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R.S. Williams & Sons Company

Richard Sugden Williams, born in London on April 12, 1834, opened an instrument repair shop in Hamilton in 1849. Seven years later he established a business in Toronto making mandolins, banjos and, soon after, melodeons. He also imported and sold pianos and other instruments, later expanding into the actual manufacture of pianos and large reed organs. While the factory was eventually moved to Oshawa, the Toronto business remained the headquarters for retailing, first on Queen Street and later at successive locations on Yonge Street, and also for wholesaling. In 1879 the business was renamed R.S. Williams & Son (later Sons). Branches were also established early on in London, Ontario, in Winnipeg (by 1905) and in Montreal and Calgary (by 1919).

R.S. Williams has the distinction of being the first in Canada to manufacture a portable melodeon, an instrument very popular in its day. This was in 1857. He claimed to have produced instruments far superior to those being manufactured by U.S. firms because he combined all of the latest patent improvements. Expansion was rapid and by the end of the century the firm claimed to have the largest instrument factory in Canada, employing nearly 200 workers and producing more than 20 pianos and 6 reed organs each week. Two Williams pianos were placed in Windsor castle at the request of Queen Victoria, thus entitling the company to use the crest 'Pianomakers to the Queen’.

By 1900 Williams had become the Canadian distributor for Edison phonographs and records. Edison machines often turn up in Canada displaying an extra plate on the front of the cabinet, generally right in the centre just below the 'Edison' decal, which reads 'Made for the R.S. Williams & Sons Limited, Toronto, Ontario by Edison Phonograph Works'.

Moogk, in "Roll Back the Years", has published, as Appendix H, selected pages from the 1905 'Williams Catalogue No. 31 of Musical Merchandise Imported and Manufactured' illustrating Edison phonographs and supplies available to Canadians at the turn of the century.

The Edison Company thought enough of its chief Canadian distributor to extol the prosperity of the Winnipeg branch of the firm in the December 1909 issue of its trade publication, Edison Phonograph Monthly:

The accompanying picture of the new warehouse at Winnipeg, Man. of the R. S. Williams & Sons Company, Ltd., Edison Jobbers, and Manufacturers and Importers of Musical Instruments, is eloquent of the prosperous condition of the Phonograph business in Canada. As will be seen at a glance, it is an imposing structure, three stories with basement, on a lot 30 x 80 feet, which gives them 2,400 feet of floor space per floor. The building is of fireproof mill construction, built entirely of concrete, brick and stone. The foundation is such that two additional stories can be added when necessary. lot, 30 x 90 feet, property of the Company, and their The adjoining is also the Williams present intention is to hold this until increased business warrants their duplicating as nearly as possible the present warehouse. The ground floor of the new warehouse is devoted to sample rooms and offices, while in the basement is a complete repair department, including an electro-plating plant, which is installed in connection with their band instrument business. The upper floors are used entirely for stock room purposes. An idea of the increase in their business may be gleaned from the fact that on opening their Winnipeg branch, four years ago, a single floor of 3,600 square feet floor space was found quite ample for their requirements.

R.S.Williams warehouse, Winnipeg, Manitoba

The prosperity of R.S. Williams in dealing in Edison products, of course, followed the fortunes of the Edison Company. Association with Edison continued until 1926 when there appeared a short announcement in the Canadian Music Trades Journal:

The Journal is informed that R. S. Williams and Sons Company Limited, Toronto, who have been Edison jobbers in Canada for so many years, are discontinuing the Jobbing of Edison lines, and have completed the sale of their entire stock of Edison products to Thomas A. Edison, Inc., Orange, N.J.

In the 1920's, when radio replaced records in popularity, Williams began to sell Westinghouse and later Magnavox radios. Some music publishing was done and yet another venture of the company was the R.S. Williams School of Music, opened in Toronto in 1929.

The Oshawa factory did not survive the Depression years. The Toronto Yonge Street store also closed its doors although the company remained as a warehousing operation until the early 1950's, thus making R.S. Williams one of the few Canadian music firms to have existed for over 100 years.

The Williams family were avid collectors of old musical instruments and autographs and, starting in 1913, donated segments of their collection to the Royal Ontario Museum. At that time there were 166 instruments, 70 volumes of music and about 160 letters and autograph scores of famous musicians. The R.S. Williams collection remains the largest and most valuable of its kind in Canada.


  • "An Artistic Piece of Furniture: stylistic Analysis of Nineteenth Century Ontario Pianos and Reed Organs, Betty Minaker, unpublished dissertation, Department of Museum Studies, University of Toronto, 1981.
  • The Edison Phonograph Monthly, Volume VII, Number 12, December 1909, exact reproduction by Wendell Moore, reprinted 1979.
  • Encyclopedia of Music in Canada, edited by Helmut Kallman, Gilles Potvin, Kenneth Winters, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1981.
  • Roll Back the Years: History of Canadian Recorded Sound and Its Legacy, Edward B. Moogk, National Library of Canada, Ottawa, 1975.