The Petosa Accordion Company, started in 1922 by Carlo Petosa (1892-1959) in Seattle, is the only U.S.-owned-and-operated accordion manufacturer. Carlo Petosa built a reputation for crafting his instruments by hand, one at a time, with a dedication to precision and the highest-quality materials. That commitment to quality continued through three subsequent generations: son Joseph G. (1925-2005), grandson Joseph M. Jr. (b. 1960), and great-grandson Joseph III. As a young boy in Italy, Carlo Petosa fell in love with the accordion. He immigrated to the United States during his teenage years, working at one point as an accordionist on the vaudeville circuit. In 1914, he apprenticed at San Francisco's Guerrini Accordion Company, learning every facet of accordion manufacturing. After moving to Seattle in 1922, he opened Petosa Accordions in the basement of his home. The shop remained in Seattle's Fremont and Wallingford neighborhoods for 95 years, the last 62 in the same location, weathering the ups and downs of the accordion industry. In 2018, Petosa Accordions moved to Lynnwood in Snohomish County.
A Singular Passion
As a child growing up in Italy, Carlo Petosa fell in love with the accordion.
"I was crazy about accordions and I was determined to have one. My father said 'No, they cost too much.' We argued frequently about this until finally with the first money I earned I bought one" (Ritchie).
Accordion in hand, Petosa immigrated to the United States as a teenager, finding work as an accordionist on both coasts. In San Francisco, he was hired as an accordion player on the Pantages vaudeville circuit. But Petosa wanted more than just to play the accordion; he wanted to learn about them from the inside out. Around 1914 he began an apprenticeship at the Guerrini Company, a San Francisco-based manufacturer of custom-made, high-end accordions.
For the first half of the twentieth century, San Francisco was a national leader in the accordion industry with eight accordion manufacturers, including Galleazzi & Sons, Colombo & Sons, and the Guerrini Company. In business from 1903 to 1968, Guerrini developed many refinements in the instrument's size, weight, and sound. After learning all he could at the factory, Petosa moved to Seattle in 1922, married, and started his own accordion business in the basement of his home on Linden Avenue in the Fremont neighborhood.
Hunched over a workbench, he carefully measured, hand cut, shaped, and honed pieces of wood and metal, transforming raw materials into beautiful, hand-crafted, one-of-a kind instruments. He ran a one-man shop at first, with no outside help, ensuring that his instruments were impeccably crafted but also keeping production low. Later his son Joe worked as his partner. A profile in The Seattle Times Sunday magazine published shortly before they moved to a storefront in Wallingford described the original workplace:
"The little shop at 4010 Linden Av. is in the basement of the Petosas' home where Joe and his younger brother, Gene, live with their parents. The shop resembles many home workshops with a drill press, table saw, band saw, sander, buffer and a neat line-up of tools. In addition, there are a tuning bar, a tuning table, and rows of jet-black, pearl-white, and even bright-red and green accordions.
"'We considered having a larger, more conspicuous place downtown,' says Joe, who handles the firm's promotion, 'but we have plenty of room here and our business comes through satisfied customers and our reputation.' Customers and music lovers find their way to the little shop in increasing numbers" (Ritchie)
Birthplace of the Accordion
The accordion was based on a Chinese free reed instrument invented some 4,500 years ago. The modern version traces its roots back to Italy in the second half of the nineteenth century. The birthplace of the fisarmonica (as the instrument is called in Italian) is the town of Castelfidardo in the Marche region of central-eastern Italy. Paolo Soprani (1844-1918), the son of a Castelfidardo farmer, is credited with jump-starting the industry when he opened an accordion shop in 1863.
"His brothers Settimo and Paschale then began producing their own accordions in the wine cellar of the family's farm, expanding to an outbuilding ... The first accordions were sold in the fairs and marketplaces of the nearby regions ... Paolo traveled with his products on horseback to the busy city center of Castelfidardo; in 1872 he decided to open a factory in Piazzetta Garibaldi there. When the factory began receiving orders from abroad (France and the United States toward the end of the nineteenth century), Paolo, now in partnership with his sons Luigi and Achille, opened up a new factory on the elegant, tree-lined Avenue Umberto ... The accordion had arrived -- it had risen above its humble rural origins to become the darling of the salons of Europe" (Jacobson, 18-19).
From the start, the accordion was enormously popular in Italy, so much so that composer Giuseppe Verdi proposed that the instrument be part of the curriculum in Italy's great music conservatories. The accordion increased in popularity through the early decades of the twentieth century until World War II devastated that industry and others. In 1938, 51,000 accordions were produced in Italy. By 1944, the figure had dropped to slightly more than 500.
After the war, there was renewed interest as Italians welcomed the opportunity to dance, sing, socialize, and enjoy life again. "Production at Castelfidardo peaked in 1953, when some 200,000 accordions were made in dozens of factories that employed about 10,000 workers" (Povoledo).
A Reminder of Home
For Italian immigrants in America, the familiar sounds of the accordion brought back memories of the homeland. It was the defining instrument of their culture. Portable and relatively affordable, the accordion could be adapted to play a wide range of music.
"The large Italian populations who had immigrated to the Americas eased their homesickness with the sounds of accordion music. For those forced to leave their place of birth to earn a living in a foreign land, the accordion became a standard part of their luggage, a piece of home that they brought with them" (Jacobson, 22).
By the 1950s and 1960s, it seemed as though every Italian American family had a son or daughter who played the accordion. It was part of the family tradition, a fixture in the home as common as a sofa or a chair. But outside of Italian American communities, the accordion and its distinctive sound were losing out in popularity as electric guitars and drum sets were becoming the instrument of choice among America's youth. Part of that was the ease of learning to play, as Joe Petosa noted in 1979.
"'The accordion is the second toughest instrument to learn to play,' Petosa explained. 'First, there's the violin, then the accordion. The kids today don't want to spend the time to learn the instrument. They can pick up a guitar and be playing pretty well in a few months. With an accordion, it takes several years'" (Evans, "Buyers Put ...").
You Can't Hurry Quality
In the 1940s, many refinements were made to the sound produced by the instrument. Joe Petosa said in 1955, "Years ago the music sounded harsh and shrill. There was only one tonal change ... There are now as many as 11 tonal effects, including those of the bassoon, clarinet, piccolo, flute, organ, violin, cello and celesta" (Ritchie).
In 1945, in a nod to the pivotal role Castelfidardo played in the industry, Carlo Petosa began a partnership with an Italian factory in Castelfidardo called the Zero Sette Company. The partnership remained in place more than seven decades later, with the factory in Italy turning out student models while the Seattle factory built the professional or concert-grade versions. In 2017, prices ranged from $4,000 to more than $40,000 for professional-grade models. The accordions built in Italy are shipped to Seattle where they are disassembled and thoroughly checked as part of the company's quality-control measures.
Making an accordion is a process that cannot be hurried. The instrument requires hand assembly of anywhere from 4,000 to 7,500 pieces; concert-grade accordions can have as many as 9,000 pieces. "Most persons are astonished to learn there are 448 reed tongues, each cut by hand out of Swedish blue steel. Each reed must be cut to a fine size and within 1/1000th inch, which calls for exceptionally steady nerves, patience and skill" (Ritchie).
A Petosa accordion begins its life as a seasoned mahogany or maple-wood box. The wood is aged for years, and after the box is made, it must dry and age another six weeks. The interior parts are crafted by hand and are not interchangeable from one instrument to another.
"The keys are not molded plastic; they are a lucite key top and a frame made from fine walnut wood that is lighted, shaped, and polished to a glowing hue. Some models have a sound chamber ... engulfing two banks of reed sets varnished to a mirror sheen" ("The Petosa Story").
With care, the company says, one of its accordions "will definitely outlive its owner or the craftsman making it" ("The Petosa Story").
The Petosa Company won several patents for the instrument, including one for a built-in sound chamber that improves resonance. The invention was exhibited in 1953 at the National Association of Music Merchants meeting in Chicago.
An Industry in Turmoil
The Petosa Company was located in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood for several decades before moving in 1955 a short distance east to 313 NE 45th Street in Wallingford, where it remained until late 2017. The vast changes in American culture generally, and music more particularly, led to significant ups and downs in the accordion industry over those six decades. Post-World War II, the accordion was the most popular instrument in America. In 2008, Joe Petosa Jr. recalled what happened next:
"'Then came rock 'n' roll, Petosa said. 'The guitar took over. The new music style killed it.' Or more precisely, relegated it to the backbench status, to novelty acts, to polka cars and Lawrence Welk and Italian movie soundtracks ... Through the 1960s, the guitar became the symbol of hipster cool, of rebellion ... No one, after all, smashed an accordion on stage. No one lit its bellows on fire or windmilled their arms between notes" (Lewis).
The Petosas continued to turn out their handmade instruments, one at a time, weathering the cultural storm.
"And over decades in a city of guitar heroes, a funny thing happened. The accordion got hip again ... As other accordion manufacturers went under and closed their cases for good, Petosa carved out a niche as a high-end provider ... Well before comedian Drew Carey bought a Seattle soccer team, he bought a Petosa accordion ...
"'Maybe it's like that tie from back in the '40s. If you hang on to it long enough, it's back in style again, back out of the closet. But I've always thought the accordion was hip,' Petosa said, enjoying the last laugh" (Lewis).
Four Generations, One Business
Carlo Petosa, also known as Carl, died on September 12, 1959, at the age of 67 while on a business trip to Italy. At the time of his death, he was a member of the Sons of Italy and the Italian Independent Society. A rosary service was held at St. Benedict's Church in Seattle on October 21, 1959, followed by a Requiem Mass the next day.
His wife, Caroline Iacolucci Petosa, had died a few years earlier, on December 31, 1955, at the age of 52. Born in Italy, she had lived in Seattle since 1922. The couple had two sons, Joseph G. and William G., and a daughter, Anna Thompson.
Son Joseph G. Petosa, who followed his father into the business, started helping out in the workshop when he was 10 years old. He was a gifted musician, as was his father, but there were not enough hours in the day to follow both career paths. Joe could either practice and perform, or he could learn the complex business of accordion building.
"Joe made the difficult choice to follow in his father's steps, focusing on the art of building accordion[s] rather than playing them as a career. Reflecting on this choice, Joe has come to the conclusion that in reality he had little, if any choice. 'My brother became a school teacher and my sister got married: so, I was left to join the family business'" ("The Petosa Story").
Despite any lingering disappointment, Joe took great pride in building a precision instrument that carried on his family name.
"To watch him working on an accordion, to hear him play it as he gives it a final check, is to watch and listen to a man who loves his work. A native of Seattle, Joe is also proud of the fact that ... he has been able to continue the tradition of his father. 'Only one handmade accordion in the United States,' he said with a proud smile, 'and it's made right here in Seattle. A Petosa'" (Evans, "Buyers Put ...").
Joseph G. Petosa died on June 3, 2005, at the age of 80, survived by his three sons Joseph M. (known as Joe Jr.), Dean, and Carl. All three had learned the trade, working after school and on the weekends, but it was Joe Jr. who carried on the family tradition. After earning a business degree, he took over the business in 1980.
He was later joined by his son Joseph III (also known as Joey), the fourth-generation Petosa, who came on board fulltime after graduating from the University of Washington in 2010. In 2019, Joe Jr. and Joey worked side-by-side in a business started nearly a century earlier by Carlo Petosa, who had a deep-seated passion for the accordion. On January 24, 2018, Petosa Accordions moved to 19503 56th Avenue W in Lynnwood, located north of Seattle in south Snohomish County.