The Proud Owners of a New Piano

You never know what might have made the news a century ago. In Iowa, for example, news might have been made when someone acquired a piano. Although mail-order catalogues like Sears, Roebuck & Company made owning a piano more affordable than ever thanks to convenient financing options,1 such a substantial purchase was still of great interest to those in rural communities and small towns across America.

These were the years before Victrolas became widespread.2 Pianos were a ready source of music and entertainment, and people of all ages might have enjoyed gathering at the home of a friend or family member with a piano for an evening of playing and singing.


“A Pleasant Evening at Home,” Prints & Photographs Online Catalog, Prints & Photographs Reading Room, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. ( : accessed 5 August 2015).

In the northwestern corner of Iowa, The Sibley Gazette reported on 24 May 1900:

John Hoffman and family are the proud owners of a new piano.3

And in the northeastern corner of the state, The Guttenberg Press reported on 25 June 1909:

Miss Roselyn Thoma is the happy and proud possessor of a new piano.4

John Hoffman was the second husband of Sarah Ellen Hall; married since 1883, they would undergo a tumultuous divorce in 1902. At the turn of the century, however, they were still married with a twenty-year-old daughter and a sixteen-year-old son at home.5 Their acquisition of a piano adds a bit of brightness to what was painted in their divorce proceedings as a rather dim time. Although Sarah led a difficult life, her granddaughter remembered that she had loved fine things; this piano was likely a prized possession.6 As she was said to be a religious woman, perhaps she enjoyed hymns played on the piano either by herself or her children.

Roselyn Thoma was the daughter of Fred and Matilda (Hammond) Thoma and was seventeen years of age in 1909.7 She was the last of four surviving children still at home, her younger sister having been lost to a diphtheria outbreak three years prior.8 Perhaps it was with a newfound appreciation to seize the moment that her parents supported such an extravagance for their daughter, or perhaps the same inheritance that had recently spurred them to purchase a farm made the purchase of a piano possible as well.9 Roselyn would marry two years later, and one can imagine that her piano might have accompanied her to her new home.10

Whether the Hoffman and Thoma families enjoyed idyllic moments crowded around their pianos à la Little Women or not, it is clear that the addition of a piano to a household in their humble Midwestern communities was worthy of note – and pride. However, even in these rural areas, it would be only a matter of time before new forms of entertainment overtook the novelty of owning a piano.

Copyright © 2015 Melanie Frick. All Rights Reserved.

1 “Sears, Roebuck & Company,” Antique Piano Shop ( : accessed 5 August 2015).
2 “The Victrola Craze of the 1900’s and 1910’s,” Mortal Journey ( : accessed 5 August 2015).
3 “Ashton,” The Sibley Gazette, 24 May 1900, p. 8, col. 2; digital image, A Digital Archive of Sibley Public Library ( : accessed 19 January 2015).4
4 “Garnavillo,” Guttenberg Press, 25 June 1909, p. 5, col. 1; digital image, A Digital Archive of Guttenberg Public Library ( : accessed 25 January 2014).
5 1900 U.S. census, Osceola County, Iowa, population schedule, Ashton, Enumeration District (ED) 92, sheet 3, p. 4079 (penned), dwelling 48, family 52, John Hoffman; digital image, ( : accessed 5 August 2015), citing National Archives microfilm T623, roll 451.
6 Fern Lavonne (Thoma) Adam, conversations with the author, 2001-2004; notes in author’s files. Fern was the granddaughter of Sarah Ellen Hall and was well acquainted with her as a child and young adult.
7 “Iowa, Births and Christenings Index, 1857-1947,” database, ( : accessed 5 August 2015), entry for Rosaleen [Rosalyn] Thoma, 24 November 1892, Garnavillo.
8 “Garnavillo Gleanings,” Clayton County Journal, 9 February 1906, p. 8, col. 1; digital image, A Digital Archive of Guttenberg Public Library ( : accessed 25 January 2014).
9 Fern (Thoma) Adam, conversation with Brian Adam, 1 August 1984; notes in author’s files. Fern was the granddaughter of Fred and Matilda (Hammond) Thoma and had recently spoken with her cousin Ina (Fischer) Roloff regarding their grandparents.
10 “Iowa Marriages, 1809-1992,” database, FamilySearch ( : accessed 5 August 2015), Otto C. Friend and Roselyn V. Thoma, 28 Nov 1911; citing Mc Gregor, Clayton County, Iowa.

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