Toronto’s piano company. Written by David Wencer and originally published February 10, 2009.
For over one hundred years, Heintzman & Co., Ltd. was a Toronto-based company which produced some of the highest-quality pianos ever manufactured in Canada.
The early years of the company’s founder, Theodor August Heintzman, were spent in Germany learning the trade of manufacturing pianos from the man who became his father-in-law. Around 1850, already in his 30s, Heintzman emigrated to New York with his family, seeking an opportunity in North America.
After brief business ventures in Greenwich Village and in Buffalo he came to Toronto in 1860, apparently at the invitation of Frank Thomas, whose owned a piano factory downtown. Heintzman company advertisements credit this as the beginning of Heintzman & Co., although the company would not be officially incorporated until 1866.
According to local legend, the first piano to bear the Heintzman name was constructed by Theodor in his daughter’s kitchen; from the sale of this instrument that he was able to acquire more proper workspace. In 1866, he established the first Heintzman factory in Toronto at 23 Duke St. (modern-day Adelaide). Two years later he moved to 105 King Street west, employing 12 and producing 60 pianos a year. By 1873 he had moved further down King (the site of today’s TD Centre) where his new building served as factory, showroom and office space.
In the late 19th Century the piano market was booming, and it soon became a crowded marketplace. Theodor distanced himself from the competition by committing to the production of high-end instruments; this was reflected in one Heintzman advertisement which proudly proclaimed “it should require no argument to convince people that a good article costs more than a poor one.”
The quality of Heintzman pianos was spurred by a series of innovations Theodor made to the agraffe bridge, a modification in piano construction which kept the strings from slipping, improving clarity in the treble register and boosting overall tone. The company acquired patents for this improvement in 1873, 1882, 1884 & 1896, ensuring Heintzman instruments remained cutting edge.
In 1879, Heintzman pianos were first shown at the Canadian National Exhibition, and were exhibited at various events throughout the 19th Century, often winning awards. In 1886, Theodor’s son George rode Canada’s first transcontinental train, reportedly filling out orders on the cowcatcher as it pulled into Port Moody. That same year George sold 30 pianos in London at the Colonial & Indian Exhibition, where a Heintzman piano was played at the Albert Hall for Queen Victoria, who is said to have remarked “I didn’t realize such beautiful instruments could be made in the colonies.”
The growing international trade saw the company expand further, and in 1888 a new factory was opened in what was then the town of Toronto Junction, just northeast of Keele & Dundas. By 1890, this factory was employing 200 and producing 1,000 pianos a year. This would be the company’s main factory until the 1962 opening of a factory in Hanover, near Owen Sound.
By this time, Theodor was no longer a young man, and his sons had begun taking on various roles in the thriving company. Specifically, his son Charles was in charge of the Junction factory, and within a few years, Theodor and his other sons George, Herman & William had all joined Charles and moved to the area, where many of their old homes still stand.
In 1890, Theodor’s home, “the Birches” was completed at the northeast corner of Annette & Laws, in a neighbourhood which at the time housed several of the wealthiest business owners. Theodor frequently held public events at his home, including regular meetings of the German Reform Club, and a large 80th birthday party in 1897.
Following Theodor’s death in 1899, his son George continued to expand production, opening up additional factories across Canada. Many high profile musicians praised the Heintzman brand for its quality; some of those whose names appeared endorsing Heintzman pianos included Efrem Zimbalist, pianists Arthur Rubinstein, Boris Berlin and Arthur Friedheim, and singers Nellie Melba, Lily Pons, Lillian Nordica, Emma Calvé and Madame Albani. Other endorsements came from schools, barracks, churches, and even the order of Loretto nuns, one group of which resided in Theodor’s old “Birches” home for many years when they taught at a nearby Catholic School.
In 1910, Heintzman acquired the J.F. Brown Building at 193 Yonge as its head office, which was unofficially known as “Heintzman Hall” for over 70 years. Years later, Canadian ragtime pianist John Arpin recalled a night watchman allowing him into the building to play the vintage Heintzman grands on the 4th floor.
In the early 1920s, Heintzman was selling 3,000 instruments per year, from 18 branches and 13 distributors across Canada. Although the market for high-end pianos changed significantly during the depression, Heintzman remained competitive for many years, with a member of the Heintzman family always involved with the company until 1981. In 1978, the company officially moved its headquarters to Hanover, and the company’s official relationship with Toronto ended.
Although pianos are still manufactured today under the Heintzman name, these are from a Chinese-Canadian joint venture not affiliated with the earlier company.
Heintzman’s legacy lives on in Toronto in many forms. Heintzman Hall still stands across from the Eaton Centre and is on the city’s inventory of heritage properties, as are three former homes of the Heintzman family in the west end: Theodor’s home at 288 Annette, his son Herman’s home at 166 High Park, and George’s home at 23 Woodside. In addition, a street near the site of the Junction factory was renamed Heintzman Street after the area joined Toronto in 1909. And of course, there are still many Heintzman pianos in use in homes, schools and churches all across Canada, testifying to the high quality workmanship which once made Heintzman a household name.