The first opportunity for women in the industrial work force at Steinway & Sons came with the passage of the Child Labor Law of 1916. Previously, boys had been employed in the "action making" department.
The "action" is the part of the piano that transfers the pressure applied to the keyboard to the strings via the hammers which strike the strings.
After child labor was outlawed, women were brought in to do this work. The next large-scale employment of women at Steinway came with World War II.
Letters and memos reveal two important factors that led to a complete transformation of the Steinway factory in Queens during the war.
On April 27, 1942 the War Production Board wrote Steinway & Sons a letter proposing the retooling and conversion of their factory for the production of gliders.
On July 29 of the same year the Navy Department sent out a memorandum to it suppliers (which now included Steinway) giving estimates of the number of new laborers that had to be found to keep production on schedule for the following year.
With the draft in force there clearly would not be enough men available. The memo estimated that three quarters of this new labor would have to be women.
In response to these conditions Steinway & Sons quickly hired a new work force and commenced the production of gliders.
These gliders were used for the transport of men and equipment by the United States Army Air Force and were used (though not to great advantage) in the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
Women were employed quite heavily in the construction of these gliders. These women worked primarily on the wings and tail sections of the planes.
This job employed approximately 150 women. In addition to gliders, Steinway also provided the armed services with pianos for their ships and camps.
However, most of these women, like "Rosie the riveters" all over the country, did not keep their positions at Steinway after the war.
Soldiers returning from the war needed jobs in manufacturing and industry, leading to the laying-off of the women who had gone to work to replace the men.
Neither labor unions nor management showed much sympathy for these displaced women workers.
After the war some women continued to be employed by Steinway & Sons, though their role was again much more limited than it had been from 1942-1945.
Beyond clerical staff at the office women continued to be employed in "action making" and sales.
Throughout the Twentieth century, even before World War II, women have played a significant role in the industrial workforce at Steinway & Sons. This presence of women is typical of the American labor force, though it is seldom discussed. What makes the example of Steinway unique is the fact that the product on which these women worked was marketed and sold chiefly to a female clientele.