FOUNDATION FOR THE PRESERVATION OF CHICKERING AND EARLY AMERICAN KEYBOARD INSTRUMENTS
Dating your Chickering
Using the Serial Number​
As with any other piano, the best and most precise way of dating your Chickering is by its serial number.  But this method is not without difficulty and hazard.

The most common difficulty encountered is locating the actual serial number.  In many instances the serial number—which as a general rule was only applied to each piano in a single place—has been removed or obliterated when work was performed on the piano.  In other instances, all or part of it may have become so worn down with age or obscured with dust that it may be difficult to locate.  Very frequently, the case number is mistaken for the serial number.  This is perhaps the worst instance of all; the always three- or four-digit case number frequently misleads the researcher into believing the piano is decades older than it is.  It is not unusual for researchers--even certified appraisers--to believe that an 1890s grand piano is from the 1830s, by confusing the case number with the serial number.

As a rule of thumb, if you are researching a grand piano, it will have a 5- or 6-digit serial number.  The Chickering grand pianos with 4-digit serial numbers are only infrequently encountered.  The same is true of upright pianos; precious few have anything less than a five-digit serial number.  With square pianos, both 4- and 5-digit serial numbers are common, so care must be taken to confirm the general age before ascribing a date to your piano.  Dating your square piano apart from the serial number is discussed below.

Finally, each serial number in the ledgers has two dates: the date the serial number was entered into the ledger (usually just the month, if that) and the date it was shipped.  Because the shipping dates are more precise and consistent than the entry dates, we generally use these for dating.

With the above in mind, the following is a list of Chickering’s roughly pre-1900 serial numbers and the corresponding shipping date.  While reasonably accurate, these dates are estimates only.  If you would like a more precise date for your piano,  send an inquiry with photos to info@chickeringfoundation.org.  Please also let us know about your piano for the Chickering Registry
The following is a graph of the data from the above table.  A somewhat different curve would certainly arise with a larger data set based on specific dates (rather than just month and year), but this is sufficient to visualize Chickering’s production.  The steepness of the curve correlates to the rate of production.
Dating without a Serial Number​
Even without a serial number, it is generally possible for us to date your early Chickering to within a decade.  For all the difficulties that they create otherwise, Chickering’s prolificness and practice of rapid design changes usually mean that any early Chickering piano can be fairly narrowly dated.  We are happy to assist in dating your pre-1890 Chickering.  Just send an email with photos to info@chickeringfoundation.org.

More broadly speaking, however, and in helping to determine whether you are looking at a case number or true serial number, the following design features tell you for certain that your piano is from after 1850 (i.e. that your 4-digit number is not a serial number):

Grand Pianos

Fully-rounded tail as on a modern baby grand
Yacht tail
3 Pedals
88 key compass
Overstrung scale (i.e. bass strings cross over the tenor strings)
​Agraffes (whether cast or screwed into frame/case)
Original action has wippens or roller action
Any 2- or 3-digit number (with or without a trailing letter) prominently cast anywhere in the iron frame (harp)
Legion of Honor medal appearing on the iron frame
“Chickering & Sons” cast or stenciled anywhere on the iron frame
“Tremont Street” cast into the iron frame
“Tune at French Pitch” or “Tune at International Pitch” stenciled onto the frame

Square Pianos

88 key compass
Overstrung scale (i.e. bass strings cross over the tenor strings)
Agraffes (whether cast or screwed into frame/case)
“Tremont Street” cast into the iron frame (harp)