Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Going Modern

Going Modern

By: Ardis E. Parshall - November 08, 2013

From the Relief Society Magazine, April 1957 –

Going Modern

By Frances C. Yost

Nell Gordon looked up from the new wall-to-wall carpet, and rested her eyes on the soft tones of the rose drawn drapes. Then her eyes passed appreciatively over the new three-piece sectional, which filled the big corner opposite the new blonde television set. Her eyes were pools of complete satisfaction until they turned to the old upright piano standing tall and ungainly against the wall.

“Tom, that old piano has to go,” Nell said determinedly.

“Go!” If Nell had said to go set fire to the new barn, Tom would not have been more dumbfounded. “The piano has to go where?”

“Out.” Nell said emphatically. “It’s obsolete. It ruins the modern effect in the whole living room. Why, look at the scroll on the front of it! They’ve made pianos plain finished for at least twenty-five years.” Nell showed her distaste as she frowned at the old piano.

“But we’ve had the piano for forty years. In its day, our piano was the finest thing in woodcarving.” Tom spoke defensively, as he would of a friend or relative who was being chastised.

“In its day!” Nell spoke up. “That’s exactly what I mean. Upright pianos were the thing in Wilson’s day, and need I point out it is now the year 1957? Why, we’re not driving around in a surrey just because it was the thing to do when we were married. Everything’s low slung these days, cars, furniture, and pianos. This high upright spoils the effect of the lowness and beauty of the whole living room. The whole house, I might add.”

“What do you plan to do, Nell, give it to one of the married children?”

Nell groaned. “They wouldn’t appreciate a big antique in their modern apartments. We’ll take it to Salt Lake City and trade it in on a new spinet,” Nell explained matter-of-factly. “Of course, we can’t expect to get much out of this old piano, but it might take the sting off the price of a new one.”

“A new piano?” Tom looked puzzled. “You’ve said a number of times, Nell, that our old upright has better tone than some of these new blonde beauties.”

“True, I have said that about the tone, but I’m not playing the piano as much since we have television, and the children aren’t around to practice. It isn’t the tone of the piano I’m objecting to, it’s the contrast with this modern furniture,” Nell went on to say. “I’ve thought the thing through completely, Tom, before I ever mentioned the subject to you. The only thing to do is get rid of the old piano.”

“Mother, I don’t mind your fixing up the house. I sort of like the new wall-to-wall carpeting, feels comfy on my bare toes. And this three-piece sectional, it’s pretty and comfortable to be on. And the drapes, I like them the way they can be closed when the lights are bright. But the piano! We started out our married life with this piano. It’s like trading in our firstborn for a modern 1957 baby. I remember the day we bought the piano at the auction sale as if it were yesterday.”

* * * *

Nell and Tom had been married in the Logan Temple, and the very next day, quite by coincidence, the furniture in the old Madsen house was being sold at auction. Tom had saved one hundred dollars to buy furniture. If they were careful, they could buy the essential things to start housekeeping. Nell and Tom had come early to spot the furniture they wanted so they could bid on it. They had decided on the kitchen range, the kitchen table and chairs, and, if they could spread the money far enough, the entire set of bedroom furniture.

“Tom, we don’t need furniture for the whole house to start with. We can close up all the rooms but the kitchen and bedroom,” Nell had said thriftily, as she pushed a wisp of wavy blonde hair from her brow.

To Tom, his eighteen-year-old bride was enchanting and beautiful. “Gee, Nell, that’s mighty nice of you, to be so thrifty and thoughtful. Of course, we’ll get a piano for you as soon as we can. Let’s just walk over and look at this one.”

Nell was just sort of tinkling the keys when the auctioneer stood on an overturned box and started shouting above the din, “How much am I bid for this beautiful fancy piano?”

Nell, a little embarrassed at being in the spotlight, stepped quickly back from the piano.

“What am I bid for the fancy piano?” the auctioneer repeated.

Nell looked about; no one seemed even vaguely interested in the piano. She never remembered being at an auction sale before, but she had heard that sometimes things went real cheap when people didn’t run the bid up. Why, if a person could buy a piano for, say, fifty dollars, that would still leave something for necessary furniture.

“What am I bid for the fancy piano?” the auctioneer shouted a little louder.

“Forty-nine dollars,” Nell spoke timidly.

“The lady opens the bid on this fine piano at the too-low price of forty-nine dollars,” the auctioneer almost snickered. A laugh swept through the crowd. “Who will offer seventy-five dollars?”

“Seventy-five dollars!” a man shouted from the rear of the crowd.

Nell looked about to see who was bidding. she remembered seeing the man talking to the auctioneer before the auction started. Had he been planted there to bid?

“The gentleman bids seventy-five dollars! Who will offer one hundred for this fine piano?”

“Seventy-six dollars,” Nell said timidly.

“The lady offers a mere pittance. Only seventy-six dollars, the lady offers.”

A second laugh swept the crowd, which was followed by a bid of eighty-five dollars from the man in the rear.

“The gentleman offers eighty-five dollars. Who will raise it to one hundred?” the auctioneer was begging.

Nell stole a side glance at the black kitchen range. A person could build a table, and boxes could be covered for chairs. Boxes could be used to hold the bed springs, and she could drape the bed real pretty with a skirt. But a person had to have a stove to cook on and to keep warm. Perhaps the old cook stove might sell for as low as ten or eleven dollars. Nell’s eyes wandered again to the piano. A piano was the heart of a home. This piano had a better tone than the one her folks had paid several hundred dollars for. She would make all kinds of sacrifices if she could get this piano. She could even endure the insinuations from the auctioneer and the laughing people.

“Who will offer one hundred dollars for this fine piano?” the auctioneer repeated.

“Eighty-nine dollars,” Nell said.

“The lady did not hear me. The lady offers only eghty-nine dollars,” the auctioneer said. “Who will top the lady’s bid?”

“Ninety dollars!” the man in the rear shouted.

Nell Gordon, by now, did not care if the whole crowd laughed their heads off. She only cared about making this fine piano hers. She turned around and glared at the bidder in the rear.

“I am offered ninety dollars! Who will offer one hundred?” the auctioneer shouted.

“Ninety-one dollars and no more,” Nell spoke determinedly. Then she turned and glared at her opponent.

“Going once! Ninety-one twice! Sold to the lady with the wavy blonde hair for ninety-one dollars!”

Suddenly Nell Gordon realized their predicament. She and Tom had come to the auction to buy necessary furniture, stove, table, cupboard, bed, and she had spent almost all of Tom’s money on a piano. It would take the remainder of his hundred dollars to get someone to haul the piano home. She turned to Tom expecting him to chide her. Of course, he could say, “All our money gone for a piano, what do you plan to sleep on and to cook on?” But Tom didn’t say those things.

“Nell, let’s get out of here. We’ll need to hire a wagon to haul our piano home.” Tom took her arm and escorted her through the crowd as if she were a queen.

Now Nell remembered the old stove Tom’s aunt had loaned them. the oven door was gone, and Tom had fashioned one out of tin. It did not have a catch but was held shut with a stick propped against it. Tom had built most of their furniture. But, even from the start, their friends had liked to gather at their house to dance or sing because they had the luxury of a piano. Then when the children came along, one by one, until they numbered an even dozen, Nell had taught each one to play the piano. What warm and wonderful memories she had of the family gathered around the piano singing!

* * * *

Nell wiped a tear with her apron, as if to erase that memory. Then she said: “Yes, Tom, we’ll go to Salt Lake City tomorrow and make the trade.”

Tom Gordon had learned through the years not to argue with a lady.

“We can run into Salt Lake City tomorrow if you wish and look at new pianos,” Tom said, affably.

“We’ll go in the pick-up and take the old piano with us,” Nell decided.

“The thing weighs close to a ton,” Keith, their son, stated, as he and his brother, Emery, helped Tom load the piano into the back of the pick-up, and waved their parents on their way.

As the two rattled along in the pick-up, Nell glanced sideways at Tom. He was a tall, lean man, and in his brown tweed jacket and flannel slacks, he had the appearance of a college man. Today Nell could not study his eyes or read his thoughts.

“Look back, Nell, and make sure the piano’s okay,” Tom would say occasionally. “We don’t want anything to happen to the piano.”

‘We’d probably do as well if we rolled it in the Bear River, and just bought a new blonde spinet outright,” Nell laughed.

“All I can say for you, is you surely have gone modern all of a sudden.” Tom spoke defensively, and then silence enveloped them.

As they rounded the point of the mountain, their eyes picked out the temple which had been forty years in the making, then Tom broke the silence.

“Nell, we’re nearly there, and I’ve got to see a fellow about some machinery. If you’d like to do some of your shopping, I could come for you in about a half hour.”

“That’s fine. I did want to get some material to line a quilt for the next Relief Society work meeting. I’ll meet you here by the Brigham Young Monument corner in a half hour,” Nell said, as she alighted from the truck.

She admitted to herself, it was a little embarrassing coming to town in a truck, especially with a big old piano tied up in patchwork quilts in the back. Who would people think they were?

Promptness was one of Tom’s virtues, and in half an hour he drove up in the pick-up and Nell climbed in before the light turned green.

“We might as well start at this piano store, and see what they have in the line of new low blondes,” Toms aid almost mischievously.

As they entered the store, Nell found herself in the center of a dozen or more new pianos. Each of them was different, yet pleasingly low and beautiful. Nell fancied each of them, in turn, in her lovely redecorated living room. Yes, she thought, any one would look lovely. After forty years, she and Tom had come to the financial position where they could pay cash for most anything they desired. All she had to do was make her selection and any one of the beautiful new pianos could be hers, and by night, they would have it in their living room with the other modern things. But they might as well find out first what the dealer would offer them as a trade-in.

“Would you look at our old piano, before we decide on a new one?” Nell asked.

“I’d be glad to make you an offer,” the dealer said.

The three walked to the curb where the truck stood, and the dealer jumped up on the back of the truck, and, removing the two quilts Tom and the boys had carefully covered over the piano, he sat down and started playing.

“How much do you offer?” Nell asked, but the dealer seemed engrossed in Schubert’s “Moonlight Sonata.” It was as if he had forgotten his business entirely as he shifted to “Largo,” and followed that with several Strauss waltzes.

Nell nodded at Tom to ask him to hurry the dealer. It was a long way home, and they should start right away, if they were to get the new piano unloaded before dark. But Tom, like the dealer, seemed to beep in the heart of the music and did not seem to hear Nell’s urgent whispers.

Nell turned slightly and noticed that a crowd had gathered to listen to the music on the piano. She bit her lip and murmured, “I bought this old upright forty years ago at an auction sale, looks like it’s up to me to dispose of it.” She walked over close to the dealer and shouted up at him, “How much will you give us on a new piano?”

The dealer stopped short, leaving the “Blue Danube” in mid-air.

“Mrs. Gordon, I’ll make you a trade straight across. You can have any of the smaller pianos in the store for this one.”

“What?” Surely Nell had heard the man incorrectly. Had he said a deal straight across? Nell Gordon’s puzzled face asked why.

“Well, Mrs. Gordon, call me an antique collector if you wish, but I collect these rare old pianos. Take your choice of any of the smaller pianos,” the dealer repeated.

Nell turned then toward the pianos placed in the circle near the front of the music store. They were beautiful, and they would fit in nicely with her new, modern living room, but she turned again to the old upright standing forlornly in the back of the truck. It sort of seemed like a child which had been driven from its home for no other reason than that it had grown up, and wasn’t cute anymore.

Nell walked out of the store to where Tom and the dealer were making arrangements for the trade.

She heard the dealer say: “You can unload the piano at my place, and come around and pick up the lady’s choice. I know this piano’s heavy, I’ll send a couple of fellows with you to unload it.” He turned and shouted into the store, “Mike and Slim, can you come here a minute?”

Nell glanced at Tom. It was like Tom to wait quietly and let her pick out the piano she wanted. But if the dealer wanted their piano so much he was willing to trade straight across, she had a notion to keep it herself. The men were coming to help unload their old upright, she had to decide quickly, or it would be too late.

“I guess I’ve changed my mind about trading pianos,” Nell said. Then by way of explanation she added, “It would be sort of like trading our firstborn for a 1957 baby. I realize I’m probably throwing over a fine offer, but, well, I might as well admit it, there are a lot of memories stored in the strings of this old upright.”

Nell Gordon turned to Tom and said, “Let’s go.”

Then it was, his face shone with happiness. Nimble as a college boy, Tom jumped on the back of the pickup and wrapped the quilts lovingly around the piano again and tied it securely.

As they jogged along in the front of the pick-up, Tom kept asking: “How’s she riding?” And Nell would glance back with the same concern with which she had watched the piano being hauled by team and wagon to their home forty years ago.

Nell decided on the long ride home that she would play lots of good music on the old piano yet, and so would her children and grandchildren. The trouble was probably that they had watched television too much lately and hadn’t had enough family song-fests.

Nell turned to Tom and spoke softly, “Tom, now that we have the house remodeled, what do you say we have the children all in for an evening? After dinner we could gather around the piano and sing like we used to.”

“I think it’s a good idea. I’ve let my tenor get sort of rusty lately watching the television shows.” Tom patted her hand softly.

Nell squeezed his hand in return and said, “And Tom, I’m glad I didn’t go too modern.”



  1. Now I can brag because we have a low blonde spinet in our living room.

    I love the different points of view that history teaches.

    Comment by Carol — November 8, 2013 @ 1:55 pm

  2. We had this discussion at our house recently. My husband didn’t like how our piano looked, I liked how it sounded. He didn’t want to move it when we moved. He kept offering to make the huge sacrifice for me and fall on his sword to buy a new piano. I told him fine, but not if he was doing it as a favor for me because I liked our piano just fine. After a few weeks he was willing to insist on a new piano because he wanted it and that it wasn’t money spent on what I wanted and that I should be grateful for (since I’d just as soon keep the old piano and have the money in an IRA).
    We have a new(ish), beautiful looking piano in our new(er) house. We have less money in the bank. It sounds almost as good as the old one.
    We don’t have any family memories with our piano because my husband and some of my children can’t sing/don’t sing.

    Comment by jks — November 8, 2013 @ 2:01 pm

  3. Last February, I finally took my sister up on her offer to have our old upright grand tuned. It had been years, plus a couple of different moves, since it had last been tuned, and it was painful on the ears to play.

    The tuner came in and did a quick and efficient job. Then he started to play. And then he played some more– and more. “I’ve seen a lot of pianos that LOOKED like this, but none that SOUNDED like this,” he finally said. I wondered if he might have been more careful, had he realized that before he started tuning.

    Of course the piano has sentimental value for me. I have a picture of me, in a diaper, bottle in one hand, the other hand reaching up to play the piano. I also have memories of my mother playing Chopin’s Funeral March on that piano– and, of course, it was the one I and my siblings learned to play on. The tuner seemed sort of dismissive of my anxious concern over the fact that our ivory key veneers are slowly coming off– I think that he felt like the only value it could have was sentimental, and that it was so ugly that a picture would do just as well or better. But playing the piano changed his mind.

    Afterwards, I told the story to my mother, and asked how we had gotten our piano. She said that just after she got married, her parents gave her an “early inheritance,” and that she decided to spend a part of it on a piano. She looked for about six months before she found one that suited her, and they bought it from my dad’s cousin.

    Now that it’s tuned again, I’m finally learning to play hymns!

    Comment by S — November 9, 2013 @ 1:42 pm

  4. Ralph could give you quite a lecture on this subject. That small spinet pianos have far shorter strings than the tall uprights, so they can never sound as good. And they have a ‘drop action’ which is much harder to regulate and repair than the action in a larger upright or a grand. I’m not sure if he would consider the idea of replacing an old upright with a spinet as insanity or blasphemy. It’s one of the bees in his bonnet.

    Comment by LauraN — November 10, 2013 @ 8:44 pm

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