Rudolph Wurlitzer and his sons Howard and Farny Wurlitzer

The Wurlitzer Company is one of the most interesting companies we have studied.  At their peak, their slogan was “Music for the Millions.”  Here is the story of this formerly great company, based on the excellent book by Mark Palkovic.

The Founder

Rudolph Wurlitzer was born in Schoneck, Saxony, Germany, in 1831, the first son of prosperous merchant Christian Wurlitzer.  Christian had suffered a great disappointment when his father left his 2,000-acre farm to his elder half-brother rather than to Christian.  While this was in line with German norms of primogeniture, Christian did not think it was fair.  Christian revolted by, in turn, leaving his general store to his youngest son, not his oldest, Rudolph.

Rudolph realized he would spend the next fifteen years building up his father’s general store in a valley full of over one hundred violin and woodwind makers.  But all his efforts would be only as a paid employee, until his kid brother was old enough to take over.  Not an inviting prospect.  So Rudolph told his father he wanted to migrate to America, as many other Germans were.  His father did not take him seriously, as Rudolph had no money of his own.

Rudolph’s uncle, the brother of his late mother who had favored Rudolph, loaned Rudolph 305 marks (about $80 at the time) to cross the Atlantic, which the young man did in 1853 at the age of twenty-two.

Arriving in New York, the five-foot four-inch Rudolph vowed to save 25% of anything he earned.  But the money came hard as he worked long hours at low pay for a Hoboken grocer.  Dissatisfied, he moved on to Philadelphia.  Approaching a well-dressed man to ask for a job, he was rebuffed as a beggar, and a foreigner on top of that.  This insult led him to go further west to the booming city of Cincinnati, which had a large German population.

Rudolph’s first job in Cincinnati was as a porter for a dry goods store at four dollars a week.  To save money, he slept in a packing crate.  He then found a better job, eight dollars a week at the merchant and banking house of Heidelbach and Seasongood.  The owners let him sleep in a loft at the office.

Young Rudolph learned English and picked up American ways faster than the other young employees and soon began a series of promotions, ultimately giving him the important position of Cashier (which is different in a bank compared with a retail store).  Legend has it that Rudolph also traded in semi-precious stones and furs from the nearby countryside, selling them to dealers in Antwerp and Amsterdam.  With the money he made, Rudolph paid back his uncle for the money lent him to come to America.  And Rudolph also sought a way to make a more permanent and prosperous living.

While he could not play any musical instruments, Rudolph loved music and knew some of the finest instruments were made in the cottage industries around his German hometown.  His own ancestors were lute and violin makers as far back as the seventeenth century.  They used the choicest woods from the forests of Bavaria, the Alps, and the Carpathians.  By the 1830s, over three hundred people in the area, including women and children, were making instruments.

At the same time, Cincinnati, one of the largest cities west of the Alleghenies, continued to boom.  In 1856, the Democratic National Convention was held there, the first such convention held outside the original thirteen states.  (James Buchanan was nominated, over the incumbent President Franklin Pierce.) 

So, in 1856, Rudolph went to a music store owned by a man named Johnson.  He noticed that the store had few woodwinds.  The clerk told him they were very hard to come by.  Rudolph took his $700 in savings and sent it back to Germany, ordering a shipment of musical instruments.  When the goods arrived in Cincinnati, he calculated customs and freight costs, then doubled the total to arrive at a fair selling price.  Rudolph then approached Mr. Johnson with the fine instruments.  Johnson liked the instruments but refused to buy them because he said they had to have been stolen, in order to be offered at such a low price.

A stunned Rudolph Wurlitzer went back to the drawing board and “recalculated” his costs, pretending they were higher than they actually were.  The proprietors of Heidelbach and Seasongood, where Rudolph still worked, vouched for his honesty to Mr. Johnson.   Johnson bought the instruments at the higher, “more honest,” price and Rudolph netted $1500 on his $700 investment.

Rudolph later joked that “From that time, my prices were really honest.”  After that first deal, he quickly sent $7,000 back to Germany for more instruments (over $200,000 in 2020 money).  He kept his old job, but also rented warehouse space in downtown Cincinnati for his burgeoning importing business.

Wurlitzer was able to offer such good value because he eliminated the many middlemen in the way instruments were exported from Europe, imported into America, and handled through distributors on both sides of the Atlantic.  He realized he could sell as many instruments as he could get his hands on.

Rudolph was considered an amazing success back home, having prospered after only three or four years in the new country.  He had also expanded the demand for all the instrument makers in the area.

In 1859, he became an American citizen.  He tried to enlist for the Union in the Civil War but was rejected because of his short height.  But he did get federal contracts to make trumpets and drums for the military.  By that time, he had enough confidence to quit his old job and focus on the music business.  His younger brothers began to join him in Cincinnati.  In 1862, he added a retail store to his wholesale business, and in 1865 opened another store in Chicago, long before chain retail stores were common.  But it would take one of his sons before the company developed a larger chain of stores.

Wurlitzer Cincinnati Store and Headquarters

In 1868, Rudolph Wurlitzer married Leonie Farny, whose family had emigrated from Alsace, France the same year that Rudolph came to America.  Leonie was twenty-five and Rudolph was thirty-seven when they married.  Between 1869 and 1883, six children were born, though one was lost before he was a year old.  Surviving sons, in order of birth, were Howard, Rudolph H., and Farny.  As Rudolph’s business prospered, the family moved to a larger home, replete with a laundress, upstairs maid, and cook.  All the children spoke English, French, and German.

Leonie Farny Wurlitzer’s brother, Henry Farny, was a close family friend.  He became a very successful artist, focused on the American West.  Henry Farny was also a friend of Teddy Roosevelt’s.  He brought many other artists and cultural personalities into the Wurlitzer family circle.

The Song of the Talking Wire, Painting by Henry Farny

Throughout the rest of the nineteenth century, Rudolph expanded the business.  Starting in 1870, he made buying trips back to Europe about every other year, often with his wife and, when old enough, his children.  He began publishing beautiful catalogs of all the instruments.  By 1880, his line included hand-cranked reed organs from Paris and music boxes.  In 1890, he incorporated the business with capital of $200,000, retaining most of the stock himself.  By 1898, the catalogs reached 344 pages, including “pipe hand organs for street, saloon, and circus.” 

Making Drums for the Spanish-American War
Wurlitzer Catalogs
Repairing Instruments

The Next Generation: Howard Wurlitzer

None of Rudolph’s sons went to college.  Each developed specific skills related to the music business.  Howard, the oldest son, dropped out of high school at seventeen.  By twenty, he was joining his parents on the European buying trips, which lasted months at a time.  That same year, he was elected to the company’s board of directors.  By 1912, he was president of the company, at the age of forty.  He would hold that job for the next fifteen years.

Howard was financially oriented and a very smart businessman, but he could be hard to deal with.  He had no patience for inefficiency or carelessness.  Some people liked him, but others hated him.  When visiting Berlin, he noted how slowly everyone moved, how there was not “the rush and activity” of an American city.  Howard was above all ambitious, desiring to grow the Wurlitzer company.

The second son, Rudolph H., became an expert on violins.  Over time he amassed the world’s largest collection of rare instruments, including over half of the Stradivarius violins known the exist.  The company sold antique instruments under his leadership.  Ultimately this became a separate company, run by his son and then his granddaughter, into the 1970s.

The third son, Farny, was twelve years younger than Howard and worked for him while Howard ran the company.  Farny had a technical bent so his father sent him to technical school.  Farny became the company expert in product development and manufacturing, complementing his older brother’s strength in financial matters.

Their father, Rudolph, died in 1914.

Wurlitzer Harp, Violin, and New York City Store and Building

The company continued to expand under Howard.  Stores were added in New York in 1908, Philadelphia in 1910, and by 1912 Cleveland, Dayton, Detroit, Providence, Newark, Columbus, St. Louis, and Louisville.  By 1916, the first California store, in San Francisco, was opened.  Wurlitzer acquired interests in other musical instrument makers and opened offices in Europe in the 1920s. 

Wurlitzer Stores and Factory 1916

In 1896, Rudolph and Howard had convinced music box supplier Regina Music Box Company to add a coin slot to their music box.  These were sold to restaurants and taverns and were a big success.  The Wurlitzer company became Regina’s largest customer.  In the same era, the company sold both Victor and Edison talking machines (phonographs). 

Regina Music Boxes

An important figure in the company’s history in this era was Eugene DeKleist.  The German had worked for a French maker of carousel organs for merry-go-rounds.  But the US tariff on these organs was high, and American carousel makers sought a more affordable domestic source for the organs.  DeKleist then moved to North Tonawanda, New York, outside Buffalo, to establish an organ factory there in 1893.  He tried to sell some to Howard, but Howard was only interested in ones with a coin operation feature, as another product to sell to bars and other businesses.

Wurlitzer Band and Circus Organs

DeKleist then produced the coin-operated organs at North Tonawanda; they were a big success.  The two companies continued to work together, in 1899 introducing the Tonophone coin-operated piano, in 1903 the PianOrchestra orchestrion with multiple instruments inside the box, and the Pianino in 1906.  All of these products were immediate successes.  These and automatic instruments called “photoplayers” were widely used by nickelodeons and then later by movie theaters showing silent movies.  In 1916, the company claimed that two million people a day heard its instruments.  Wurlitzer even made coin operated harps! 

Wurlitzer Automatic Musical Instruments
Wurlitzer Pianino and Orchestrion

By 1908, DeKleist had become mayor of North Tonawanda and was losing interest in the manufacturing business.  When the quality began to go downhill, Howard demanded that DeKleist sell out to Wurlitzer or Howard would start making his own instruments.  The Wurlitzer company bought out DeKleist and dispatched Farny to live in the Buffalo area and run that operation, which became the company’s largest factory.  At its peak in the 1920s, almost 3,000 people were employed there.

North Tonawanda, NY Factory

Wurlitzer’s huge success with the instruments made for use with silent movies led to the natural development of the theater organ.  They were developed with the patents and help of Robert Hope-Jones from Britain, who had begun replacing air power with electricity in organs.  At first called the “Wurlitzer Hope-Jones Unit Orchestra” in 1910, these magnificent instruments soon were tagged “Mighty Wurlitzers.”  By the time production ended in 1943, Wurlitzer had produced over 2,200 such organs, more than twice as many as any other manufacturer. (If you have a Windows computer, you can put a Wurlitzer theater organ on your computer with this free software.) 

Mighty Wurlitzer Theater Organs
Biggest Mighty Wurlitzer, at Radio City Music Hall, New York

At the same time, Wurlitzer continued making other instruments.  In the 1920s, they bought the Melville Clark Piano Company of Dekalb, Illinois, to add more production capacity.  Sold under the Wurlitzer name, pianos including player pianos became an important product.  The company was one of the largest American producers, making a total of 2.8 million pianos.

Piano Factory in Dekalb, Illinois, Acquired by Wurlitzer
Wurlitzer Pianos

Disaster Strikes

Prohibition had hurt their sales to bars in the 1920s, but the company continued to prosper.  By 1927, they had 58 stores in California alone.  Their coin operated instruments continued to sell, and their theater organs had been a huge hit, with production peaking in 1926.  But two factors hurt the company badly by the end of the twenties: the rise of radio, hurting sales of pianos, and the introduction of movies with sound in 1927.  Demand for theater organs evaporated.  The company went into the refrigerator, radio, and furniture businesses to try to offset the losses.

Howard, still running the company but suffering from ill health, saw no future in the business.  Apparently the family had internal disagreements about that future.  So the company bought out Howard’s interest for $4.2 million in 1927, depleting the company’s cash resources, and Howard left the company.  He died the next year.

As bad as things were, they got worse when the stock market crashed in 1929 and the Great Depression began.  The Wurlitzer company was $4 million in debt and the bankers took a more active role in the company’s affairs.  They brought in the first outsider, RC Rolfing, in 1934.  He and Farny Wurlitzer then ran the company for the next thirty years.  In 1941, they moved the company’s headquarters to Chicago.

Rebound

Farny and Rolfing focused the company’s efforts on music, dropping the radios and refrigerators.  With his knowledge of phonographs and coin-operated instruments, in 1933 Farny had bought the patents for an “automatic phonograph” and record changer from future Indiana Senator Homer Capehart.  Wurlitzer developed the automatic phonograph concept, but at first resisted use of the more popular term “jukebox” (named after juke joints, which were considered low class).

In 1933, Wurlitzer sold 233 of the new devices.  With the repeal of prohibition, bars were back and demand skyrocketed.  In 1938, they sold 45,000 jukeboxes, which were soon half the company’s business.  The famous Model 1015, introduced in 1946, sold 56,000 in the first eighteen months on the market.  Ultimately, the company manufactured and sold over five million jukeboxes.

Wurlitzer Jukeboxes Through the Years, Model 1015 2nd from Right in Top Row

In the late 1940s, Farny led the company to experiment with “electronic pianos” which were in fact not electronic, but were “electro-mechanical,” still using hammers to hit metal bars.  These pianos were smaller, lighter, and cheaper than regular pianos.  The idea was to sell them to students and schools, hoping that the customers would later migrate to more expensive real pianos.  These efforts led to the 1954 introduction of the Model 100 electronic piano, one of the first commercially successful electric pianos.  Soon enough, rock and rollers and blues artists developed a taste for their unique sound, and demand grew.  Ray Charles and many others played “Wurlis.” (Listen to one here.)

Wurlitzer “Electronic” Pianos

The Wurlitzer company was always committed to music education, usually offering lessons with the purchase of an instrument.  With the new, cheaper electronic pianos, the company offered universities and schools a complete Music Laboratory.  This set up allowed the teacher to listen to and talk to individual students, while the students wearing headphones could hear only their own instrument.

Wurlitzer Music Laboratory for Schools

With these new products, Wurlitzer boomed in the 1950s and 1960s.  After their struggles in the Depression, the number of stores had dropped as low as six in 1948, but by the 1970s the chain was back up to 49 stores.

The End

Despite this second burst of energy, the company spiraled downward.  Japanese companies aggressively entered the American musical instrument business.  The popularity of home pianos and organs went into decline.  Farny Wurlitzer died in 1972 and RC Rolfing died two years later.  Perhaps the will to live on had been sucked out of the company.  But by 1985, a much smaller Wurlitzer was purchased by Cincinnati’s competing piano maker Baldwin and was ultimately purchased by the Gibson Guitar Company.  Today the last vestiges of the Wurlitzer name are on vending machines made in Germany by a former part of the company that was sold off years earlier.

Today, many of the products pictured above are in high demand as collector’s items.  Even smaller music boxes can go for well over $10,000, and some of the other “automatic musical instruments” sell for four times that amount.  We cannot help but compare this story to that of Brunswick, another midwestern firm built by German-American woodworkers, but a company that has figured out how to survive.

Gary Hoover

Executive Director

American Business History Center

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