An American Family History

Pioneer Piano Building in Canada

Piano, Organ & Musical Instrument Workers Official Journal
Published by Piano, Organ & Musical Instrument Workers International Union of America, 1906

The city of York was incorporated as Toronto on March 6, 1834. The city grew and developed significantly during the the 19th century. The Irish famine brought a large number of Irish immigrants to the city and they became the largest ethnic group.

Toronto 1856
Toronto 1856

The Province of Upper Canada was established in 1791 to accommodate Loyalist refugees from the United States. It included all of Southern Ontario and part of Northern Ontario.

In 1839 Toronto's population was somewhat less than ten thousand and the product of her industries did not figure very importantly in the commercial world. There were no indications then that in a few decades she would be one of the most important piano manufacturing centers of this continent, but at this writing such is the case and the Toronto-made pianos are today unsurpassed anywhere in the world for musical excellence and for perfection in exterior finish. It has been estimated by a statistical mind that there is one piano made in Toronto for every hour of every day of the week, but this is very conservative figuring and it could easily be increased twenty-five per cent, and yet be quite within bounds. There were at least eleven thousand pianos made in Toronto last year. However, to go back to 1839, it was about that time Mr. John Thomas arrived in Toronto and in the latter part of that same year or the beginning of the next the first instrument with the inscription John Thomas, Piano Forte Manufacturer, Toronto, was offered for sale.

Mr. John Thomas, whose name is familiar to every piano and organ dealer in Canada and the majority of Canadians, even though not connected with the industry, was born on the 1st day of the year, 1805, in Thornbury, Gloucestershire, England, of good old English stock. There would appear to have been something prophetic in the date of Mr. Thomas' birth, he arrived on the first day of the year and was subsequently "first" in the principal undertakings of his life. When quite a young lad his father, as was the custom in those day and is still in the old land, apprenticed him to a piano manufacturer in Bristol, to learn the trade.

After several years spent in mastering the details of the building of pianos, and having become an expert in this line, Mr. Thomas decided to embark for the new world and see what awaited him there. He arrived in Montreal about the year 1832, and having given that city a trial for six or seven years, decided to act upon Horace Greeley's well- known advice and move further west. Sixty or seventy years ago Toronto seemed a long distance from Montréal and the move was made with considerable trepidation.

Upon arrival in Toronto, Mr. Thomas secured premises in what was known as Chewitt's buildings, located on the corner of King and York streets, on the present site of the Rossin House, and for five years he continued the manufacture of the Thomas piano. The business grew very satisfactorily, and in 1844, desiring better accommodation, he decided to erect a building of his own. For this purpose he secured a property on King street immediately west and adjoining what is now the Princess theatre. Passersby may if they look closely, today see a stone bearing the inscription, "Harmony Place, 1844." The front part of the lower floor of Harmony Place was used as a warehouse and showrooms, while back of that and on the upper floor were the manufacturing departments. The Thomas piano by this time was well established in the country and the demand was increasing so rapidly that Mr. Thomas decided to share the responsibility with G. H. Furner, changing the style of the firm to Thomas & Co.

In 1859 a Buffalo concern, Drew, Heintzman & Jannouski, dissolved partnership and Mr. Heintzman came to Toronto and associated himself with Thomas & Co., at that time the business was being carried on in the building immediately in the rear of the Iroquois hotel. Shortly after Mr. Heintzman's identification with the business, Mr. Furner retired, and a move was made to Duke street, where, after a serious fire, Mr. Thomas also gave up active connection with the business and it passed into the hands of Heintzman & Co. in the year 1863.

Twelve years later Mr. Thomas went across the Great Divide, leaving behind an honorable record and several brothers and sons to perpetuate the name in the piano industry of Canada. Mr. Thomas was the father of eight girls and five boys, only three of whom survive at the present time, Mr. J. J. Thomas, who occupies the position of superintendent at the Bell Piano and Organ Co., Guelph, and two sisters. There were five brothers also engaged in the piano and organ building—Charles Thomas, Hamilton; Thomas L. Thomas, at one time associated with H. S. Williams & Sons Co.; Frank J. Thomas; E. G. Thomas, founder of the Thomas Organ and Piano Co., Woodstock, all of whom are deceased, and Mr. J. J. Thomas of Guelph.

A copy of a patent deed issued to the late John Thomas in the year 1840 is still in the possession of his son. It is quite a curiosity in its way, being entirely in handwriting on heavy parchment, yellow with age, and of peculiar phraseology. The invention for which the patent was secured is described as a new and useful improvement in the construction of piano fortes (by means of which their durability is much prolonged, and the tone of the instrument preserved) in the manner following: The block where the tuning pins are placed has a metal plate screwed on it, through which the tuning pins are put, and is attached to the common metal plate on which the strings are hitched, and then between the two plates a metal bar is attached that runs parallel with the lowest string on the instrument which makes a complete metal frame and takes the pressure entirely off the case. The invention is applicable to any kind of a piano.

Another interesting paper left by Mr. Thomas is a diploma awarded to John Thomas & Son, Toronto, for a piano exhibit at the first exhibition of all nations in the Crystal Palace, London, England, 1851.—Canadian Music Trades.

Charles Lewis Thomas Piano
Wellington County Museum

The first European settlements in Ontario were after the American Revolution when 5,000 loyalists left the new United States.


Thomas Organ and Piano Co.

  from the Sentinel-Review Inaugural Edition  
The Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 (or the International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures and Products of the Soil and Mine) was the first World's Fair in the United States. It was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in Fairmount Park.

The most surprising accompaniment of modern civilization is the rapidity with which a luxury becomes necessity in the home. An article that only the favored few can afford soon spreads to all classes of society. This is emphatically true of music and musical instruments, so that these today have become part of our educational system, as well as a pleasing feature of the home life.

In 1832 Mr. [John Morgan] Thomas commenced the manufacture of musical instruments in the city of Hamilton, and later on was joined by his sons in the business. The Messes. Thomas were thoroughly practical in all the details of their various branches. In 1876 they made an exhibit at the Centennial Exposition at Philadelphia, and were awarded the Bronze Medal and Diploma by the Commissioners. About this time Mr. E. G. Thomas, one of the sons, came to Woodstock and opened out a small factory for the manufacture of pianos and organs, the latter instrument at that time coming rapidly to the front in popular favor. As the business increased Mr. Thomas had to move to larger premises and for some time was in that part of Scott block now occupied by the Y. M. C. A.

This too, became cramped for his requirements, and the present splendid factory was created at the junction of the G. T. R. and the C. P. R. tracks, giving excellent shipping facilities. Mr. John Cameron was then associated with Mr. Thomas in the business, and on his retirement Mr. J. G. Short took his place in the firm. One the death of Mr. Thomas in 1891, Mr. Short was joined by Mr. James Dunlop, a thoroughly practical man, who some years later assumed the sole control. Since then their output has become much greater, as besides the continually increasing demand in the home markets, they now have large connections in Germany, Great Britain, and the Colonies. The goods now have a worldwide reputation. Their quality is a sine qua nom for perfection, and it can safely be said that no single firm has done more to foster a taste for high-class instruments and to supply this demand than the Thomas Organ and Piano Co.

This company has also received many compliments for the beauty of design in the construction of their instruments, which fact has proved one of the strongest features in claiming for these organs an excellence not enjoyed by many others.

"Quality" has always been a motto of this firm, and not yet has it lost a tittle of that perfection which holds it an ideal in the eye of the purchaser. None but the very best workmen are employed, thus ensuring nothing but high-class instruments, as has always been the verdict in favor of the Thomas Organ and Piano Co.

Thomas Organ Factory
Woodstock, Ontario



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Watauga Settlement
Pennsylvania Pioneers
Midwest Pioneers
Jewish Immigrants

©Roberta Tuller 2020
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