‘Sup with this fife?

It’s a question that gets asked a lot, most recently on May 13, 2013.  This time, it was fairly easy to answer:

On 5/13/2013 9:32 AM, [a well-known fife maker] wrote:
Hi

Can you identify this fife

This fife, owned by a Vermont gentleman who died in 1943, likely never saw war-time service but is a treasured family heirloom nonetheless.

This fife, owned by a Vermont gentleman who died in 1943, likely never saw war-time service but is a treasured family heirloom nonetheless.

My answer went something like this:
This is a common but fascinating instrument — common, because we see a lot of these anywhere from the 1920s up to the 1950s or even the ’60s, but fascinating because it has quite a story to tell.  Maybe a teensy tiny bit earlier than 1920, but not by much (maybe a year or two), because if you go much farther back you will see big differences in fife design and besides, there would be no machinery around to make this kind of thing much before the late ‘teens/early 20s, not to mention no market demand and thus no incentive for makers to buy fancy (and expensive) machines just to make this kind of fife.

The most prolific maker of this kind of fife was the Cloos company in Brooklyn, NY.  The variable tonehole sizes are a dead giveaway.  But your fife was likely not made by Cloos, since it does not have the mark one would expect to see (either a G with a superimposed C enclosed by things that look something like this:  <  and  >, or the word CLOOS in a sans serif font running obliquely up the instrument).  More than likely it was made by someone trying to capitalize on the market demand created by the Cloos products (another indication of that is, again, the toneholes…) OK, so you might convince me that it was *indeed* made by Cloos, but if so, he was working as a third-party jobber with someone else’s specifications (and thus was not marked as a Cloos product).  In any event, it remains an early-to-mid 20th century fife.

Lots of people liked these metal fifes.  At this time, the best flutes were made of metal, which was considered more resonant than wood (and required a lot less care and maintenance).  Plus, they were “sanitary,” which was a big concern in the 1920s-30s, when society started taking the studies of people like Pasteur, Lister, and Koch seriously.  The problem of reduced chimney height was recognized early on, which is why just about all the metal fifes one finds have some sort of lip plate, which at least doubles the chimney height, thus enabling the player to produce a more forceful sound with less effort.

The fact that it is made in two pieces reinforces my not-much-earlier-than-1920’s theory.  At that time there were so many fife and drum corps demanding really good instruments that makers took the hint and devised some improvements to their products.  Separating the head and foot of the fife into joints replicated what flute-makers were already doing, so that players could alter the sounding length and either sharpen or flatten the pitch.  Problem is, there is only a very tiny “window” of pulling out/pushing in before you messed up the individual pitches, thus making the fife out-of-tune with itself, so they also made these models in one single piece for the unabashed historical-types (like me), who relied upon rolling the fife in towards the lip to flatten (and out away from the lip to sharpen) the problem tones.

So, your great-uncle probably paid a bit extra to have the latest, greatest fife model that was available at the time — but not quite as much as he would have for a real Cloos…clever guy, your great uncle…

One way to tell an old fife from a new one -- if it's made of swirly acrylic, it can't be any earlier than 2010.  (Image courtesy of Pat Murray, 2011).

One way to tell an old fife from a new one — if it’s made of a colorful swirly acrylic, it can’t be any earlier than 2010. (Image courtesy of Pat Murray, 2011).

I’m guessing your fife is most likely a B-flat, assuming a standard half-inch bore size.  Thus, depending on cork placement, a fife with an overall length of 16 inches usually plays near or at B-flat.  You can test it with a piano…if you sound the lowest tone (all holes open, not covered by any fingers) you would match A-flat played on a piano.  (There is a much more sophisticated way of calculating sounding length, but this one works for me, given that I can’t see, measure, and play the instrument myself).  So, even though you end up with an instrument pitched in A-flat, it is considered a B-flat, due to the problem of pitch nomenclature for transposing woodwinds, something I find confusing (it’s an argument based on German vs. English culture).  I figure as long as A = 440, which it has since about 1938, the method I described above will determine if your instrument is pitched in what most people call B-flat but some people don’t <sigh>.

So, even though it probably was not played in a war or any of that kind of that awesome (and bloody–people forget these things were bloody and tragic!) stuff, it was probably played at a ton of July 4th and Memorial Day parades, not to mention the less dramatic but well-attended historical commemorative events sponsored by small communities and in those fabulous fife and drum corps that perpetuated the martial music of their fathers and grandfathers before them who marched anywhere and everywhere they had a chance to, including “exhibitions” and “field days,” where these corps each tried to outdo the other to impress judges and win prizes.

Good for salads and fried chicken, bad for fifes!  Never use it on one!  (Google images)

Good for salads and fried chicken, bad for fifes! Never use it on one! (Google images)

Lucky for you metal fifes require very little care.  Just keep it out of damp cellars and dust it off every once in a while and you will have a nearly indestructible relic of times gone by…if you must wash it, maybe yearly with some mild soap (like dish detergent) and warm water, then by all means do so, but let it stand upright to dry overnight (so you don’t keep the cork wet, which will disintegrate it).  Not that a cork is all that difficult to replace, but I don’t know if you live near someone who can properly place it for optimal tone and tuneability.  Besides, you probably want to keep it as original as possible, and that includes the cork.  So, if you like that cork, keep it out of dry attics, too, or wherever there are wide temperature and humidity fluctuations (like stuffed in a box somewhere in an unheated garage).

Then came the worst question of all:

On 5/13/2013 1:44 PM, [the fife owner] wrote:

 Thank you for your quick response and providing a wealth of information about the fife! 
 
Just curious, what would you expect the price/value of a fife like this to be?

My reply wasn’t so helpful, I’m afraid, but I would offer the same advice to anyone with an old fife:

How to solve the "how much is my old fife worth" question:  Restrict your ancestors to those who played in an all-drums/no-fifes drum corps, like this one from Rockville, CT (1878).  Author's Collection

How to solve the “how much is my old fife worth” question: Restrict your ancestors to those who played in an all-drums/no-fifes drum corps, like this one from Rockville, CT (1878). Author’s Collection

Gah, I hate that question, because in truth, the fife (and anything else, for that matter) is worth only what someone is willing to pay.  And that can vary according to time, place, and person.  Too many variables for me!  😦

That said, I do think these are sleepers.  Right now the people most interested in fifes, new or old, are either reenactors or what we call “Ancient” fifers and drummers.  The reenactors are spread all over the place, but the Ancients are kinda clustered in the CT Valley Shore area.  In any event, it’s a small market that is mostly interested in antique wooden fifes that can somehow be related, wrongly or rightly, with one of America’s Great Wars; i.e., the Revolution and/or the Civil War.

Which, sadly, rules out the museum world, too.  They, too, want something with a glorious war-related provenance, and they generally want it for free.

And if your ancestor was a drummer, make sure he leaves you only part of his old post CW drum...like this one, which was made sometime in or after 1884. That way you can use it to goof around at the Kinderhook Muster (June 1, 2013). Modeled by John Buzzi, Kentish Guards. Author's Collection.

And if your ancestor was a drummer, make sure he leaves you only part of his old drum…like this one, which was made sometime during or after 1884. That way if you damage it while goofing around at the Kinderhook Muster (June 1, 2013), you can probably find another for  about $30 to $60.   But not on ebay!  where the minimum bid will likely be 10 times that much because its seller believes it’s a genuine Civil War drum whose heads evaporated during the heat of battle at Second Manassas or something like that…Modeled by John Buzzi, Kentish Guards. Author’s Collection.

The end result is that you might, on a good eBay day, get something like $50 or $75 for it, but IMHO that’s cookie crumbs compared to its value as a relic from the truly golden age of fifing and drumming (which is AFTER the Civil War, thank you very much) and can’t even begin to recompense you for the family history that is in that fife.  So, I would hang on to it, enjoy it as a tangible reminder of your past, learn to play it (and play some of the music that was once played on it, which either Ron or I can come up with for you), and in about 50 years, when the market wises up, then think of selling it.

An American Legion ladies' corps.  The Legion-sponsored competitions included a ladies' class. Google Images, accessed September 14, 2012.

An American Legion ladies’ corps. The Legion-sponsored competitions included a ladies’ class. Google Images, accessed September 14, 2012.

Or keep it for your kids, and your kids’ kids, etc.  Be sure to pass down the stories associated with it, too.  See if you can dig up some newspaper photos of Great-Uncle [what was his name?] with his fife and/or his fife and drum corps — and you will likely find some of those.  This was a great big thing back in the 1920-30s, and there are newspaper accounts of the field days and Memorial Day parades and things like that.  Start with the town he lived in, look in the local history files, old newspaper clippings, etc.   If he played this fife when it was fairly new, around the 1910s-20s-maybe even 30s,  I would start there and work your way up.  Was he a veteran of some kind?  If so, check out the American Legion activity in his area of Vermont– the Legion was quite active and sponsored tons of drum corps events like field days in their early years.  Build its history, and you will have something to be really proud of and, maybe in a few years, something salable as well.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s