An Oldie — But Not A Goodie

I’ve been away from eBay for a while, so I was a bit surprised to see this:



offered for sale on eBay, 12-25-2020, Merry Christmas!  Photo courtesy of generallee292.

I see the seller has learned his lesson and stopped fraudulently marking mid-twentieth-century Cloos fifes with “genuine Civil War” regimental imprints.  But now he is committing a different kind of fraud — marking what could very well be a genuine Civil-War-era fife with a fake “genuine Civil-War inscription” <<sigh>> To my mind, this is not only fraudulent, it is a mortal sin that distorts the historical record and ruins the value of what was, before he made his blocky incisions, true (and valuable) antiques. 

However, not all of us have learned to discourage this kind of historical destruction by scrolling past his eBay offerings, because with 4 days and 12 hours to go until this auction reaches its end, the bidding already exceeds $100.00 and dozens of bidders are watching.  


That’s the kind of patina that cannot be entirely scrubbed away. Photo courtesy of generallee292

The seller, identified only as generallee292, believes this instrument to be of museum quality, and he submits reasonably good photos as proof.  From these we can see that the gross characteristics point to a mid-19th-century origin for this instrument — even-size toneholes placed in 2 groups of 3, the oval-shaped embouchure with a slight swell, and a more-or-less straight body with cylindrical brass ferrules.  However, “mid-century” runs from  approximately 1840 to 1870, just sayin’. 

To me, this fife looks primarily machine-made, which would place it towards the end of that mid-century estimation and approach, if not fall right into, the 1870s.  However, the Civil War years cannot be entirely ruled out.  There is just enough gross evidence of handwork (in the application of the ferrule plus its decorative knurled-type strip) to indicate a careful attention to detail in performing tasks that machines could not yet perform, and I would further venture to guess that this was once a quality instrument.  I wonder, though, about the quality of the bore and whether the tone holes were undercut, but these are characteristics that demand personal inspection, which is obviously impossible here.  But one will never know unless one is the (lucky?) purchaser, because the seller has yet to answer my questions.   And he doesn’t accept returns, so. . .

He does, however, give an encouraging description of the fife:


This is not patina, this is polish. Photo courtesy of generallee292.

Unfortunately, generallee292 fails to disclose what to me is a glaring problem with his otherwise-detailed description:  Just when was “114TH PA INF  “carved” on the side near the finger holes”?

This had to have occurred relatively recently, such the day after the seller “purchased [it] from a private collection in Gettysburg, PA” or maybe the day after the day after that, simply because, if for no other reason, the instrument is too clean. 
The “outstanding rich patina throughout” should be a dark, subtle glow, but this fife actually shines as if it had been stripped, cleaned, and polished.  This kind of work, clearly, was done before the carving occurred; otherwise, traces of it would have remained within the exposed raw surfaces of the wood. 

This boxwood fife, ca 1850, retains its patina. #38779755,

By definition patina is “the sheen on a surface, such as one made of wood, produced by age and use.” There is no evidence of age or use in the finish of this instrument.   There are no wear patterns to indicate the countless number of times the fife had been inserted into and withdrawn from a pocket or a case, no wear or darkening to indicate the countless tunes that were fingered on its tone holes, no stains or spots to indicate where coffee spills, candle wax, tobacco juice, or dirt had been cleaned and re-cleaned from its surface.  There are no dings or gouges to indicate that this fife was ever dropped or knocked against a tin cup as it was stuffed into a knapsack — in fact, it looks as though it saw no use at all!  There is no evidence of the years of regular and repeated oiling that preserved this fife body from cracks and would have formed the “rich patina” he claims.  There is no accumulation of anything — dirt, oil, or cleaning agents — in the “carving” itself. 

And, speaking of “carving,” this particular example does not look like it was drawn freehand with a soldier’s penknife or bayonet tip.  It appears to have been “carved” by more sophisticated tooling — plus a template to ensure even height and depth of the lettering.

In my opinion, judging from evidence in the photos, the “carving” is new, period, and anyone from the 114th PA Inf who made it would have had to rise from his grave, sneak into generallee292’s workshop, plug in the router (or laser engraver), perform the dastardly deed, and then sneak back to his resting place.


This ferrule shows not only patina but also pincer marks. As the wood (naturally) shrunk with age, the ferrules would loosen. The pincer made sure they would remain securely in place. Photo courtesy of generallee292.

But there is some proof of age on this instrument that the General couldn’t destroy.  Take a close look at the ferrules, which the seller provides in two views.  There is patina evident in the dings and discolorations.  This is where the metal has resisted his efforts and thus remains as the sole sign of age.  Cleaning and polishing has diminished it, but neither effort could strip this patina away entirely.

Another glaring problem is this:  Why do all of the “army-carved” fifes I’ve seen on eBay sales come from Maryland?   Every one I’ve seen has a different regimental marking. . .and they’ve all been from Yankee regiments.  Of course I haven’t seen them all, and in truth I haven’t even been looking all that hard, so there may be others from other areas of the US; whether they (if they exist) and/or this seller has produced some Confederate marks, I don’t know.  All I know is that the ones I’ve seen are all from Maryland.  The clean, even block-type script seen here is a definite change — and an upgrade from the sans serif font he once imprinted on Cloos fakes — I mean fifes.
Just asking the questions here, because contacting the seller through eBay has still produced no response. 
So, while we await generallee292’s replies, let’s investigate the 114th PA Inf.  There is a great resource right here on WordPress, in this blog:
Here’s a photo of Company F reproduced on that blog, original at the Library of Congress. 

I see a single drum but no fifes.


Company H

Company H with no drums or fifes


No fifes in this company, either.

Of course, a single photo of a few companies of the 114th PA Inf doesn’t supplant a detailed review of the enlistment rolls, pay receipts, pension records, and the like, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are names of fifers listed therein. But even if the 114th had filled-up quotas of fifers all through the war, that would not excuse the historical exploitation that *someone* in Maryland has been getting away with for years.

Let’s not encourage it by sending him money.

Addendum:  Well, it might or might not be true that a sucker is born every minute, but I do believe that 21 of them bid on this fife, thus putting the tidy sum of $750.00 securely into generallee292’s pocket. 

Not bad for a few minutes’ work with a router (or a laser engraver), eh?


The famous showman, Phineas T. Barnum. Courtesy WikiImages.

And, no, while those words have often been associated with him, P.T. Barnum never really said them. . . or if he did, nobody actually heard him. 

In truth, it was the rather inglorious and previously unknown David Hannum, a banker from nearby Syracuse, who said it, and this after he himself had proved his own sucker propensities by purchasing the Cardiff Giant in 1869. 

Scott Tribble tells the story in A Colossal Hoax, the Giant from Cardiff that Fooled America (2008).  It’s a delightful read that is a whole lot cheaper than the musical hoax that prompted this discussion and much more entertaining (and much less disturbing) than any of the political hoaxes we’ve been warned about over the last 4 years. 


How to Perform the Manual Exercise — With Music

easy plan pickering

Pickering’s manual differed from its contemporaries by explaining the role of music in the soldiers’ drill in much more detail.

A simple read of the eighteenth-century military manuals gives a good idea of what was expected from the common soldier.  But the picture they paint isn’t very clear.  How closely were the manuals followed?  How were the troops taught?  Were other practices utilized to augment the manual exercise?  To understand the directives in the manuals, we’ve got to look at other sources as well.  Orderly books, correspondence, diaries, and newspapers — especially newspapers — tell us what the manuals don’t.

Especially newspapers.


From The Virginia Gazette, 17 February 1776:

To the Army.  Directions how to perform the manual exercise by music.

First, let a march, such as God Save the King, Carbinier’s, or The Dorsetshire, to be fixed for the above purpose; but any other tune may do that [if] set to music in common time, i.e. having four crochets (or other notes equal thereto) in a bar.

2dly, Order one of these tunes to be blown either on the trumpet, fife, clarionet, or on some other wind instrument, and set those whom you would first learn by this method to march without arms for some time by the said tune, in order to ground them thoroughly in the several beats of the same, till they can march by them with ease and without constraint.

dorsetshire march -- ompete tutor for the fife

The Dorsetshire March from The Compleat Tutor for the Fife. . . [1767].  Giles Gibbs may have used a copy of this book when he wrote Dorsetshire March into his tunebook in 1777.

3rdly, Now you may venture to let them take up their arms, and shoulder; then order the first strain, or part, of the tune to be played in piano, or soft, the men standing fast.

4thly, the music to begin the second time, forte, or loud; at the same instant the manual exercise to begin, and be continued till the whole is ended, keeping the same exact time [between] each motion as was done in marching.

5thly, An exception or two must be made to the last general rule, viz. when the ramrod is half drawn out, and seized back-handed, double time, or two beats, is to be allowed in clearing it off the pipes, turning, and pointing in the barrel.

6thly, The same portion of time is likewise to be allowed for drawing it out of the barrel, turning and guiding it down the loops.

7thly, In the second motion of charging bayonets, the music must dwell a little on that note (called a hold) in order to gain time to bring the firelock down to its proper attitude.

It is practicable to bring, not only a battalion or a regiment to exercise by the aforesaid rules, but a whole army, consisting of at least 50,000 men, and with such accuracy and perfection in point of time, as cannot be executed by any other method hitherto found out; the due performance of which will most pleasingly affect the glowing breast of every spectator, as can be better felt than demonstrated.


This essay fills in many of the blanks left unaddressed by the military manuals, most importantly those concerning the value and use of the field music.  Other than a list of “Beats of the Drum,” most late-eighteenth-century military manuals mention the field music vaguely, if at all.  However, here in this essay the writer presents the function of the field music in more detail.  Not only did the music assist the soldier in learning the manual exercise with “accuracy and perfection,” it did so better than “any other method hitherto found out. ”

For present-day scholars who argue that drummers dominated the the field music to the point where fifers were considered a luxury that provided “musical interest” only, it is important to note that the writer of this essay ascribes an equal if not greater significance to the fifers  He advises that the “common time” march used to initiate the exercise be “blown” on a “wind instrument,” not beat on the drum.  Accompaniment by the drummers, though, is implied, since they, too, are part of the field music.  He suggests other suitable wind instruments that could be used, perhaps in the absence of fifers; however, he includes the fife in the list of clarionets, trumpets, or “some other wind instrument.” He offers no performance advice to the drummers, instead focusing upon the fifers (or other wind instrument players), who are told when to play piano, when to play forte, and when to “dwell a little on that note (called a hold).”

tutor for the fife frontispiece

Frontispiece, Compleat Tutor for the Fife. . . [1767]

Clearly, the writer expected some degree of sophistication from the field music, both in general terminology and in performance practice.  That was the only way they could guide “a whole army of 50,000 men” through the manual exercise with “accuracy” and “perfection in point of time.”  Music is powerful only when well performed, and it is obvious that the writer believed in the power of the field music to inspire the men to do their best and “most pleasingly affect. . .every spectator.”

Of particular interest to me as an Ancient historian, however, is the writer’s final comment, that the field music’s effects could be “much better felt than demonstrated.”  While “trumpet[s], clarionet[s] (or other [suitable] instruments” may have rendered the suggested tunes much more melodically than the simple-system, straight-bore fife then in use, they could never achieve the stirring emotional response produced by the combination of fife and drum.  The distinctively patriotic aura that embodied the eighteenth-century field music took their music to a higher, more powerful level, a phenomenon that the late music historian Arthur Schrader called emotional baggage.  The emotional baggage inherited by the Ancients from their progenitors in the early American field music is clearly evident in their music, dress, and drill even today and in my opinion contributes in no small part to their popularity and, more importantly, longevity.


April 2019, (c) History of the Ancients Dot Com.  All Rights Reserved.  This article is dedicated to Kate van Winkle (“Kitty”) Keller, 1937-2018, who devoted her life to the furtherance of early American secular music, both by her many excellent contributions to the subject and her unfailing encouragement to those following in her footsteps.  Thank you, Kitty!

This Civil War Fife. . . Isn’t.

Question: When is a Civil War fife not a Civil War fife?

Answer:  When it was made in 1927. . . or 1938. . . or somewhere in between.

• • •

This and all other photos courtesy of ebay seller, " cat8blt."

This and all other photos courtesy of ebay seller, ” cat8blt.”

• • •
The seller gives an interesting provenance for this fife, which might convince some of its “Civil War” heritage.  He identifies it as “bought from Bannermans island. . . back in the 1950’s.”  Francis Bannerman (b. 1820, d. 1872) ran a ship chandlery near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, but shortly after the close of the Civil War, he expanded his product to include military salvage.  However, it was his son, also named Francis (b. 1851, d. 1918) who built Bannerman’s into a multigenerational enterprise dealing in government military surplus and supplies — some of which were indeed from the Civil War but much of which were not.  So, yes, we can believe the seller’s claim that this fife was sold by Francis Bannerman (or, in 1950, by one of his sons), but that does not guarantee its “Civil War” origin.
• • •
The seller’s claim of a mouthpiece made from “Goodyear rubber” is harder to accept.  Charles Goodyear, who developed and patented the vulcanization method that produced “hard rubber,” died in 1860.  The term “Goodyear rubber” was never in general use, the generic term being simply “hard rubber,” which was the term utilized by the Cloos company when describing these fifes in their catalogs.
• • •
The most imposing and, therefore, convincing “evidence” of this fife originating during the Civil War is the engraving featured on its midsection, “US / 1864.”  Unfortunately, it is a bogus mark that did not originate with this fife.
 • • •
MEtal Cloose-1864-2
I don’t believe for a minute that the seller deceptively marked this fife.  But someone did!  We can’t fault the seller for believing what he is seeing, nor can we fault him for telling others about, but we can educate him as well as other buyers and sellers as to the spurious nature of this and similar marks found on other instruments (see Buying Old Fifes:  When You Don’t Get What You Pay For, November 11, 2014, on this blog).  This kind of fakery has been going on since the Bicentennial years, although this is the first time I have seen it on a metal fife.  Much more common are impressments found on wood fifes. But wood fifes are becoming quite expensive and harder to find; perhaps this explains the increasing number of forged dates we find on wood flutes and even flageolets — and now on metal fifes.
• • •
It is important to note that this kind of fife is only now coming into its own as an “antique.” These lip-plated metal fifes are now reaching the age of 70 and 80 years, which means they are no longer just “old.”  They are acquiring a certain mystique, something that even Grandma and Grandpa don’t remember much of.   They are part of the “new antiques,” colloquially called “mid-century modern,” which probably accounts for their being rescued from attics and closets and offered for sale on ebay and other sites — which in turn attracts forgers as well as innocent buyers.
• • •
• • •
• • •
• • •
Copyright 2015  History of the Ancients Dot Com All rights reserved

Priceless treasure? or piece of trash?

you decide:


Look through the grunge at the tone holes.

A closer view shows that these are Cloos-style tone holes.

A closer view shows that these are Cloos-style.



Machined ferrule of nickel silver (don’t be fooled by the splits — these are not a burnished seam).


Would be pretty hard getting this fife into playing condition…or even display condition…

I guess you know my decision, but I’d like to know yours.  Treasure or trash?

Photos courtesy of ebay seller, NQAC.  To see all photos plus the seller’s text, please visit

Did you say “$14,800”??? or am I on drugs?

Except as noted, all images courtesy of ebay seller amose123.  The images and the seller’s descriptions are available at the URL listed below and were accessed by the author on  07/24/13.   The images on this site will enlarge by double-clicking on them.

When is a fife worth $14,800?  Damned if I know.  But I do know when it ain’t.

The seller makes a good argument to support his asking price.  His description paraphrases (but does not acknowledge) a substantial passage from William Waterhouse, ed., The New Langwill Index (London, 1993), which is where just about anyone researching historical woodwinds begins to search:

“Thomas Stanesby Jr. was apprenticed to his father in 1706 and set up his own establishment over the Temple Exchange in Fleet Street near St Dunstan-in-the-West soon after being released from his indenture in 1713. In 1728 he received the Freedom of the Turner’s Company and in 1739 he was elected Master. In 1734 he inherited all his father’s tools and a seal ring. He eventually took two apprentices, William Sheridan 1737 and Caleb Gedney in 1741, who finished his apprenticeship in 1750 and inherited the tools of his Master upon his death in 1754. About 1732 Stanesby, sensing the impending eclipse of the recorder in professional music circles, issued A New System of the Flute a Bec or Common English Flute wherein he argued vigorously for the use of the ‘C Flute’ (tenor recorder in C) and presented a ‘full and perfect’ fingering chart. The demand for the transverse flute increased, however, and Stanesby made a considerable number of these. Halfpenny wrote that Stanesby signed himself ‘junior’ only up to 1732. He marked his instruments ‘STANESBY IUNIOR’ or ‘STANESBY LONDON’; the mark ‘MURAEUS’ is added to the only surviving bassoon, which is dated 1747 (it was possibly repaired by the maker of that name). Other surviving instruments include 38 flutes (of which 25 are ivory), two flutes d’amore, 16 recorders, five oboes and a bassoon.”

(from, accessed July 24, 2013.)

Quite convincing — until you consider a few facts beyond the scope of Langwill:

In the 18th century, the fife was a military signal instrument.  The London woodwind makers, whose specialty lay in flutes, clarinets, bassoons, oboes, and the like, made fifes as a sideline primarily to fulfill military contracts.  However, the British military had been using (and buying) oboes, not fifes, for the field music since at least 1685 and maybe even earlier (Raoul F. Camus, Military Music of the American Revolution, Chapel Hill, 1976).  This practice extended far beyond “the 1730s,” since the fife “was not restored till about the year 1745, when the Duke of Cumberland introduced it into the guards; it was not, however, adopted in the marching regiments til the year 1747,” this according to Francis Grose (Military Antiquities, London, 1788).  Even so, reinstitution of the fife into the field music was not widespread until a decade later, when the London publishers responded to the market demand for instruction books to aid the military fifer in his new-found craft.  What all this means is that any London woodwind maker, including both Stanesbys, Senior and Junior, would have wasted his time making fifes in “1732” or at any other time in “the 1730s,” simply because no one was interested in buying them.  And they would have to be unusually clairvoyant to make them in anticipation of a war that wouldn’t begin for another 40-plus years, as the seller’s title suggests.

Equally important is what the seller failed to note while reading Langwill; to wit, the wording on a trade card preserved in the British Library, which reads in part:

N.B.  Whereas Instruments are sold about the Town pretended to be made by Persons who have work’d under my Father or Me, which is an Imposition on the Publick, for my Father, or Self, never taught, or employ’d any other Person, in the finishing part of any Instrument whatsoever…”

Indeed, Stanesby’s fears of counterfeit instruments bearing his mark were well-founded, since spurious instruments survive to this day.  Two of these are cited in Langwill, but doubtless there are others — including this one, which could have been made as recently as, oh, I’d say yesterday, judging by the fact that it is plastic:

Image courtesy of Magic1Seller,, accessed 07/24/13.

Note the “Stanesby Junior” mark on the head joint.  Image courtesy of Magic1Seller,, accessed 07/24/13.

Or this one, each joint of which is marked STANESBY / JUNIOR but which the seller states is “new:”

Interested?  Yours for the small sum of $920.48!  Image courtesy of music_technology,

Interested? Yours for the small sum of $920.48! Image courtesy of music_technology,, accessed July 24, 2013.

In any event, given all of the above, the fife in question might have caused the later Stanesbys much angst, but it never really bothered the original Mr. Stanesby Junior at all.  That’s because he was dead long before it was made.  I can say this because an examination of the images provided by the seller points to a fife made in the early part of the 19th century.

Let’s start with the ferrules.  The seller notes that “at some point in time someone scratched in some letters and numbers along with some anchor symbols into the brass ferrels on the ends.”  However, the letters and numbers that the seller would have us dismiss are “C” and “AD 1808.  The “C” most likely is an indicator of pitch, but more important are the four numbers, 1808, preceded by “AD” (Anno Domini). This is clear evidence of a date.  And it is entirely likely that this fife was indeed made in 1808 or shortly (very shortly) before.


Also, the seller calls our attention to a stylized anchor, which is built around a burnished seam.  The seam tells us a lot about how the ferrules were constructed.  At this time (the early 19th century), ferrules were made of thin brass sheets that were wrapped around the wooden body with the edges burnished (rubbed) to seal them in the required tubular shape.  They were further secured to their seating by use of a pincing tool, which indented them at regular intervals onto the fife body.   In these photos one of the pinces is visible.

The pince interrupts the scored line decoration.

The pince interrupts the scored line decoration just to the right of the crack.  The uniform depth and precision of these lines suggest they were machined, not hand-tooled, and is yet another indicator of an early-to-mid 19th century manufacture.

We now recognize the burnished seam as the anchor’s shank, around which the artist/owner incised the stock, a V-shaped crown, tipped flukes, and intertwining rode.


Another 19th century feature is the unequal lengths of the ferrules, which is visible in the total body views:


The fife body tells a similar story.  The fact that it appears to be of boxwood is not surprising, as boxwood was the hands-down favorite of British woodwind makers well into the 19th century.  The tone holes, though, are set in variable distances from each other.  While this could indicate an attempt to improve pitch, their placement favors finger positioning more than pitch improvement.  Besides, the “two groups of three” is a pattern found in fifes (and flutes) produced in the early-to-mid 19th century in both Britain and America.


The tone holes appear to be slightly off-center, but this could be an illusionary defect produced by the camera.

In short, I could find nothing in the images or in the seller’s commentary that would convince me that this is a fife made in “1732” or at any time in “the 1730s.”  It might be that old had it been perhaps a sopranino flute and not a fife, but several features,including the brass ferrules (a flute might have rings but not ferrules), only reinforce its identity as a (military) fife.

So, is it worth $14,800?  To answer that question, I compared it to another fife made by a contemporary London maker, that being Valentine Metzler:

Metzler (t) Eisenbrandt (b)

Fife by Valentine Metzler, top. This and the Eisenbrandt fife, below, are more fully discussed in another entry on this blog, “A Tale of Two Fifes.”  Author’s Collection

As you can see it is uncannily similar to the super-high-priced Stanesby, right down to the machine-scored ferrules, and tells pretty much the same story.  However, it does this much more reliably since we have no indication that anyone faked (or is faking) Metzler fifes, legitimately or otherwise, and the maker’s mark thereon indicates a circumscribed production date between 1788 and 1815.  So, since I bought the Metzler for $10.00 (plus $3.00 insured shipping), my answer to the $14,800 question would have to be “no.”

Copyright 2013, History of the Ancients Dot Org

Blood-Stained Bargain

I can’t even begin to comment on this seller’s description of this fife.  The Arthur Ott Shields collection is well known, but the “blood stains” are a stretch.

Blood-stained bargain-1

Blood-stained Bargain-5

Image courtesy ebay seller, Redheadronald (see URL, below).

Image courtesy ebay seller, Redheadronald (see URL, below).

Blood-stained Bargain-2

‘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:

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 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.


Who wouldn’t?  Sweet and clear in the high tones, every Cloos fife is surrounded by a mystical aura of heroic young men dressed in blue bidding loved ones farewell as they march off to a quite un-civil war, and all this to a sprightly tune that may indeed have been played upon the very fife now held in your hands…or so auction dealers would have us believe.  In truth, the Cloos legend is related only peripherally to a war, and it is not the American Civil War.  Its provenance, actually, is tied to the post-War development of civilian fife and drum corps.  These home-grown marching bands provided a market for Cloos fifes that outlasted the company’s sale in 1946 and eventual demise of the brand some 20 years later.

Revolution in the Street, 1848. From
accessed August 14, 2012.

It was the German Revolution of 1848, a grassroots effort to unify the German nation-states, that prompted a decade-long exodus of Forty-Eighters to other countries, including the United States.  It was around this time (1857) that George Cloos arrived in New York City to live with Gotthard Cloos, on Remsen Street, just south of and across the river from “Little Germany.”  Gotthard was a tailor, not a flute-maker, but he was evidently well acquainted with one by the name of William Bauer.  It was Bauer (apparently no relation to the Chicago manufacturer Julius Bauer) who sponsored both Gotthard and George for citizenship in 1860 (Bauer himself had been sponsored a few years earlier by another flute-maker, Charles G. Christman), thus beginning a friendship with George Cloos that would last a lifetime.  In 1870 the Cloos families were still on Remsen Street, but the Gotthard Clooses would soon remove to Buffalo and the George Clooses to a new home to the east in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.  There George Cloos would live and work for the rest of his life.

The Clooses made woodwinds at the family home at 39 Stagg Street (lower left, Ward 16) until 1916, when son Fred would move the business to new quarters in Ridgewood.  Courtesy Brooklyn [NY] Historical Society,, accessed November 23, 2012

George and Mary Cloos had 10 children, and all the surviving boys participated to some extent in the family business.  Both William (b. 1861) and Fred (b. 1867) were active by 1880, Herman (b. 1869) and Philip (b. 1873) not until 1892 and 1895 respectively.  Manufacturing took place at home at 39 Stagg Street and included clarinets, piccolos, and fifes in addition to the previously established flute line.  By 1897 they needed more employees than the family alone could provide, a number that in the next few years hovered between 8 and 9. Production continued at Stagg Street even after George Cloos’s death in 1910, but in 1916 the business, having been duly incorporated and now headed by son Fred, relocated to brand-new accommodations at 1659 Stephen Street in the Ridgewood section of Brooklyn.  In 1919 Fred Cloos offered jobs to returning WWI soldiers, but even so, he soon reported that the factory could not keep up with orders for Crosby Model fifes, a product that “originated in the Cloos business” and was “one of their largest sellers.”

The downturn began in the 1930s.  The second-generation Cloos businessmen were aging out, and the market opportunities for a narrowly focused family business were dwindling.  With the Great Depression in full swing and the purchasing power of amateur marching bands in doubt, the Cloos name all but dropped from the trade journals, and in 1933 Fred G. Cloos, who had succeeded his father and grandfather, left the business for a career in insurance.  Meanwhile, the Clooses no longer jobbed exclusively to the trade and opened their factory doors to walk-in customers.  In 1946, the company ceased production; when purchased by Penzel & Mueller of Long Island City, the new owners promised that “the name ‘Cloos’ and the world famous ‘Crosby Model’ trade marks will [continue to] be used.”  They even named the elderly Fred Cloos an executive.  However, business was no longer brisk, and after a few years the new owners quietly closed up shop, depleting the stock early in 1969.

The history of Cloos fifes is not easily chronicled since business records have not been located and public records, city directories, newspapers, and trade journals tell an incomplete story.  When George Cloos (“Closs”) arrived in New York he was a joiner, but 3 years later he told census-takers he worked at flute-making.  He did not own a business at this time, so he must have been employed by any one of a number of woodwind makers flourishing in New York.  We might surmise that he worked for William Bauer who, according to tax records, operated a small musical instrument-making shop, but in any event, Cloos established his own flute-making business in 1862, or so his later advertising tells us.  In a 4-page catalog produced for the trade, we are told that “the Manufacture of Flutes and Piccolos” was entrusted to his eldest son, William; his second son, Frederick was in charge of the “clarionets.”  Although undated, this catalog was likely produced around 1902, the year that Cloos announced to readers of the Music Trade Review that his sons were now officially part of the company.

In 1928, in an effort to “increase interest in playing the fife,” the company announced the invention of the “Full Tone” mouthpiece made of “tasteless metal” and “guaranteed to play,” available with a plain finish or plated in silver or gold.  Mouthpieces were colloquially called “cheaters.” Despite the promise of a “full tone,” a fife played through a mouthpiece is not nearly as powerful and strong as one played directly through the embouchure. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Snap-on mouthpieces such as this one (top, left) were custom-made by local tinsmiths.  The Cloos “Full-Tone” (top, right) copied a late 19th c. manufactured standard but used no pewter in its construction.   The rosewood fife shows wear from a long use of a round mouthpiece like the Full-Tone. The mouthpiece on the cherry fife is secured with linen string, the brass screw having been lost.  Author’s Collection.  

Field music in company formation, unidentified, ca 1860-1865. Image Courtesy Library of Congress,, accessed November 11, 2012.

So, when did Cloos begin large-scale fife-making; more specifically, when did he produce the Crosby Model?  The best answer, which is not very precise, is this: when it became profitable to do so.  That did not happen for some years after the Civil War had ended.  Prior to this, the market was quite limited, since fifes were of little use to anyone who was not a military musician.  A member of the flute family of woodwinds, fifes have a relatively short sounding length that results in high, shrill tones entirely unsuitable for indoor use; however, they pair nicely with the field drum, both of which are loud enough to be heard over the din of marching men.  Thus fifes and drums (“field music”) were used in the military camp to relay signals and on the march to establish and maintain cadence.

 By the time of the Civil War, fife-making was a casual sideline of professional woodwind makers who fashioned the instruments from dense tropical hardwoods using specialized machines.  However, these fifes functioned much the same as those turned from less exotic woods on foot-powered lathes nearly a hundred years earlier.  Makers had not bothered to improve the fife’s acoustics, as they

The brass-ferruled fife is a pre-Crosby Cloos, which could have been made any time before ca 1875 (or as late as the 1920-30s, when they were offered for sale just in time for the Washington Bicentennial). The other, with nickel silver ferrules, is a Firth & Pond, ca. 1846. Despite the outward differences and the nearly 30 years that separate them, both fifes have nearly identical sounding lengths and are straight-bore, even-holed instruments that did not incorporate any of the acoustical improvements found on parlor and concert flutes made during the times these fifes were produced. Author’s Collection.

had with other woodwinds, and why should they?  There was little civilian interest in purchasing fifes, and the military market, excluding the war years, remained small and undemanding, so much so that army specifications continued to call for old-style instruments, despite their limitations, as late as 1889.  Thus, makers had no incentive to spend time or money on improving fife design.

There is no evidence that Cloos made a significant number of fifes (and none of the Crosby Model) during his early career.  Neither his name nor his firm have been found on surviving government contracts, suggesting that he did not supply the army with fifes during the Civil War, although other New York makers did, including William Hall & Son and Firth & Pond.  Without these lucrative contracts, Cloos could not have supported himself and his growing family by wholesale fife production.  Existing records suggest he continued making flutes and a maybe few traditional-style fifes until 1873, when an expanded product line was reflected in his city directory listing; he now manufactured musical instruments, not just flutes.

Moodus Drum and Fife Corps, left, undated but shortly after they acquired their first uniforms (founded 1860, Moodus, CT) Author’s Collection.

By that time, however, things were changing rapidly.  The passage of time, which had romanticized the postwar image of the “boys in blue” as saviors of the union, plus the national pride inspired by the Centennial celebrations of 1876, spurred formation of amateur community bands (“corps”) comprised solely of fifes and drums.  This occurred alongside technological advancements in warfare that would soon render the military field music obsolete.  Now the civilian market for fifes outstripped even wartime military demand as more and more parades, ceremonies, and public commemorations included fife and drum corps in their line-up.

As fifers played in concert with and marched alongside other types of bands, though, they became acutely aware of the deficiencies inherent in the traditional fife, and they looked for an improved instrument with a truer pitch.  This is the market that likely prompted George Cloos not to just produce fifes (he was already doing that) but to produce better ones and more of them.  Certainly the profuse survival of Cloos/Crosby fifes and Fred Cloos’s assertions in the Music Trade Review confirm this supposition, even if direct documentation cannot.

Chas. T. Kirk Fife, Drum, and Bugle Corps in 1938 (founded 1899, Brooklyn, NY) Author’s Collection.

Odell M. Chapman Continental Fife and Drum Corps, ca 1922 (founded 1918, Willimantic, CT, having split from the Thread City corps). Renowned drummer, Frank Fancher, was the lead musician.

The Crosby Model fife differed from its contemporaries in several ways, one of which was its ferrules.  Ferrules are the decorative metal bindings applied to either end of the fife to prevent the wooden body from splitting.  Initially ferrules were made from sheet metal, usually brass, rolled to a snug fit and finished with a burnished seam.  They were then punched with a special tool to prevent the ferrule from sliding off.  Sometime around 1840 “German silver,” an alloy of copper and nickel (and sometimes zinc) replaced the customary brass, and makers found that cutting ferrules from metal tubes was less expensive and more efficient than rolling them from sheets.  However, tubing could not be used to produce the long tapered ferrules that Cloos used on the Crosby Model—that is, not until machinery designed to produce seamless tapered metal tubes was available.  Cloos did not have these machines in 1870, but by 1880 he had acquired enough to keep himself and two young sons busy spinning tapered ferrules.

 The seam on this late 18th century ferrule, far right, is so finely burnished that it is almost invisible. However, it runs in line with the edge of the embouchure. Ferrule from head end of Eisenbrandt fife (middle, ca. 1812) showing tooled “pince” or “dimple” to prevent loss as the ferrule loosened over time.   Crosby Model ferrule (left, top) and pre-Crosby Cloos ferrule (left, bottom). Neither are seamed. The top ferrule was “spun” to achieve its conical shape; the brass ferrule is cylindrical and likely cut from metal tubing.  Author’s Collection.

Charles Nicholson, 1834. Courtesy Wiki Images, accessed September 14, 2012. This Nicholson flute, right, was made by Clementi, a London maker.

More important changes occurred in tone-hole design.  Cloos and his fellow woodwind makers knew that placing six relatively small, equal-sized tone holes in an equidistant pattern along a woodwind body would negatively affect certain pitches.  Accomplished players knew this, too, and compensated either by altering the force or direction of the airstream or rolling the instrument in or out as required.   While many makers at this time decided to adopt (or adapt) the Boehm system to improve their flutes and clarinets, no one bothered to improve fifes.  Neither did Cloos, whose early fifes feature the typical “even” tone holes.  However, when his thoughts turned to producing a better fife, he shunned both traditional tone holes and the Boehm system in favor of a Nicholson-style pattern.  Charles Nicholson (b. 1795, d. 1837) was the flautist whose playing in 1831 had charmed Theobold Boehm and inspired both to improve flute construction.  The simplest explanation of Nicholson’s varied tone-hole design is that it altered the sounding length of certain pitches, thus improving the off-tones produced by instruments made with even-sized holes.  He also enlarged the tone holes and the embouchure, which resulted in more powerful acoustics.  Cloos applied similar changes to his new-style fife, probably as early as 1880 but certainly by 1893, when Lyon and Healy offered Crosby Model fifes for sale, a mail-order bargain at $1.50 each.

The variably sized tone holes of the Nicholson flute. Neither Cloos nor Crosby copied the Nicholson design, but they were both influenced by it. Courtesy Terry McGee, McGee-Flutes Research Collection,, accessed September 14, 2012.

Court Street, Boston, ca. 1850-55.  In 1861, Walter Crosby worked from #59, upstairs from Gilmore & Russell’s music shop located at 61 Court Street. The “Gilmore” in Gilmore & Russell was the famous band leader, Patrick S. Gilmore, who composed “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”  Courtesy Boston Public Library, Print Department, via Wiki Images, Accessed September 14, 2012.

Although Fred Cloos reported that the Crosby Model “originated in the Cloos business,” he failed to disclose that its prototype had been for sale all along in the Boston woodwind shop of its namesake, Walter Crosby (b. 1805, d. 1874).  In 1827 Crosby was a woodturner who made umbrellas and toys.  He partnered briefly with another turner, Henry Prentiss, in 1829 before both ventured into the woodwind market, Crosby in 1830 and Prentiss in 1834.  He did well, with real property worth $10,000 in 1870.  He is mentioned only once in Ayars’s study of Boston music industries (1937), but the citation is worth notice:  “Possibly the first flutes manufactured in Boston were made by the firm of Walter Crosby, which made the popular Crosby fifes used in the Civil War…”  Her statement is inaccurate (William Callender made flutes in Boston before Crosby was born), but she remains correct in that Walter Crosby did indeed make fifes.  Their war-time popularity is doubtful, since there are no extant contracts to indicate that these attracted the attention of any military quartermasters, but they did attract the attention of George Cloos via a series of somebody else’s short-lived business enterprises that eventually involved his eldest son.  This began in 1876, when George’s old mentor, William Bauer, traveled to Boston.  His son Henry had spent the previous year there making musical instruments, but together they formed a new business, William Bauer & Son, at 103 Court Street, just a short walk from the old Crosby shop at #59.  There the Bauers made, sold, and repaired musical instruments until 1878, when Henry returned to New York.  William worked alone until 1880 when another son, Emil, joined him.  This second father/son alliance ended with the elder Bauer’s death in 1882, leaving Emil to run a solo business, perhaps from his Ruggles Street home, and this in addition to his employment as a clerk for John C. Haynes.  However, 1883 found him again on Court Street, repairing instruments for the Envers brothers, and it was this shop that in 1885 became “William H. Cloos, Clarionets, Flutes, and Piccolos.”  Whether Emil partnered with Cloos or worked independently is not clear, but in any event, Ayars reports that Bauer sold out to August Damm in 1888, the same year that William Cloos returned to Brooklyn to supervise flute production at his father’s factory, which he did until his death in 1904.

What emerges from this convoluted story is that George Cloos, either through his son or his old friend William Bauer, clearly had the opportunity to examine Crosby fifes, perhaps as early as 1875 or ’76.  That the one was the prototype for the other is undeniable, even had Cloos not retained the Crosby name.  Both are made from dark hardwoods, and each features a Nicholson-type tone hole pattern that varies in size and placement.  Lloyd Ferrar, in a detailed physical study comparing the Crosby fife with the Crosby Model (Woodwind Quarterly, Issue 12, n.d.), identified a few structural vagaries, but these are inconspicuous, both visually and acoustically.  In fact, there are just two easily detectable features separating Cloos’s fife from Crosby’s (besides, of course, the makers’ marks):  One is the design of the tone holes and the other is the ferrules.

Walter Crosby fife. Image Courtesy Library of Congress, DCM 0944,, accessed September 14, 2012.

John C. Haynes was one of the many retailers who included Cloos products in their inventory of musical goods for sale.

Walter Crosby used shorter, widely tapered ferrules that bear marks of handwork; ferrules on the Crosby Model are longer, also tapered but seamless, turned on the metal spinning machines the Clooses were using by 1880.  The result is a perfect combination of George Cloos, maker of fine woodwinds, and George Cloos, shrewd businessman.  As a maker, he recognized the performance capabilities of Crosby’s fife and salvaged it from obscurity with the Crosby Model.  As a businessman, he personalized the instrument and streamlined its production so that it could be readily prepared and sold with impunity once Crosby’s shop had closed for good, which it did after its owner’s death in 1874.  Still, Cloos must have realized his moral obligation to the originator, which might explain why he retained the Crosby name.  In any event, the Crosby Model became an instant best-seller as it satisfied the market demand for an improved, reliable instrument and was wholesaled to various dealers, including the John C. Haynes Company.

The 22nd NYSM in August 1892, activated to maintain order during the Switchmen’s Strike in Buffalo. Author’s Collection.

The success of the Crosby Model enabled the Cloos factory to ride the crest of a mighty wave of interest in fifing created by the burgeoning drum corps market.  Fife and drum use was no longer confined to the military, although field music continued to abound in the postwar New York State Militia.  These groups found companionship in the innumerable quasi-military civilian corps that sprang up in just about every city borough (especially the well-defined neighborhoods of Brooklyn) plus in the hundreds of youth corps sponsored by the Boy Scouts and the CYO (“Catholic Youth Organization”).  Beyond Brooklyn to the east, Connecticut had its own tradition of “ancient” style fifes and drums, which flourished alongside their more modern counterparts comprised variously of fifes, flutes, drums, and/or bugles.  The activity in New York and Connecticut, however, was just a microcosm of a nationwide trend that had begun with the commemorative G.A.R. corps founded by Civil War veterans and their progeny and continued with those spawned by the successive patriotic frenzies created by the Spanish American War, World War I, and the formation of the American Legion.

A GAR corps, right, leading the Memorial Day parade in Los Angeles in 1927. The right-most fifer (besides being out of step) is playing on a Crosby Model Cloos, as is the fellow next to him; the two fifers to the left are using short-ferruled fifes.   Image courtesy Los Angeles Times Photography,, accessed September 14, 2012.

An American Legion ladies’ corps, left. Google Images, accessed September 14, 2012.

In fact, at the height of Legion fervor, William Ludwig published a pamphlet advising the best way to organize a drum corps, details of which were published in the Music Trade Review in 1926.

One of the many Ludwig publications directed towards the drum corps market. Author’s Collection.

Of course, no corps would be complete without its quota of Ludwig drums, and he was less than enthusiastic about fife sections, which he thought were best used as “a relief unit for the bugles.” Nonetheless he urged fifers to buy Crosby Models because they are “designed especially for corps work and [are] used by more corps than any other fife.”  By this time, he proclaimed, it had become “the old-timer’s standby.  It was no wonder, then, that Geo. Cloos, Inc. scrambled to fulfill orders.

It was this very focus on all-things-fife that ensured the demise of the Cloos factory.  In their efforts to become the #1 supplier of drum-corps fifes and accessories, the Clooses ignored the danger signals emitting from the otherwise thriving musical market of the 1920s.  Flutes were no longer the parlor instruments of choice; those who continued making music in the home preferred pianos.  Stringed instruments (guitars, mandolins, and banjos) now dominated the small goods trade, so much so that Emil Bauer bid good-bye to John Haynes to work in banjos.  Military wind bands continued to flourish; however, they had long since discarded woodwinds in favor of brasswinds.  In fact, the active passion for making music was fast succumbing to the passive fashion of listening to it as families nationwide rearranged their furniture to accommodate “talking machines” (gramophones and phonographs), radios, and “player pianos” that required no musical training to operate.

One could listen to fife and drum music, too, such as the “Uncle Sam Medley” played by the National Guard Fife and Drum Corps (1917) Recorded on a Gold-Moulded cylinder, it would be played upon a machine such as this one pictured here, courtesy of Wikipedia,, accessed September 14, 2012. MP3 file courtesy of Cylinder Preservation and Digitalization Project, University of California, accessed September 14, 2012.

The once-proud home of Geo Cloos, Inc.

Some manufacturers responded by dropping their unprofitable woodwind lines and retooling for small strings or pianos.  The businesses of unlucky others failed or were subsumed by the large publishing houses, most notably that of Oliver Ditson.  The Cloos products were given another chance briefly around 1932 with the Washington’s Birthday Bicentennial and again when the company was acquisitioned by Penzel & Muller but to no avail.  The fife market, now much smaller and concentrated in metropolitan New York/New Jersey and the Valley Shore area of Connecticut, patronized local makers such as Ted Kurtze, T. D. O’Connor, and Henry “Ed” Ferrary or purchased a new kind of fife designed by the first of the revisionist makers, John McDonagh.  The old Crosby Models were retired to attics, basements, and inaccessible closet shelves, emerging decades later as misunderstood eBay offerings but to those in the know, relics of the truly golden years of fifing and drumming.

Copyright November 2012, History of the Ancients Dot Org.  All rights reserved.

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.