The Matchless Piano Men Of Lafayette Square

Augustus Eichele 1900

Something of interest on Carroll Street east of 18th Street is that a new row of houses built from 2013 through 2015 faces an old row of houses built around 1872. The homes at 1717, 1719, 1723 and 1725 Carroll were designed and built for Augustus Eichele, who had 1727 Carroll built for his own use. The other four were constructed for his daughters, and 1725 connected to 1727 through a passage to enable one of Augustus’ daughter to tend him in his old age. 

Eichele was an immigrant from the German city of Wuerttemberg. He served on a Union navy frigate during the Mexican War, and as an infantry captain during the Civil War. In the time between these two clashes, he started the Eichele Match Company, and chose to occupy a booming niche in 1858. 

Fire has always been handy to have available but difficult to carry from place to place. In early times, one could carry a burning object along, wait for lightning to strike a hay field, use a piece of glass to focus the sun’s rays on a pile of tinder, or scratch a flint on a piece of steel to generate sparks and work to build a blaze from that. 

In the late 1600’s, Europeans began experimenting with the flammability of phosphorus and sulfur. It was the need for a way to support one’s habit and light smoking tobacco that really drove the science forward. The first self-igniting match was cobbled together in 1805, in France. The early match head was composed of a mixture of potassium chlorate, sulfur, sugar and rubber. It was ignited by dipping it into an asbestos bottle filled with sulfuric acid. It proved expensive, and more than a little dangerous to carry around when, say, dancing at Versailles. For the next fifty years, different chemical mixtures of varying volatility and toxicity were tried and discontinued. 

The first friction match were British products known as lucifers. They were prone to rather violent ignition, shooting sparks and producing an unpleasant odor. the  1830’s, they were replaced by a French process that introduced white phosphorus and, even though the matches had to be kept in an airtight metal box, these finally caught on in the United States as they had elsewhere.

Back in Europe, the manufacture of matches was poisoning those who worked in the factories. Breathing fumes from white phosphorus caused severe bone disease and culminated in a dramatic strike by English match girls in 1888. White phosphate was gradually banned by countries around the world. Soon after, a discovery was made that poisonous and unstable white phosphate could be modified into a less toxic red form, which, when mixed with sulfur, did not fume in contact with the air. This could then be a real ‘strike anywhere’ match with a non-explosive head. The market took off.

The idea of using a striking surface as part of the chemical reaction was made by a Swede, Gustav Pasch. He employed red phosphorus in the striking surface and (eventually) potassium chlorate on the match heads. The reactivity of both, catalyzed by the heat of friction resulted in a quick and consistent ignition. The resulting safety match was first introduced in the 1850’s. In 1858 alone, the leading Swedish match company produced 12 million boxes. It led to matches becoming Sweden’s leading export, and the Swedes controlled over 60% of the world’s match production.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of a small invention like the safety match to America in the 1870s. Cities were growing very rapidly after the Civil War, and teemed with wooden structures containing new gas stoves and appliances. These required lighting, but continuous open flames in the home could (and often did) prove catastrophic. Add to this the ubiquitous tobacco smoking of the time and a steadily growing market for matches developed. The Swedish match monopoly was able to raise its prices without fear that the demand would dive as a result. It became a sweet business to be in. 

So Augustus Eichele here in St Louis thrived in this business, starting a couple of match factories in the late 1850’s.   

 

 

Above are tax stamps for Eichele matchboxes. Under the Revenue Act of 1862, the Union financed the Civil War, and later, the Spanish American War through taxes on a vast number of items, including matches, which had to carry stamp seals indicating compliance with the tax. Vestiges of tax seals still appear on cigarette packs and liquor bottles. 

He proved successful enough that he could sell his business to the rapidly consolidating Diamond Match Company in 1880, and devote himself to more aesthetic pursuits. 

As mentioned, Augustus built homes for each of his daughters on Carroll Street in Lafayette Square. The husbands of Annie and Elizabeth Eichele, Frederick Stierlin and Arthur Thiebes, respectively, shared an interest in music. They were ambitious enough to enlist their father-in- law to finance and incorporate a new venture, the Thiebes-Stierlin Music Company in 1894. The firm expanded the sale of various pianos through what had been the Thiebes Piano Company, and also published sheet music. This was like selling both vehicle and fuel, and the company thrived, as a robust home entertainment market existed in the affluent German-American parts of St Louis. 

Thiebes Stierlin in 1907

Business further prospered with the invention of the player piano in 1902, and Thiebes-Stirlin also expanded into the sale of guitars and mandolins. They had just relocated their headquarters downtown from 1895 Olive Street into a new Theodore Link-designed building at 1006 Olive Street, when a chief competitor, Kieselhorst Piano Company, moved in next door. They formed the center of what became known as St Louis’ Music Row, that grew to include Ludwig-Aeolian, Baldwin Piano, Story & Clark and the Balmer & Weber Music House. 

Augustus died at his house on Carroll Street in 1900, but the business he financed survived and prospered. Frederick set out in 1910 to build a five story piano factory on McKissock Avenue, employing 120 men and producing 1500 pianos a year. The business failed, but reorganized in 1913 as the Wagner-Stierlin Piano Company. This apparently also failed within the next couple of years. Frederick himself was no longer associated with the business featuring his name.

Augustus’ daughter Annie Stierlin filed for divorce from Frederick Stierlin in 1907, citing his violent temper. They reconciled, but she filed again in 1916, after their two daughters had grown. By that time, Frederick was a salesman for a New York lace company.  Thiebes-Stierlin was renamed the Thiebes Piano Company in 1910. Arthur Thiebes and his family moved from 1723 Carroll Street to Longfellow Boulevard in Compton Heights in 1912, and lived there until 1936. 

By 1918, Thiebes Piano Company had grown to include Victrolas and Edison talking machines in their product line. At that time, player pianos cost from $475 to $900, and a new Victrola ran from $22.50 to $475. The nature of home entertainment had become more passive, letting the instrument, rather than a person, perform, in effect priming the city for the new medium of radio. Arthur Thiebes sold the business to the Rudolph Wurlitzer Company in 1919. It’s interesting that Wurlitzer stayed pretty true to the hybrid model of selling keyboards, which would become

electric organs, and record players, that later appeared in diners and malt shops everywhere as jukeboxes. Music performance had, by then, come a long way from playing sheet music on a piano in the parlor.

Thiebes Stierlin ad from 1907

The company building, dating from 1904, still stands on Olive Street as the Ludwig Lofts, still next to the former Kieselhorst Piano Company. It was  listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003, and features a fading ghost sign from Thiebes-Stierlin on its upper west side. 

Parlaying a fortune made in matches into the dawn of the mass market entertainment age is no small feat, but two generations of Lafayette Square residents accounted for a bridge from old into new in the early 20th century. 

It’s fascinating how individuals in the same line of work, whether it was the law, or ornamental ironwork, or even music often found themselves living together in Lafayette Square. For instance Charles Balmer, a prolific composer and music publisher had his music store at 1004 Olive Street as Balmer and Weber Music House. He lived at 1918 LaSalle Street in the Square. Balmer played organ at Christ Church for 46 years and conducted the music for the funeral of Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois in 1865. 

Incidentally, Frederick Stierlin’s father, Henry, was a Major in the Union army, having organized the first Union cavalry company in the state. His unit fought at both the battles of Wilson’s Creek and Pea Ridge. Under Nathaniel Lyon, he was later in charge of the secret removal of ammunition and stores from the St Louis Arsenal to Alton, Illinois, when it was felt the arsenal might fall into the hands of Confederate sympathizers. He also drew up the legislation that abolished slavery in Missouri.

Thanks to research sources, including: 

Various advertisements and references in the St Louis Post Dispatch, St Louis Star-Times, and Missouri Republican newspapers

An excellent short history of match development on Wikipedia; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Match

A comprehensive and well photographed philatelic collector page on tax stamps at rdhinstl.com. 

2010 Lafayette Square Spring House Tour Booklet, with thanks to Mitchell and Devyani Hunt of Lafayette Square for a good overview of the Carroll Street homes. 

“Part Of Music Row Threatened”; Michael Allen for Preservation Research Office; 2012; http://preservationresearch.com/downtown/part-of-music-row-threatened/

Lafayette Square Marquis; Cara Jensen; June 2008 for detail on Charles Balmer.

Ands special thanks to Chuck and Cindi Lash of Lafayette Square for additional information and clarification.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,