Piano Crawler: A Unique Occupation in Old Boston

A piano crawler is a very strong man who crawls up or down stairs with a piano on his back. I’m not kidding. I once worked with a guy whose dad was a retired piano crawler in Boston.

Piano crawlers worked for moving companies. When a moving company had a job that involved a piano going in or out of an upper story, they would call him. He would get down on all fours and the movers would lift the piano onto his back. He would then ascend or descend the stairs while the other workers kept the piano balanced on his back. It was cheaper than the classic method of hoisting pianos up the outside of the building and then swinging them in through a window.

Boston is, of course, an old city and many of the old buildings have very narrow winding staircases and no elevators. I don’t know if piano crawlers are still in use. I suspect they have found a more high-tech way of doing this by now that is cheaper. Probably, OSHA safety rules and the consideration of what your workers’ compensation insurance would cost if you employed piano crawlers have motivated moving companies to end the practice of piano crawling.

Another interesting fact about these old staircases is this: Structural engineers have told me that they absolutely cannot analyze why these old wooden winding staircases in the old buildings don’t fall down. By the formulas and methods of formal analysis engineers learn in school, these staircases have no right to be doing what they do, given how they are put together.

The old carpenters who built these staicases 100 and more years ago had their tricks, handed down through the generations of their craft, to make the support pieces fit together and lay one upon another around the turns such that they do hold up — and defy conventional analysis in the process. Of course, (continued below ad for this recommended book which is kind of a layman’s guide to structural engineering)

the reason these staircases came up in conversation with structural engineers in my former line of work as a consultant doing housing rehab is that these staircases often sag. I would ask the engineer what was the cause of the sag, and the answer would invariably be something like: “The question is not why its sagging. The question is how the hell it didn’t fall down the first time a heavy load was put on it.”

Maybe it was my friend’s dad with a piano on his back that put some of those staircases into their saggy condition.

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