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 https://www.nmmusd.org/notes/tags/digging-the-fifties
Digging the Fifties
A curatorial perspective on 50 objects from the NMM collections
By Ana Sofia Silva, Curator
In its comprehensive collections, the NMM has a wide share of oddities and unusual instruments. What is a normaphone (NMM 07350)? Or a Grand Harmonicon (NMM 04150)? Or a violute (NMM 04350)? And when is a “Harp Guitar” (NMM 04650) not really a true harp-guitar? You can discover these, and more, in the curatorial article “Digging the Fifties.” While there may be substantial documentation for some of these instruments, for others, like the “Stromso Star Harp” (NMM 04950), the need for further investigation and research may still be present. Perhaps some of these less-known stories will inspire a future researcher at the NMM?
The final example from the Utley collection, NMM 07350, is an unusual instrument called normaphone, which is basically a saxophone-shaped trumpet. In 1926, Oskar Richard Heber (1872–1938), from Markneukirchen, Germany, who produced brass instruments under his “Norma” brand, submitted a patent application for a “metal wind instrument with valves in saxophone shape.” The design, from which an original drawing survives, was protected by a German Utility Patent (D.R.G.M. no. 51c 945 751) and Heber marketed his invention under the name “Normaphon.” When jazz became wildly popular in Europe in the mid-1920s, the iconic jazz instruments, saxophones, were very expensive and hard to come by because the focus of saxophone production and development had shifted from Paris to the U.S., where it was booming. In the historical context after World War I, when there was much poverty in Germany and the newly formed Czechoslovakia, local brass manufacturers of the Vogtland and Bohemia regions made instruments that best suited their usual production. Making trumpets that looked like saxophones was less complex and such instruments could be played by the usual customers in the European market.
The Grand Harmonicon, NMM 04150, is a version of musical glasses patented in 1825 by Francis Hopkinson Smith (1797–1872), grandson of Francis Hopkinson (1737–1791), signer of the Declaration of Independence. Sets of musical glasses have been documented as early as the 15th century, but it was only in the middle of the 18th century that they reached some popularity as performance instruments. They were part of a general trend associated with the rise of modern science and technology of the time. Smith was engaged in the manufacturing and sale of his grand harmonicons in Richmond, Virginia, and Baltimore, Maryland, between 1824 and 1833. He also played it and wrote a Preceptor for the Grand Harmonicon, or Musical Glasses. The NMM example was purchased from Smith in 1830 by the father of Edward Gale Butler (1841–1917) of Dabney, Vance County, North Carolina. It remained in the same family (of last name Glover) who donated it to the NMM. Butler's daughter, Florence Margaret Butler (1891–1981) married Fred Weston Glover, Sr. (1874–1941). The instrument consists of a set of 24 bowl-shaped, flint glasses (3 are currently missing), which have blunt stems that fit into holes of a wooden soundboard assembled inside of the mahogany case. Each glass has a decal with the pitch letter. The glasses would be filled with water up to a certain level to achieve the desired pitch (though not all glasses needed water), and the player would sound them by rubbing the rims with moistened fingertips. The case sits on a pedestal column with carved claw feet at the corners of the base.
Another unusual instrument at the NMM is the Stromso Star Harp zither, NMM 04950. In essence, this instrument is a chord zither, with 124 metal strings grouped into 27 chords, and no melody strings. What is unusual about it is that is mostly made of metal (four triangular pieces of aluminum function as soundboards), and very little information has surfaced about “The Stromso Star Harp,” its name as given by the manufacturer, featured on the instrument label, “E. G. Lundquist & Co.,” located at 5209 Broadway, Chicago. According to information from a 1978 patent found for one Eric G. Lundquist (U.S. Patent 4,126,074) for a violin harp that is very similar to the NMM instrument, the manufacturer could probably be Eric Gustaf Lundquist (1889–1986), who was born in Sweden, immigrated to the U.S., and was naturalized in 1931. A lifelong resident of Rockford, Illinois, he is listed in U.S. directories and census as a machine operator, carpenter, and later as a musician working for a radio station. In the 1950s, he was listed at Broadway street addresses, but in Rockford, not Chicago.
The 1978 Rockford city directory confirms that Lundquist, now retired, was located at the same address as the one on the patent. The author could not trace any further information about a company “E. G. Lundquist & Co.” in Chicago at this point. Arne B. acquired this instrument from Fred Miller in Chicago, in 1954, so the instrument predates the patent. A second zither that is somewhat similar to this instrument surfaced years later with the Christian collection (NMM 12001), but it bears a different maker stamp for “Swedish Harp/E. Lund” and a “patent applied for” stamp as well. As the only two instruments known to us of this type, there is some speculation that these could have been prototypes since so little information about “Lundquist & Co.” and other instruments has surfaced so far.
The next instrument is a “harp-guitar” of unconventional shape that is essentially a guitar because it features the same six strings on a standard neck. NMM 04650 has no extra open or unfretted strings to pluck like the true harp-guitar instruments. Its name comes from the “Patent Harp Guitar” granted in 1831 to Emilius Nicolai Scherr (1794–1874), a Danish immigrant who established a successful factory in Philadelphia to build mostly pianos and organs. The body of the instrument includes a hollowed extension on the lower section that provides a base to rest it on the floor in a fashion similar to a harp, hence the name. Scherr wanted to increase the volume of the instrument and believed that leaning the guitar against the player's body would muffle the sound, so he came up with the idea of an upright, self-standing guitar. Scherr's patent is the earliest known U.S. patent for a plucked string instrument. Before the 1830s there were very few makers in the country and most of the guitars were imported from Europe. It was only after the arrival of Christian Frederick Martin Sr. (1796–1873) in 1833 that the production of American guitars truly started. Scherr's Harp-Guitars are amongst the earliest guitar-type instruments produced in America that descend from the Austro-German making tradition. The NMM example is one of eleven extant instruments known so far, with decoration that is typical from earlier instruments in the Federal style (contemporary style of American furniture, ca. 1790–1830). Provenance history also indicates that this instrument was part of the estate collection of Sylvea Bull (Vaughan) Curtis (1907–1988), grand-daughter of the famous Norwegian virtuoso violinist Ole Bornemann Bull (1810–1880), who was friends with Scherr.
Another instrument of unconventional shape is the violute, NMM 04350, which is an experimental violin with a pear-shaped body. This instrument was invented and patented by German immigrant George D. Hambrecht (1867–1940) of Canajoharie, New York, in 1930 (U.S. Patent 1,773,674). According to Hambrecht's patent, the instrument was designed to produce an improved violin tone through one large vibrating air space rather than the two spaces from the standard eight-shaped violin. The name “violute” was a contraction of the words “violin” and “flute” because the instrument produced a flute-like tone. The NMM holds two violutes that were both collected by Arne B. and he loved to use one (NMM 02522) in his lecture demonstrations. According to Hambrecht's obituary published in the Fort Plain NY Standard (May 16, 1940), he came to America very young at the age of 14, and was first employed in the woodworking trade of wagon making. When he settled in Canajoharie, he kept a wagon-making and blacksmithing business with his brother Henry, until the latter passed away in 1929. From then on, Hambrecht followed his trade of general wood repair and furniture making. The obituary goes on to describe that he was “a musician for many years [and] manufactured a number of instruments, which were named violutes which were used extensively by orchestra leaders.” Hambrecht was also an active member of many local music groups and orchestras. In the 1990s, Hambrecht's great-grandson, James P. Dillon (b. 1946), was undertaking a quest for extant violutes made by his ancestor and found out about the NMM examples. Dillon confirmed that his great-grandfather “was a very fine cabinet maker,” because the family had “various pieces of beautifully inlay furniture” he had designed and built, and that he “also made violins and gave violin lessons, being a skilled musician in his own right.” However, while the instruments that Dillon found had hand-written inscriptions inside, with serial numbers and the granted patent number, both the NMM examples do not have the same inscription. Instead, they bear a single, small paper label with “Made in Germany.” Without further investigation and examination, one can hint at the possibilities that Hambrecht could have commissioned a German firm to manufacture some instruments for him, or a German firm could have built instruments based on Hambrecht's patent