Her own small fingers fit perfectly the smaller keys of the pianoforte Anne J. Rowland loved so well. The possession of it was not a proxy for unrequited love, although Rowland died a spinster. But in the dozens of letters she wrote to friends in Quincy before she died on September 15, 1941, she demonstrated dear affection for her 19th century instrument.
Rowland’s pianoforte today is a treasured artifact of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County. It is displayed in the front parlor of the Governor John Wood Mansion at 12th and State.
It is a beautiful piece. The keys and keyboard are unusually narrow and small compared to pianos of Rowland’s later years in the mid-20th century. Its rich brown Mahogany case is adorned with inlaid scrolls and flourishes. An oval ornament reads: “New Patent, Astor & Company, No. 79 Cornhill, London.” The oval confirms its maker was George Astor of London, who crafted it in 1796. The instrument has 5 ½ octaves of black and white keys, less than the seven octaves of a full piano. They sound like a harp. With two drawers fitted with brass pulls, its 65-inch-long cabinet sits on six legs. It is 33 ½ inches from top to floor and 23 inches wide.
George and his brother Johann Jakob Astor started as German flute makers who immigrated to London in about 1778. There, George built a cabinet-encased instrument, the pianoforte, later abbreviated to piano. Its predecessor, the harpsichord, played in only one volume because its strings were plucked. The pianoforte enabled a pianist to control the volume by changing the force with which he or she played the keys. It gave composers like Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart what they had sought for richer, more dynamic compositions.
Johann Jakob Astor moved to New York City after the American Revolution, Americanized his name, and opened a shop to sell instruments his brother made in London. John Jacob Astor’s American Fur Company was the genesis for his 19th century financial empire that spanned the continent. His trade in contraband opium in China made his company global.
Anne J. Rowland’s great grandfather, Illinois Military Tract speculator Stephen B. Munn of New York City, bought the pianoforte from John Astor in about 1807. Munn’s real estate understudy, Francis C. Moore, in 1819 wed Munn’s daughter Julia. Her parents gave her the instrument. She had it shipped to Quincy, when in 1834 Francis and his partner John Tillson Sr. opened the Tillson & Moore land office. Experts said it was the first piano in Illinois. The Moores gave the pianoforte to daughter Mary, who in 1851 married Major Joseph G. Rowland after he came to Quincy from Philadelphia. In 1888 he became superintendent of the Soldiers and Sailors Home, and the Rowlands gave Anne, their only daughter, the pianoforte. The girl sent a lengthy description of her prized instrument to the publishers of “The Music Trade Review” of New York. It was so charming that the magazine, with her permission, published it on October 15, 1888.
Some 34 years later, Rowland began a decades-long correspondence with several women of the local historical society about the instrument’s disposition when she died. On September 20, 1920, she wrote to ask Mrs. E.J. Parker, a historical society officer, about the society’s stability. Rowland wrote that she was considering leaving one of her greatest treasures to the society “if assurance can be given me of the permanency of the organization.” She added that she was “not ready to say what it is.” In a letter two years later, she told Parker that her assurance “was entirely satisfactory” and revealed that the treasure she planned to leave the society was an old piano. Tell no one, Rowland directed.
In her next letter, dated October 9, 1931, she revealed that her piano had never been tuned. Still, musicians had told her, it was one of the finest specimens they had seen and should be in a museum. Rowland confirmed that she had bequeathed the piano to the society, but added that “as long as I can keep up my home, I want these dear old treasures to be part of it, but when time changes things, they can to go the historical society.” Mrs. J.W. Emery answered appreciatively: “We hope you will live many years to enjoy your possessions, but we shall be most grateful for them later.”
Rowland wrote next on April 29, 1941—a decade later. She was weak and careless about her health, she disclosed to May Bull. Her only brother, Julius, had died six years earlier, and she was lamentably alone. A friend had placed her in a church home, where she expected to live out her life. She was saddened to have been forced from her home of two decades and was preparing to send the pianoforte to Quincy at her expense. She was not sure, Rowland said, that she would write again. But she did—again to Bull. She confirmed she was sending the piano. “It is a beautiful old piece my greatest treasure,” she wrote, her sentences simple, some incomplete.
On June 10, 1941, she wrote, “Seldom have I been so pleased and so relieved as I was on receipt of the letter telling about the safe arrival of the old piano and other treasures at the Historical Building. . . .I am so glad [they are] there and hope it will prove to be of greatest interest and pleasure to visitors for years to come.” Rowland revealed that she “was offered $1,000 for it many years ago.” She closes, “With love to my friends and the piano.”
Rowland wrote once more on September 10, 1941. She was pleased that her “prized belongings were in the historical society at our old home [of Quincy].” “Thank you for all that you have done. With love to you,” Anne J. Rowland.
That was Rowland’s last correspondence. She died one week later. The “Quincy Whig” appreciated that “Miss Rowland always remembered Quincy.” Her body was taken to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where she was buried in the national cemetery next to her father.
Accession Record of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County, Illinois. File F66: The Moore Piano.
“Anne J. Rowland Dies in West,” Quincy Daily Whig. September 27, 1941.
“Club Man’s Gossip,” the Chicago Mail (undated). HSQAC File 66: The Moore Piano.
John Mello. “Piano in the Baroque Period.” At https://spinditty.com/industry/Piano-in-the-Baroque-Period
“Old Pianos,” File 66: The Moore Piano. Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County.
Rowland to May Bull, April 29, 1841. HSQAC File 66: The Moore Piano.
Rowland to Curator, October 9, 1901. HSQAC File 66: The Moore Piano.
Rowland to E.J. Parker, December 9, 1922. HSQAC File 66: The Moore Piano.
Roy E White to Anne J. Rowland, November 6, 1929. HSQAC File 66: The Moore Piano.