reads: “The Person who first casts his eye on this may know that this Piano was made in the year 1813 about the time Bonaparte was defeated by the Russians. Charles Deal.” The serial number 71 inscribed below Deal’s signature is likely a reference to how many pianos Deal had made, as an Albrecht piano dated 1798 is labeled as number 93. In 1815, Deal worked on a piano owned by Andrew Law, then one of the leading music instructors and composers in the country. A letter sent in December of 1815 from Deal to Law, who was then in Newark, New Jersey, describes the renovations underway to Law’s piano. The nameboard of the piano signed by Deal continues to have a pointed oval cartouche and floral swags, but the roses are now much larger and painted with brushier strokes. The inscription has also changed slightly to include an address: “CHAS ALBRECHT / NO 95 Vine St / Philadelphia”.[15]

Noted for their excellent craftsmanship and elegant design, Albrecht’s pianos are typically built of mahogany with lightwood stringing and satinwood nameboards. Both mahogany and satinwood are imported tropical hardwoods; the ivory and ebony used for the keys were also imported – all contributing factors to the expense and luxury nature of pianos. All known examples are of the square piano form in what is generally considered an English style, though it bears repeating that many of the piano makers in England at this time were Germans. A contrasting satinwood veneer banding was sometimes used to frame the nameboard and front of the case, which was finished with a linseed oil polish or varnish to produce a high sheen to the wood. Most have four, square tapered legs, although the two latest examples each have six reeded legs. The tapered legs are outlined in lightwood stringing, terminating in cuffs and small brass casters. Stretchers at either side help reinforce the delicate legs and add stability to the frame, which is attached with large bolts. Some models had a wooden shelf running from side to side, beneath the mechanism, to hold sheet music. Mitered dovetail joints were typically used to conceal all evidence of the joinery in the frame, which was usually built of solid rather than veneered mahogany due to the enormous strain exerted by the tension of the strings. Heavy bases and diagonal braces made of oak, tulip poplar, or other local woods were often used within the frame. The piano lid was usually segmented to enable only a small panel covering the key well area to be opened, which could be folded back and used to prop up sheet music. Like most square pianos, Albrecht’s are made with the keyboard at the left side, but when the lid is fully closed it has a symmetrical appearance. The entire lid could also be propped open if more sound was desired; some pianos even had an internal folding music rack that could be deployed to help hold the lid open as well.

The actions of Albrecht’s pianos were of a very high quality and had a range of five to five-and-one-half octaves. The action is the mechanism by which the force applied to the keys sets the hammers in motion, causing them to strike the wire strings. The action must also have an escapement that disengages it from the hammer once it is set into motion; numerous action types were developed and some patented during the late 1700s and 1800s. Albrecht built pianos with a variety of mechanisms, including single action, double action, and the Viennese Prellmechanik, which may reflect the size of his workshop and that he had assistants of varying backgrounds. In some cases it is difficult to know how the original action functioned, as the moving parts of pianos wear out, break, or get updated over time and many have suffered from insensitive restorations. Albrecht’s pianos also employed a variety of damper mechanisms, knee levers, foot pedals, hand stops, and swells as options for moderating sound and tone. These features were more gimmicks than necessity but their presence reveals that he was capable of producing pianos with a wide variety of options to meet the demands of his clientele. That said, pianos no. 24 and 166 both have rather old-fashioned features including a hand stop to raise the dampers, rather than a pedal or knee lever, and the placement of the tuning pins at the right along a diagonal block. This suggests that Albrecht’s pianos do not seem to follow a technological progression, perhaps an indication of customer preferences since he clearly was capable of making more advanced actions.[16]

Charles Albrecht is listed in the 1791 Philadelphia city directory as a joiner, residing at 128 Vine Street between Third and Fourth. He began advertising in March of that year, offering for sale an “Elegant Double Key’d Harpsichord, Also a Piano Forte Harpsichord,” and informing readers that he also “makes and repairs Harpsichords, Piano Forte’s and Spinnet’s and also tunes the same at a moderate rate.” By January 28, 1792, he had moved to 95 Vine Street, where he described himself as a “Musical Instrument-Maker” and offered for sale “TWO new and elegant PIANO FORTES which he will warrant to be good.” He may have struggled to sell them, as he ran the same ad through June 12, 1792. By March 1796 Charles was joined in business by his brother, George, when he advertised that they “continue to carry on business… [and] have now for sale, two Piano Fortes, which they will warrant to be good.” The 1797 Philadelphia city directory lists George Albrecht at 95 Vine Street, but Charles is absent, having moved out of the city to Vincent Township, Chester County, where he acquired a twenty-three acre woodlot and a 175-acre farm. In June of 1797 he sold the two tracts to George Hubener, an earthenware potter. In November, Albrecht announced that “he has commenced business again, and makes in the newest stile, all kinds of Forte Piano’s and Harpsichords, which he will warrant to be good – and has now on hand several of an excellent quality and workmanship.” By August 1798, George moved to Baltimore, where he advertised himself as a “Piano Forte Maker, From Philadelphia,” noting that he “TURNS Piano Fortes, Harpsichords, and spinnets, by the quarter or single time” as well as made repairs to them. On October 17, 1798, he advertised “FOR SALE, A new Piano Forte MADE in this city by the subscriber, who tunes and repairs Pianos, Harpsichords and Spinnets.” George was one of only two piano-makers in Baltimore prior to 1800, the other being John Harper.[17]

On February 15, 1798, Charles Albrecht officially became an American citizen. In November of 1799, he began advertising pianos imported from London “of the latest patent… with additional keys, of the neatest workmanship and first quality, for sale on the most reasonable terms.” In March of 1800 he advertised “JUST ARRIVED… from London, Piano Fortes, Of superior quality, new patent, with and without additional keys, and also common.” Apparently the pianos sold well, as later that year in October he advertised a shipment of “Common, new patent, elegant patent with and without additional keys – Also new patent with six octaves, superior to any hitherto imported, and from the first workman in London.” The same ad also offered for sale a “very good Hand Organ with four stops and three barrels, and plays thirty choice tunes.” In May of 1802 he advertised “Piano Fortes, Of a superior quality, LATELY imported from London… Likewise, patent Hand-Organs, with drum and triangle, playing the most modern tunes.” The following year, “Charles Albright” advertised for the return of books and notification of claims against the estate of Frederick Whitesecker, “late teacher of Musick, of Philadelphia.” Then ensued a long hiatus in Albrecht’s advertising, part of which coincided with his ownership of a house and farm in Trappe formerly owned by Frederick Muhlenberg, which Albrecht bought from Muhlenberg’s sister, Mary, and her husband Francis Swaine in November of 1803. Although Albrecht likely knew the Muhlenbergs already, earlier that year he had sold a piano to Peter Muhlenberg, which may have been the occasion of his learning about the Trappe property. Albrecht appears on the Montgomery County tax lists from 1804–1807 as an instrument maker; he may have used the twenty-by-forty-foot general store built by Frederick Muhlenberg as his workshop. On December 1, 1807, he advertised the property for sale in the German-language Reading newspaper, describing it as the “plantation on which the undersigned lives,” referring to himself as “Carl Albrecht” in the ad. In 1808 he is listed in the tax records as a “farmer” but the entry is crossed out, indicating he had already returned to Philadelphia.[18]

Albrecht did not commence advertising again until January of 1813 when he offered for sale “a handsome assortment of elegant Piano Fortes, made of the best materials and workmanship, equal to any imported or made here,” at his “Manufactory” at 95 Vine Street. In October of that year, he advertised a wide range of pianos for sale, including “upright, grand, portable – organised, circular front, square, &c.” He retired from piano-making by 1825, when he is listed in the Philadelphia city directory as a “gentleman.” In 1841 he acquired a farm in Montgomery Township, Montgomery County, where he moved in 1844 and resided until his death on June 28, 1848. Albrecht’s obituary described him as “in the 88th year of his age… for seven years a resident of Montgomery township, Montgomery county, for fifty-eight years, a citizen of Philadelphia.” Friends were directed to join his funeral procession starting from the house of Charles Deal, located at 22 Palmyra Row on Vine Street. Albrecht’s will, written in 1844, identifies him as a “Piano Forte Manufacturer” and included bequests to many of his relatives. His nephew Philip Albrecht/Albright (c. 1777–1860), a cabinetmaker who immigrated from German-speaking Europe in 1805 and settled in Reading, was bequeathed $2000 and all of Charles’ clothes and wearing apparel. He left a gold watch to Charles Deal, and to Mary (Deal) Baker, his wife’s niece and the widow of his former employee Joshua Baker, he left $1000 and all of his “Household Furniture, Beds, Bedding, Bedsteads and Plate.” Also named in the will are Cassimer and William Scheib, the grandsons of Charles’ late sister, Elizabeth Eilmis. Both were German immigrants who settled in Berks County, where they worked as carpenters. The inventory of his estate included farm equipment and household furnishings, including a mahogany breakfast table, mahogany desk, eight day clock; a tea table and silver spoons, cream jug, and sugar tongs; and an organ but no piano.[19]

Only five of Charles Albrecht’s clients are known, and in only three cases can the actual pianos associated with them be identified. In 1803, Albrecht sold a piano to Peter Muhlenberg, the older brother of Frederick Muhlenberg, shortly before buying a property from the Muhlenberg family in Trappe. The Muhlenbergs were musically inclined; Frederick Muhlenberg owned both a violin and “Spinet,” valued at £7.10.0, when he died in 1801. The Seibert family of Philadelphia also purchased an Albrecht piano, prior to 1807 according to family lore. Another piano was made for Catherine Naylor Brearley of New Jersey; its nameboard has a pointed oval cartouche with swagged roses. A fourth piano was owned by Colonel Abner Lord (1760–1821), a native of Connecticut who moved to Marietta, Ohio, about 1800; it supposedly then resided in the home of Harman Blennerhassett (1764–1831), located on an island in the Ohio River.Peter and Anna Catharine Dieffenbach of Tulpehocken Township, Berks County acquired the fifth piano for their daughter Esther (1793–1851). This sale is particularly noteworthy, as Peter Dieffenbach (1755–1838) was the younger brother of Jacob Dieffenbach (1744–1803), a cabinetmaker who by 1787 took up organ building. It is unknown how Jacob learned to make instruments, although family tradition claims that he went to Philadelphia in 1774 to study an organ and returned home with measurements and notes. David Tannenberg, who by then was living in Lititz, Pennsylvania, about twenty miles from the Dieffenbach farm, may have influenced him. Jacob’s son, Christian Dieffenbach, continued the trade and built at least seven organs prior to 1820; the next two generations of the family continued this trade.[20]

Charles Albrecht may have been one of the first piano makers in Philadelphia, but by the 1790s he faced increasing competition from a number of recent arrivals. One of his major competitors was Charles Taws (c. 1742–1836), who emigrated from Scotland in 1786 and initially settled in New York. By late 1787 he relocated to Philadelphia, where the following year he married Elizabeth Bucher/Butcher, a German Catholic, at St. Joseph’s Church. Taws began advertising in 1790, when he offered for sale “of his own manufacture, a few elegant and well toned Piano Fortes.” In 1791 he is listed in the Philadelphia city directory as an “organ builder” and in subsequent years as a musical instrument maker or instrument maker. In February 1792, Taws and Albrecht placed dueling advertisements that appeared directly adjacent to one another. In what may have been a dig at Albrecht, Taws noted that the “unfair practice of making an allowance to Musicians, for their influences with Ladies and Gentlemen in recommending particular Instruments, shall not be adopted by him… it is recommended to purchasers to apply in the first instance to the Maker.” The following year, Taws advertised “a few fine toned FORTE PIANOS which he will warrant superior to any imported,” warning readers against the “great number of Forte-Pianos lately imported from London and Dublin,” which he derided as “inferior, and including repairs, cost twice their purchase price.” In 1799, he complained that music teachers, “when they find a Lady or Gentleman wanting an instrument of Music” brought them to his shop to inspect the wares, then afterward demanded a 10 or 15 percent commission in return for the business or threatened to take their client elsewhere. By 1805, Taws began advertising imported London pianos, which he now praised as superior to local products. In 1813, he derided “certain instrument makers (calling themselves such) in this city, [who] vainly pretend they can make Forte Pianos from 50 to 200 dollars cheaper than those of Clementi and Company, but such assertion is an error and a silly pretension, for their HOME MADE instruments will by no means, bear a comparison.”[21]

Another rival of Albrecht was Charles Trute, who had worked in London since the 1760s and made harpsichords and pianos, then immigrated to Philadelphia by 1794. Together with a man named Wiedberg, he established a shop at 25 Filbert Street in Philadelphia, and in January of 1794 advertised that they had “just finished a Grand-Piano Forte… and a double key’d Harpsichord.” A two-manual harpsichord, dated 1794, is in a private collection and is likely the one in the ad. In September 1795, Trute and Wiedberg sold a piano for £41.5 to the Moravians, likely for use at the Young Ladies Seminary in Bethlehem. During the mid-1790s they moved to Wilmington, Delaware, where they continued to make pianos; Trute also became a tavern keeper. Wiedberg died in 1803 and Trute in 1807. Thomas Loud Evenden was another London émigré; he arrived in 1811 in Philadelphia and went into business with Joshua Baker, who previously had worked for Albrecht and was married to Albrecht’s niece, Mary Deal. The partnership lasted only briefly, however, as in March of 1812 Baker announced that it was being dissolved and “business will be carried on solely by the said J. Baker” at 130 Vine Street. After dissolving his partnership with Baker, Evenden continued in the piano-making and importing business and was joined by his son Thomas Jr. and two of his brothers; by 1817 the Evenden name was dropped and the company became known as Loud & Brothers. The firm dominated the Philadelphia piano trade during the 1820s and 1830s, exporting pianos to South America and the West Indies by 1821; in 1824, they reportedly made an astonishing 680 pianos. One of their chief rivals was Christian Frederick Lewis Albrecht (1788–1843), who emigrated from Germany in 1822 and opened a piano shop in Philadelphia the following year. Although many have speculated that he was related to Charles Albrecht, no connection between the two men has been found. Philadelphia continued to dominate the piano trade and in 1830 the city could boast of eighty piano makers. Even Alpheus Babcock, the renowned Boston piano maker, worked in Philadelphia from about 1830 to 1837. New York and Boston were gaining ground, however. In 1829, approximately 2,500 pianos were built in America: 900 in Philadelphia, 800 in New York, and 700 in Boston. German immigrants such as John Geib and his sons, followed by Heinrich Engelhard Steinweg and the establishment of Steinway & Sons in 1853, would soon shift the locus of the piano industry from Philadelphia to New York and Boston.[22]


From the manufacture of his earliest known piano in 1789 through the 1810s, German émigré Charles Albrecht was one of the most prolific and accomplished musical instrument makers in early America. His fortuitous marriage in 1787 to the widow Mary Fox enabled him to gain ready access to tools, a workshop, and a local clientele more quickly than many immigrant entrepreneurs. Three-fifths of his known customers were of Germanic heritage, reflecting the importance of ethnic networks for both craftsmen and their patrons. Although details of Albrecht’s workshop practices are scant, his two documented employees were both relatives – indicating the importance of family networks. Through his business advertisements and more than twenty surviving examples of his work, Albrecht can be documented as a highly skilled craftsman and driven businessman. His pianos were in strong demand for nearly thirty years – competing against the products of rivals near and far, as well as an increasing number of imported pianos. By 1825, Albrecht retired from piano-making and became a gentleman, indicating the success of his business. With no children of his own, he passed on his material wealth in the form of generous bequests to his extended family members following his death in 1848.


[1] Portions of this article originally appeared in Lisa Minardi, “Philadelphia, Furniture, and the Pennsylvania Germans: A Reevaluation,” in American Furniture, ed. Luke Beckerdite (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England for the Chipstone Foundation, 2013), 249-72.

[2] Ralph Beaver Strassburger and William John Hinke, Pennsylvania German Pioneers: A Publication of the Original Lists of Arrivals in the Port of Philadelphia from 1727 to 1808, 3 vols. (Norristown, Pa.: Pennsylvania German Society, 1934), 3: 12. Also on the ship were Julias Augustus Albrecht, Maria Elizabeth Albrecht, and Henry Vinsalous (Wenceslaus) “Allbrink.” This may not be Albrecht the piano maker, as his obituary in 1848 described him as “for seven years a resident of Montgomery township, Montgomery county, for fifty-eight years, a citizen of Philadelphia,” which would put his arrival about 1783. North American and United States Gazette, Philadelphia, June 30, 1848, Early American Newspapers Database (hereafter EAND). The obituary may also not be accurate, however, as tax lists show him living in Montgomery Township for only four years although he owned the property for seven.

[3] Robert L. Hess, trans. and F. Edward Wright, ed., 18th Century Records of the German Lutheran Church at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (St. Michael’s and Zion), 5 vols., on Pennsylvania German Church Records cd-rom, 4:1011 (hereafter SM&Z). Mary Albrecht’s obituary gives her age as 85 when she died on July 7, 1837, which would put her birth in 1752; Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, July 12, 1837, EAND.

[4] Will of John Fox, written June 31, 1779, proved May 2, 1780. Inventory of John Fox, taken May 17, 1780. Winterthur Library, Downs Collection, Philadelphia will book 1780, no. 282. The inventory does not indicate if these sums were in British Pounds Sterling or Pennsylvania Pounds Sterling. In 1780, £80 in British Pounds Sterling would be worth approximately $14,275 in 2014$. In Pennsylvania Pounds Sterling, the value would be worth approximately $4,900 in 2014$. Currency conversions based on John J. McCusker, “How Much Is that in Real Money? A Historical Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States,” reprinted from Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 101 no. 2 (October 1991): 297-373, here 333; and Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to Present,” MeasuringWorth, (accessed November 2015).

[5] John Fox names his children, John and Mary Fox, in his will and also names his wife Mary “and her Father John Knies” as executors. John and Mary Fox probably died young, as no further record of them is known. John Fox’s three-story brick house and lot at 41 N. Fourth Street was not advertised for sale until May of 1797, when Charles Albrecht also asked those with claims against Fox’s estate to send him their accounts. The Philadelphia Gazette & Universal Daily Advertiser, May 24, 1797, EAND.

[6] Elisabeth Knies, daughter of John and Maria Barbara, was born September 1, 1765, and baptized October 20, 1765; F. Edward Wright, Early Church Records of the First Reformed Church of Philadelphia, 2 vols., on Pennsylvania German Church Records cd-rom 1:43 (hereafter FR). She married Jacob Diehl/Deal on April 22, 1787; FR 2:74. Will of Jacob Deal, written September 29, 1808, proven September 25, 1815, Winterthur Library, Downs Collection, Philadelphia county will book 1815, no. 113. Strassburger and Hinke, Pennsylvania German Pioneers, 3: 52. George Albrecht bequeathed money to his brother, Henry, and money paid to Charles for their siblings Philip, Jacob, Elizabeth, and Margaret in Germany. Henry Albrecht immigrated in 1804 on the Rebecca together with his wife, Margaret, and children Daniel and Margaret. According to Daniel’s naturalization papers, he was a native of Württemberg. Carolina Scheib was the daughter of Charles Albrecht’s sister, Elizabeth; Carolina married Henry Scheib and is buried at the Hinnershitz (Good Shepherd) Church in Tuckerton, Berks County, PA. Many of these relationships are detailed in Charles Albrecht’s will, written June 20, 1844, proved July 14, 1848. Montgomery County will book 8, p. 607.

[7] Daniel Spillane, History of the American Pianoforte (New York: the author, 1890), 72. Others contend that Philadelphia’s dominance in piano-making could be extended as late as 1860; see Robert A. Gerson, Music in Philadelphia (Philadelphia: Theodore Presser Co., 1940), 44.

[8] On Klemm, see Raymond J. Brunner, That Ingenious Business: Pennsylvania German Organ Builders (Birdsboro, Pa.: Pennsylvania German Society, 1990), 60-67. The Gloria Dei organ has often been attributed to Swedish painter Gustavus Hesselius, but a letter dated April 12, 1739, documents Klemm as the maker and indicates that Hesselius was only the agent for this commission; see Brunner, That Ingenious Business, 63. On Falckner’s ordination, see John Ogasapian, Music of the Colonial and Revolutionary Era (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004), 86. On other organs, see Brunner, That Ingenious Business, 49-54; 64-65; Ogasapian, Music, 89-91.

[9] On piano construction and function, see Walter Edward Mann, “Piano Making In Philadelphia Before 1825,” (Iowa City: University of Iowa, 1977), 15, 18-86.

[10] On Tannenberg, see Brunner, That Ingenious Business, 69-97; Raymond J. Brunner, “The Historical and Cultural Importance of David Tannenberg and Other Pennsylvania German Organ Builders,” “Pleasing for Our Use”: David Tannenberg and the Organs of the Moravians, edited by Carol A. Traupman-Carr (Bethlehem, Pa.: Lehigh University Press, 2000), 68-75; William H. Armstrong, Organs for America: The Life and Work of David Tannenberg (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1967). On Doll, see Brunner, That Ingenious Business, 157-62. On Scheible, see Brunner, ibid., 166-7; also inventory of John Sheibly, Earl Township, Lancaster County, taken January 7, 1793, Lancaster County Historical Society. Inventory of George Albright, Baltimore, taken August 5, 1802; Baltimore County Inventories, vol. 22, pp. 269-70; Annapolis, Md., Maryland Hall of Records.

[11] Martha Novak Clinkscale, Makers of the Piano, 1700-1820 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 397-8, 400, 402. Alfred Dolge, Pianos and Their Makers (Covina, Cal.: Covina Publishing Comp., 1911; reprint, New York: Dover Publications Inc., 1972), 48-49.

[12] Dunlap’s Pennsylvania Packet, Philadelphia, March 13, 1775, EAND. The Freeman’s Journal: or, The North-American Intelligencer, July 2, 1783, EAND.

[13] Twelve Albrecht pianos are listed in Clinkscale, Makers of the Piano, 3-5; those and additional examples are in the online database at At least twenty-two of Albrecht’s pianos survive, including four at the Smithsonian–National Museum of American History (one is serial no. 21); two at The Speaker’s House, Trappe, Pa.; and one each at the Blennerhassett Historical Foundation; Charleston Museum; Colonial Williamsburg (serial no. 166; acc. no. 2004-20); Independence National Historic Park; Philadelphia History Museum (formerly at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania); Philadelphia Museum of Art (acc. no. 1909-361); Metropolitan Museum of Art (serial no. 24; acc. no. 89.2.185); Vassar College Department of Music; State Museum of Pennsylvania (on loan to the Bradford House Historical Association, acc. no. 77.195.4); University of South Dakota– National Music Museum; and six or more in private collections (including serial no. 93, which is dated 1798).

[14] Watson, Changing Keys, 62. At least seven Albrecht nameboards with painted floral swags are known, including two at the Smithsonian and one each at Colonial Williamsburg; Independence National Historical Park; Metropolitan Museum of Art; Philadelphia Museum of Art; and The Speaker’s House. The two pianos with long flowering vines include one in the Department of Music at Vassar College, inscribed “CHAS ALBRECHT / Maker / PHILADELPHIA”; the other is inscribed “CHAS ALBRECHT / Philadelphia” and was sold at Christie’s, New York, January 21, 2011, lot 261.

[15] Deal’s letter to Law is cited in Charles H. Kaufman, Music in New Jersey, 1655–1860: A Study of Musical Activity and Musicians in New Jersey from its First Settlement to the Civil War (Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1981), 126.

[16] Information about Albrecht’s piano actions is based on Clinkscale, Makers of the Piano, 3-5; John R. Watson, Changing Keys: Keyboard Instruments for America 1700–1830 (Williamsburg, Va.: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2013), 62, 118; and Laurence Libin, American Musical Instruments in The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1985), 164.

[17] Dunlap’s American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, March 19, 1791, EAND. Dunlap’s American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, January 28, 1792, EAND. Claypoole’s, American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, March 29, 1796, EAND. The Vincent Township property included a stone house of 40 x 28 feet, log house, stone spring house, and stone-and-log barn of 60 x 23 feet, together with two fruit orchards; Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, February 4, 1797, EAND. Deed, Charles and Mary Albrecht to George Heebner (Hubener/Hübner), Chester County deed book I-3, vol. 57, 139-140. The Philadelphia Gazette & Universal Daily Advertiser, November 23, 1797, EAND. Federal Gazette & Baltimore Daily Advertiser, Baltimore, August 3, 1798. Gregory R. Weidman, Furniture in Maryland, 1740-1940 (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1984), 89, 265. The New Baltimore Directory, and Annual Register, for 1800 and 1801 (Baltimore: Warner & Hanna, 1800).

[18] Philadelphia, 1789-1880 Naturalization Records [database on-line]; from P. William Filby, ed. Philadelphia Naturalization Records (Detroit, MI: Gale Research Co., 1982). The Philadelphia Gazette & Universal Daily Advertiser, November 26, 1799, EAND. The Philadelphia Gazette & Universal Daily Advertiser, March 6, 1800; October 22, 1800, EAND. The Philadelphia Gazette & Daily Advertiser, May 6, 1802, EAND. Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, February 4, 1803, EAND. Daybook of Peter Muhlenberg, private collection. It is likely the “forte piano” that Peter bequeathed to his daughter, Hetty, in his will of 1807; will of Peter Muhlenberg, written July 18, 1807, proved October 6, 1807, Winterthur Library, Downs Collection, Philadelphia will book 1807, no. 104. The property advertisement was in Der Readinger Adler, Reading, Pa., December 1, 1807, EAND.

[19] Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, January 25, 1813. EAND. Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, October 27, 1813, EAND. The term “organized” refers to a combination piano-organ that enjoyed only brief popularity in England and America; Libin, American Musical Instruments, 166. Albrecht bought the Montgomery Township property in 1841, but is listed in the Philadelphia city directories until 1844. The Greek Revival house on the farm still stands and is now the rectory of the Mary, Mother of the Redeemer Catholic Church in Montgomeryville. Charles also owned land in Hilltown Township, Bucks County, which he sold in 1828 to his nephew Daniel, son of Henry. North American and United States Gazette, Philadelphia, June 30, 1848, EAND. Will of Charles Albrecht, written June 20, 1844, proved July 14, 1848. Montgomery County will book 8, p. 607.

[20] Inventory of Frederick Muhlenberg, taken June 18, 1801, Lancaster, Pa., Lancaster County Historical Society. On the Dieffenbachs, see Brunner, That Ingenious Business, 109-14.

[21] The Federal Gazette, Philadelphia, November 6, 1790, EAND. Dunlap’s American Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, February 3, 1792, EAND. Aurora General Advertiser, Philadelphia, March 27, 1799, EAND. Poulson’s Daily Advertiser, Philadelphia, September 24, 1813, EAND.

[22] The Philadelphia Gazette, January 17, 1794, EAND. Laurence Libin, “Music-Related Commerce in Some Moravian Accounts,” in “Pleasing for our Use”: David Tannenberg and the Organs of the Moravians, ed. Carol A. Traupman Carr (Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, 2000), 92-93. Aurora, Philadelphia, March 24, 1812; cited in Mann, “Piano Making,” 184. On Evenden, see Libin, American Musical Instruments, 177-80. Pianos made by C.F.L. Albrecht include both upright and square pianos; after his death pianos continued to be made under the company name Charles Albrecht, which was acquired by Blasius & Sons of Philadelphia in 1887 and continued into the 1920s; see Charles L. Venable, “Philadelphia Biedermeier: Germanic Craftsmen and Design in Philadelphia, 1820-1850” (MA thesis, University of Delaware, 1986), 238-50. On Geib and Steinweg/Steinway, see Libin, American Musical Instruments, 169-73; 186-8. For piano production in 1829, see J. Leander Bishop, A History of American Manufactures from 1608 to 1860, 3 vols. (Philadelphia: Edward Young and Co., 1866), 2:339.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Charles Albrecht
  • Coverage ca. 1760-1848
  • Author
  • Keywords Charles Albrecht, Biography
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date June 14, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 23, 2018