A Mystery Solved – The J. F. Kahl Piano
When HRSC assumed ownership of Rocky Springs Chapel on March 23, 2015, its first task was to conduct an initial inventory of the items that were in the chapel and there were two pianos. The upright piano was easy to identify. It had a maker’s mark and a serial number that indicated it was manufactured by the Shaw Piano Company, Baltimore, Maryland in 1909. However, the second piano was a mystery. It was obviously much older and there was no serial number on it. However, it had a name written on its name-board in very fancy scroll writing which read, “J. F. Kahl.”On June 30, 2015, HRSC conducted an internet search for “J. F. Kahl square piano” and was directed to the website of the Smithsonian Institution. After reading the online “Description (Brief)” for the J. F. Kahl square piano in the Smithsonian’s collection that read “This square piano was made by Johann Francis Kahl in Washington, D.C. Around 1843-1844…This is Kahl’s only known instrument,” HRSC submitted a comment through the Smithsonian’s online system to get clarification on the statement since HRSC knew it had a square piano made by J. F. Kahl.
On July 22, 2015, HRSC was contacted via email by Stacey Kluck, Chair, Division of Culture and the Arts, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, who indicated that at the time the web label was written, the Smithsonian believed “there were no other known Kahl instruments in public or private holdings.” Mr. Kluck then wrote “This is certainly good news that another example of Kahl’s work exists.” He then requested a photograph of HRSC’s J. F. Kahl piano as well as a photograph of its maker’s nameplate for the Smithsonian’s files. After HRSC sent Mr. Kluck the photographs he wrote, “Thank you so much for sending the images of your Kahl piano! It’s great to know that there is another Kahl piano.”
In August 2015, HRSC hired piano technician Damon Dye of Dye’s Piano Service, Walkersville, Maryland, to perform an initial inspection and cleaning of its J. F. Kahl piano, which is currently on exhibit in Rocky Springs Chapel.
Who Was Johann Francis Kahl?
Johann Francis Kahl was a piano maker who immigrated to the United States from Germany in the 1840s and is credited with being the first piano maker in Washington, D.C. In addition, the pianos J. F. Kahl made were of superior quality and he was purported to have personally constructed each instrument in its entirely in his own shop. Due to the limited number of instruments Kahl could construct in this fashion and because there are so few of his instruments remaining today, information about this maker had become lost overtime.
When HRSC began researching piano maker J. F. Kahl during the summer of 2015, there was little information on him in Clinkscale Online, a comprehensive research database dedicated to the worldwide cataloging of historic pianos before 1860 (or anyplace else for that matter). Therefore, HRSC conducted its own in-depth research on this maker. Using resources made available through the Library of Congress’ Historic American Newspapers Project, U.S. Census records, and church and immigration records, HRSC was able to develop a more complete and accurate biography for piano maker Johann Francis Kahl, which it submitted for inclusion in the Clinkscale Online database.
Correspondence between HRSC and the Smithsonian Institution, and HRSC and the Clinkscale Online database administrator about HRSC’s J. F. Kahl piano are contained in the below PDF file. In addition, the current biography and the biography developed on Johann Francis Kahl by HRSC for inclusion in the Clinkscale Online database is provided below:
Piano Maker Biography Currently in the Clinkscale Online research database for Johann Francis KAHL:
“KAHL, Johann Francis (fl. 1840s?). Piano maker in Washington, DC. His shop was on the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue NW, between 12th and 13th Streets. (Washington/SI:FILE)”
Piano Maker Biography for Johann Francis KAHL, Compiled and Submitted for inclusion in the Clinkscale Online Database by HRSC on February 20, 2016:
“KAHL, Johann Francis (b Germany, 1803-d Washington D.C., 14 Sep.1855). Piano Forte Maker and Importer credited with being the first piano maker in Washington, D.C. He served his apprenticeship at Frankfort-on-the-Main. The Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for Year Ending June 30, 1918, announced “the generous gift of Mr. Hugo Worch, as follows: Five American pianos and one organ, one of the pianos being the work of Washington’s pioneer maker, Johann Francis Kahl…” An article published in The Washington Times on November 27, 1919, described Kahl’s pianos in the following manner, “Although Kahl’s number of instruments was limited they were known to be of superior quality, having great durability and excellent staying powers, and possessing a refined tone. Every part of these instruments was made in Kahl’s shop. He cut the ivory for the keys, wound the bass strings, and did all the cabinet work on the frames. The materials were bought in the raw state and with the simple tools at his command and an inventive mind the different pieces were formed and given new life, finally blending and molding themselves into a splendid instrument. Kahl’s pianos are a fine example of an extinct art whereby a piano maker constructed the instrument in its entirety.” The National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution believed the Kahl piano in its collection was the only known Kahl instrument in public or private holdings until June 2015, when it was notified by Historic Rocky Springs Chapel, Inc., Frederick, Maryland, that another example of Kahl’s work existed in the Chapel’s collection. The September 3rd, 1845 edition of The Daily Union newspaper in Washington, D.C. placed Kahl’s shop on the “south side of Pennsylvania Avenue, between 12th and 13th Streets, or D street near 9th.” The October 13, 1848 edition of The Daily Union advertised a raffle to be held by Kahl at the “Apollo Hall” and indicated Kahl’s “warehouse of musical instruments” was located on “Pennsylvania Avenue between 10th and 11th Streets.” The 1850 census listed the following members in the J. F. Kahl household: J.F. Kahl (born in Germany, piano maker) and his wife Johanna (born in Germany); their 12 year old son George (born in Germany); their 5 year old son Julius and 2 year old son Francis D. (both born in Washington, D.C.); M. Mercer (born in Virginia, Clerk); M. Yerby (born in Virginia, Merchant); as well as a 25 year old woman named Christina Rush whose birthplace was listed as Germany. However, later that same year, the November 15, 1850 edition of The Daily Union contained an advertisement from Dyer & McGuire, Auctioneers, that read, “GENTEEL FURNITURE OF A PRIVATE FAMILY—On Tuesday morning, November 19, at 10 o’clock, we shall sell at the residence of J. F. Kahl, on the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue, between 9th and 10th streets, his furniture and household effects (which are in excellent order).” What unfortunate turn of events had caused Kahl to sell off virtually all of his household furniture and effects in 1850 is unknown. However, less than two years later, Kahl placed the following advertisement in the August 28, 1852 edition of the Daily American Telegraph newspaper in Washington, D.C., “PIANOS-I have just completed several seven-octave Pianos, with iron frame and rosewood case-made of the best materials, in the latest style. These instruments combine, with a brilliant sonorous tone, a perfect, even touch – which I will sell as reasonable as any manufacturer in the United States. I also keep on hand, for sale or rent, second-hand pianos on good terms. J. F. KAHL, Piano Manufacturer.” In this advertisement Kahl’s address is listed as “corner 17th Street and New York Avenue, one square below Winder’s building.” Kahl is next listed in The Washington and Georgetown Directory – Stranger’s Guidebook for Washington and Congressional and Clerk’s Register 1853 as “Kahl, J. F., Piano Forte Manufactory, N. Side NY Ave., btwn 17 & 18 W.” With the exception of his oldest son George (born in Germany about 1838), the births of Kahl’s children were recorded in the birth and christening records of the Concordia Lutheran Evangelical Church in Washington, D.C. The Church’s records show the following children born to J. F. & Johanna (Steinman) Kahl: Detrich Julius Kahl born 25 September 1845; Franz Diederich Kahl born 18 March 1849; and Johanna Kahl born 29 August 1851. Sadly, the District of Columbia’s death and burials records record this gifted piano maker’s death on 14 September 1855 at the age of 52. It appears from census records that Kahl’s widow, Johanna, never remarried and lived with their eldest son George in Washington, D.C. for the remainder of her life.”