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Digging the Fifties | Part 5

The NMM is excited to bring to you this series of musical delights. Written by curator Ana Sofia Silva, "Digging the Fifties" takes readers through some unseen highlights of our collections, with intriguing stories, commentary, photos and more, celebrating our 50th Anniversary with 50 objects extraordinaire. Read more below to see how we're "Digging the Fifties!"

To view other Notes from this series, and download the full article, check out


Digging the Fifties

A curatorial perspective on 50 objects from the NMM collections

By Ana Sofia Silva, Curator

While miniature harmonicas like a Wheatstone “Buddy” model (NMM 15050) are small, the NMM has other tiny instruments in the Margaret Martin Whistle Collection, which comprises more than five hundred instruments. A small “cloisonné” whistle (NMM 06250) and a Peruvian duct whistle in the shape of an owl (NMM 06650) were also chosen to be featured in the curatorial article “Digging the Fifties.” Departing from Martin's Peruvian whistle, the article goes on to explore some examples from the NMM's global collection of non-Western instruments. Read more about a Native American flute (NMM 04050) and a Japanese shakuhachi (NMM 01250).

A small silver harmonica on a white background.
Miniature harmonica, Wheatstone & Co., England, ca. 1946–1949. NMM 15050. Photo by Emanuele Marconi.

In the study of musical instruments, when one thinks of the name Wheatstone, one automatically thinks about scientist Sir Charles Wheatstone (1802–1875), who invented the symphonium (1829) and developed the English concertina. However, the history of the company bearing Wheatstone's name can be traced far back to 1750 with other members of the family. Eventually, Charles and his brother William Dolman (1804–1862) picked up and maintained the musical instrument business through most of the 1800s. Most probably because of its prestige, the name “Wheatstone & Co.” was retained when other companies acquired the business. In the 1930s, the enterprise had been declining and was forced to suspend concertina manufacture because of the war. In 1943, part of the business was purchased by major company Besson & Co., which in turn became a Boosey & Hawkes subsidiary in 1948. Limited production of Wheatstone concertinas was maintained until 1975 when Steve Dickinson purchased the name, machinery, and stock. Today, Dickinson continues to manufacture and repair concertinas under the Wheatstone trademark. During the Besson/B&H era, the company manufactured other Wheatstone-branded instruments, just like this miniature harmonica, NMM 15050. The Wheatstone “Buddy” model, 8-note mouth organs, were small diatonic harmonicas with 2 reed plates holding 4 reeds each. Among only a few other models, these were one of the first instruments allowed to be made by Wheatstone as the restrictions on non-war-related manufacturing began to ease in England after the end of World War II. This example was a gift of avid concertina collector and historian Neil Wayne (b. 1946), who presented it to the NMM in 2016, during the traditional 10-year-returning annual meeting of the American Musical Instrument Society in Vermillion.

Now, many of the harmonicas at the NMM are amongst the smallest of instruments found in the collections. Particularly, if one thinks of the miniature ones. However, there are other tiny instruments in the Margaret Martin Whistle Collection. In 1998, Margaret Hammerbacher Martin (1908–2004) donated her collection of more than five hundred whistles to the NMM. A collection she started with the purchase of four “primitives” at a small shop in Oregon, and grew from travels and gifts from around the world. Her collection includes various types of whistles and other instruments like pitch pipes, panpipes, clay vessel flutes, and ocarinas. Two of these are briefly presented next.

A whistle, decorated with red and blue enameled flowers and gold wire, on a blue lanyard.
Whistle, before 1983. NMM 06250. Photo by Ana Sofia Silva.

The first example is a beautiful “escargot” or “snail” shape type whistle, which is probably the most recognizable shape of compact whistle. NMM 06250 is made in brass decorated in a cloisonné style, a technique that uses colored glass paste, or enamel, painted within contained partitions (French cloisons) of metal wire. In this case, designs of flowers and leaves in red, blue, pink, and green colors over a white background adorn the body, sides, and mouthpiece parts of the whistle. Part whistle, part pendant, it is also attached to a blue, braided necklace cord. Margaret received this as a Christmas gift in 1983.

A small owl-shaped flute made out of clay, painted in earth tones.
Whistle, Cuzco, Peru, before 1985. NMM 06650. Photo by Ana Sofia Silva.

The second example, NMM 06650, is a globular resonating duct whistle, or vessel flute, made of clay in a zoomorphic shape of an owl. The embouchure hole is located at the bottom of the figure (owl's tail), and the air duct travels the back of the owl towards the voicing edge hole. The owl is decorated in a traditional Peruvian folk-art paint with floral designs and simple feather features. Margaret purchased this one in Cuzco, Peru, in 1985.

Departing from Martin's Peruvian whistle, let us explore a few more examples from the NMM's global collection of non-Western instruments. At the NMM, the collecting approach in the subset of folk, indigenous, and global musical instruments, has been mostly representative, meaning that the goal was to have evocative examples of cultural or regional variations. As such, most instruments may lack specific attribution and provenance, but there are some pockets of concentration and one-off examples of high-quality instruments as well.

The first two examples were both collected by Arne B., but unfortunately, there is little documented provenance information about them. They are both part of the founding ABL collection.

A wooden Native American flute, with the end carved to resemble a sandhill cranes beak, on a white background.
Courting flute, Northern Great Plains, North America, ca. 1885–1915. NMM 04050. Photo by Dara Lohnes-Davies.

The Native American flute, NMM 04050, is also known as a “courting” or “love” flute because that was one of its traditional uses: a man would make his own instrument and play it to court a woman. While traditionally only men played these flutes, today, the instrument is used by anyone in many musical practices and functions across a broad range of styles and tribes. The manufacture of these flutes was also refined by contemporary makers, but in essence, these are end-blown duct flutes with external blocks. The NMM example seems to be an earlier one, dating from the late 19th century or early 20th century, attributed to the Northern Great Plains. It is made in two half-pieces of wood that were hollowed out and assembled together with resin and metal wire. The block, which is secured with rawhide, was carved in a simple shape with a chimney that borders three sides of the sound hole. The flute has six fingerholes and it ends in a stylized bird head with two brass tacks for eyes, probably symbolizing a sandhill crane, which is known for its courting skills. A curious element in this flute is its mouthpiece, which is made from an empty brass bullet casing bearing the headstamp “W.R.A. CO. / 25-20 W.C.F.”, which stands for a Winchester Center Fire rifle cartridge made by the Winchester Repeating Arms Company.

A bamboo shakuhachi on a white background.
Shakuhachi, Minzan, Japan, ca. 1930–1940. NMM 01250. Photo by Bill Willroth, Sr.

The Japanese shakuhachi, NMM 01250, is also an end-blown flute, but it has no duct. The player blows air directly into a sharp edge at the top end, which has a diagonal notch inlaid with a piece of hard dense material called utaguchi (Japanese for “song mouth”). Because the flute is made of bamboo and susceptible to structural variations in humidity that can lead to damage, the utaguchi is an essential element to keep the blowing edge sharp. The shape of the utaguchi also defines a particular school of traditional Japanese shakuhachi playing. The NMM example has a curved shaped utaguchi, most probably made of water buffalo horn, which is typical of the Tozan Ryu school. This school was founded by Nakao Tozan (1876–1956) in the late 1890s, which was already during the historical period that Japan was open to the world and influenced by Western power and culture (Meiji era). It was during this era that the shakuhachi became very popular as an instrument to be played in an ensemble, along with other Japanese stringed instruments. As such, the shakuhachi began to be made according to specific tuning standards influenced by Western music, which allowed it to play “in tune” with other instruments. Nakao Tozan was also influential in the movement that introduced the shakuhachi to the U.S. in the aftermath of the great 1923 earthquake in Japan. Aside from the utaguchi, the NMM instrument features other characteristics that developed from that adaptation to Western influence, such as: body joints (makers had limited pieces of the fine madaké bamboo that they could use to make instruments “in tune” and in conformity with the traditional aesthetic of shakuhachi making, which accounts for the position of the toneholes and bamboo nodes); and lacquered bore (makers started to work/shape the interior bore of the natural bamboo, which allowed making instruments with better tuning, stronger tones, and enhanced response more suitable to ensemble performance). The NMM shakuhachi also bears a Yaki-in by the thumbhole, which is the maker's signature made with a branding stamp. In this case, the Japanese characters 眠山 (read vertically) are pronounced as “Min-zan,” which translates to “Sleeping Mountain.”


Stay tuned for more posts in this special curatorial series - Digging the Fifties!



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