Living History & Reenactment Music

Musical Rambles Through History © by Sara L. Johnson

Musical Instruments: Dulcimers

There are two types of dulcimers, and the fact that they share a name causes some confusion. They are not related instruments. The hammered dulcimer actually dates back to medieval Europe. Early forms of the hammered dulcimer include the psaltry (not the little triangular shaped bowed psaltery, which was invented quite recently) and the German Hackbrett.
The lap dulcimer/ fretted dulcimer/ plucked dulcimer/ mountain dulcimer/ Appalachian dulcimer is an American invention of the 19th century, but thought to be influenced by the German scheitholt, found in Pennsylvania as early as the 1770s. The scheitholt is mentioned in German writings as early as 1618. The Pennsylvania scheitholts are long, narrow, and straight-sided, with the fingerboard made onto the body of the instrument. Southern Appalachian builders changed that design, so that American instruments had a variety of curved sides, decorations and sound holes, with the fingerboard usually raised above the body of the instrument.
The name “dulcimer” was likely taken from the Bible, where it actually refers to the hammered dulcimer, popular in England during the period when the King James Bible was written. Ralph Lee Smith, the renowned mountain dulcimer researcher, believes the Appalachian dulcimer was actually quite a rare instrument in that area. It is even more recent in origin than the banjo, and only dates as far back as a period around the Civil War. He also points out that no instrument resembling the fretted dulcimer has ever been found in England, Scotland, or Ireland. (Musical Instruments of The Southern Appalachian Mountains, John Rice Irwin; Tunes of the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains, Ralph Lee Smith )
The hammered dulcimer has a longer history, from Europe’s middle ages. The psaltery, which contributed to the development of the dulcimer, is a separate instrument and is plucked with the fingers. It was used mainly by troubadours and minstrels.
The Germanic Hackbrett which evolved from the string drum, early in the 15th century, was a rectangular instrument strung with metal strings and struck with two hammers.
The dulcimer, or doulcemer, developed separately in France. It spread to England, Spain, and Italy. Further European development of these instruments can be found in Paul M. Gifford’s authoritative new book, The Hammered Dulcimer: A History, (Scarecrow Press, MD & London, 2001). Suffice it to say, the dulcimer lost favor with the upper classes and gradually became a folk instrument often used for dance music, and by wandering musicians. In the 1660s, the dulcimer had become a popular entertainment in England. In a play of 1675, a character says “there are more of our Dulcimers thump’d ev’ry Night in Covent-Garden, then there are Ghittars scrap’d in a Week in Madrid.”
Dulcimers were commercially available in 18th century England. An instrument maker advertised in 1763 that he made “Mandolins, Viols de l’Amour, Dulcimers, Solitaires [probably salterios], Lutes, Harps, Cymbals, the Trumpet Marine, and the Aeolian Harp.”. Dulcimers were also available from Robert Bremner, the London music dealer, in 1763. It was often a domestic instrument, played by genteel young ladies. In about 1782, the blind Irish harper Arthur O’Neill stopped to visit Parson Phibbs of County Sligo, “who himself played well on that wired instrument called the dulcimer.”
I’ll discuss hammer dulcimers in colonial America in another article.
Colonial Williamsburg has a 1784 engraving by John Nixon, “Hearing”, showing an itinerant dulcimer player and fiddler entertaining a crowd. On the corners of the dulcimer are little bristle dolls, or dancing dolls. These dolls, similar to our limber jacks, had articulated legs that “danced” from the instrument’s vibrations.