Civil War Fifing: Making It Better

A Patent Fife by John Pfaff

By 1864, the Civil War was nearly over, but neither the Federals nor Confederates could know that for certain. Both governments continued to recruit soldiers, and in the North the merchant mass scrambled to secure lucrative military contracts for the necessary clothing, arms, and accouterments as well as for drums and fifes.  Some makers, such as New York’s Firth and Pond and Philadelphia’s William H. Horstmann Co., filled governmental orders with standard instruments, but others responded to the increased demand by developing and patenting improvements, especially in fife design.  One such maker was Philadelphia’s John Pfaff.

Pfaff was one of 7 sons of Johann Pfaff of Kaiserlautern.   In Germany, Johann and 3 of his sons made woodwinds, a practice that John continued upon his arrival in the United States in 1842.  He worked a year in Baltimore, but then the 26-year-old Pfaff established a shop in Philadelphia, where he stayed until his death in 1887.

Patent submission, the vertically blown flute, by John Pfaff (1857).

John Pfaff produced flutes mostly but also clarinets.  He was not content to just make them, he also improved them.  In 1857 he invented (and patented) a flute that could be played vertically, because

In playing the ordinary flute it is necessary to turn the head partially to one side, and to maintain the arms in an unnatural position, causing distortions and strains which have been found to affect the chests of players, and more especially of beginners.  The fingers and wrist too have to be stretched to an inconvenient extent.

Health issues aside, Pfaff further believed that the unusual playing position of his newly designed flute “actually improves [the tone of the flute] both as regards clearness and volume.”

Filed with the Patent Office, 1864.

Turning his attention to fifers, Pfaff found different problems.  He saw that while the fifer was playing and marching, the instrument was in danger of “slipping from its position in front of the mouth when the body of the performer is constantly moving.”  He sought to correct this by placing a “ridge or protuberance” on either side of the embouchure, allowing the fifer “to draw the fife up without hesitancy or doubt as to proper placement against his lips.”

Pfaff submitted his written arguments along with a detailed drawing of his plan to officials in Washington, which was sufficient to convince them to issue a patent on November 29, 1864.

While a flute of the 1857 design is not known to this writer, two examples of the 1864 fife are.  These were not found in any major museum collections, though; both of them, surprisingly, turned up on the online auction Ebay, one in December 2001 and the other in April 2004, and I bought both.

The fifes are quite interesting.  Both are pitched in B flat and are straight-bore instruments with a tapered body.  One fife has ferrules made from thin brass, the other has none.  The tone holes are grossly equal in size and spaced more or less equidistant along the body.  Both fifes are made of bird’s-eye maple, although the figure is more pronounced in the unferruled one.  The lack of ferrules, by the way, appears to be intentional, as there were no insets spun to receive them; however, there are decorative lines scored at either end of the body in imitation of the lines customarily engraved on ferrules.

The embouchure on each fife is guarded  bilaterally with the patent-protected ridges, which are sufficiently high to fulfill their purpose.

The Tanner fife, also an ebay purchase. The mouthpiece (“cheater”) is early but is not original.

Pfaff wasn’t the only maker who sought to improve the military fife.  On July 5, 1864, John W. Tanner filed for a patent to protect his “convertible fife.”

His design would enable the player to change the pitch of his instrument simply by substituting a second, differently-sized foot joint.

However, fellow New Yorker A.H. Stratton had already produced an instrument that accomplished this without the inconvenience of carrying two foot joints around.  His patent, filed on May 2, 1856, described a fife made with a double tube.  The outer tube contained 2 sets of tone holes, each set strategically placed along the body.  By adjusting the inner tube, the fifer could access either set of tone holes and thus play in the desired key at will without the trouble of changing foot joints.  While patient monitoring of Ebay did indeed result in one of the Tanner fifes, I am still looking for a Stratton patent model, so if you see one, post a note here and don’t bid on it!

Copyright 2006, 2011 HistoryOfTheAncientsDotOrg.  All rights reserved.

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