Sing Mama, I play, 1912


“Sing Mama, I play,” 1912

Albert Schoenhut started his business by manufacturing toy pianos. He then branched out into the production of other musical instruments and eventually other toys as well. Generally speaking, Schoenhut products – whether they were musical instruments, dolls, sail boats, or toy soldiers – allowed children to “rehearse” adult roles through play. In 1912, the A. Schoenhut Company marked its fortieth anniversary with the publication of a commemorative catalogue. An image from the catalogue, shown here, features a girl and her mother with the caption, “Sing Mama, I play.” The copy attributes the success of Schoenhut’s toy piano to its innovative steel plates, which “are accurately tuned so that a child’s ear for music is improved, instead of being spoiled by discordant sounds.” The spacing of the keys, we learn from the catalogue, was designed to replicate that of a “real piano, so that the child unconsciously learns to properly spread the fingers.” Here, the “play world” implicitly prepares the child for life as an adult. In other words, practicing on Schoenhut toy pianos helps shape children into experts, in this case, proficient pianists. Presumably, the learning curve involved a steep but edifying process.

In this image, the act of playing a Schoenhut toy piano emerges as a family enterprise. The miniature piano perfectly accommodates the daughter’s size. The mother occupies the foreground; her high collar and long skirt provide a sharp contrast to her daughter’s exposed knees and loosely tied apron. The correspondence between mother and daughter is reinforced by their musical cooperation; the difference between them strikes the viewer and consumer mostly as a matter of scale. They are engaged in a joint venture: producing music. There is even an element of role reversal here, insofar as the child pianist is portrayed as the “expert” while the adult is cast in the accompanying role.

Source: The A. Schoenhut Company (i.e. Albert F. Schoenhut, Theodore C. Schoenhut, Harry E. Schoenhut, Otto F. Schoenhut, William G. Schoenhut, and Gustav A. Schoenhut), Forty Years of Toy Making, 1872-1912 (Philadelphia: A. Schoenhut Company, 1912), 18.