Living History & Reenactment Music

Musical Rambles Through History © by Sara L. Johnson

Musical Instruments: Hammered Dulcimers in America

In a previous article, I gave a brief history of the development of the Appalachian dulcimer, and of the different forms of hammered dulcimer in Europe. Let us now turn to the use of the hammered dulcimer in America from colonial times. The dulcimer was an uncommon instrument in Colonial America. Estate inventories of the times have not yet turned up any dulcimers, although with its popularity in England, one can reasonably infer that some came here. The earliest record of a dulcimer is the 1717 reference by Judge Samuel Sewall, who saw one at his cousin’s house in Salem, Massachusetts.
As in Europe, the instrument seems to have been played by genteel young ladies in their homes. They could receive dulcimer lessons from itinerant music masters, such as John Beals, “Musick Master from London”. He advertised in 1749 that he taught “the violin, hautboy, German flute, common flute, and dulcimer by note. Said Beals will likewise attend young ladies, or others, that may desire it, at their houses. He likewise provides musick for balls or other entertainments.” Being a dulcimer teacher is not an altogether lucrative position, as we find Beals, in 1757, in New York advertising himself as a maker of nets “to keep the flies off horses” in summer weather. A postcript announced that he “plays the violin, and Hautboy, for Assemblies, at private Balls, or any other Entertainments (NY Weekly Post Boy, June 20, 1757). He must have given up dulcimer teaching, as by 1764, he was in Maryland and advertised himself as a manufacturer of stockings. (Itinerant Dancing and Music Masters of Eighteenth Century America by Norman Arthur Benson, dissertation Univ of Minnesota PhD, 1963, Music)
At about the same period, one could also occasionally find a professional dulcimer player: “On April 27, 1752 ...the Post-Boy bore interesting tidings, of a famous Posture-Maser [sic], just arrived, “who transforms his Body into various Postures, in a surprizing and wonderful Manner; with many Curious Dancings and Tumblings....He also performs the slight of Hand...and to make the Entertainment more agreeable, the company will be diverted with the Musick of a Dulcemer.” This phenomenon was exhibited “every Evening this Week, at Mr. Beekman’s at the Spring Garden...
On May 4th, the advertisement in the Post-Boy shows the performance taking place in a house with which we are familiar: “RICHARD BRICKELL, with the famous Posture-Master lately arrived here, has taken the Theatre in Nassau-Street, where will be exhibited, a great variety of Dancings and Tumblings...on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday Evenings; with the Ingenious Slight of Hand. There will be a variety of Musick, such as the Dulcimer, Violin, &c.....” (from Annals of the New York Stage, Beginnings of Drama 1750-1752, page 46-47)
The Tuesday Club, a gentlemen’s social club formed in Annapolis MD in 1745, included some of colonial Maryland’s most distinguished residents, many of them musically inclined, who performed and composed music with their friends. At one meeting, a member played cello “and also was accompanied with the dulcimer, which Instrument was play’d in a very good taste, by a Stranger Invited to the Club...”, one Thomas Richardson. Richardson, probably born in Scotland, was an Annapolis merchant in the rum trade. We hear no more of Mr. Richardson’s dulcimer playing, as in 1768, he “was instantly kill’d by a Flash of Lightning, which melted his Watch, Shoe, and Knee Buckles”. [The history of the ancient and honorable Tuesday Club, by Alexander Hamilton; ed.(1990) by Robert Micklus]
Other evidence of dulcimers include an ad in 1770 that a second-hand dulcimer would be sold at an auction. Or in 1775, the ad in the New York Mercury that a manufacturer “draws harpsichord, spinnet, fortipiano, dolsemor, and all other kinds of music wire.” And a Revolutionary soldier reported in his journal that in New Haven Connecticut in 1776, the soldiers “marched through old Milford to Stratford; at evening heard the dulcimer and organ.”
And we continue to find dulcimer instruction offered. At Charleston, South Carolina, in 1778, Bartholomew Hobzl, “lately arrived here from Germany,” advertised that he taught the “violin, dulcimer, French horn, bassoon, and clarinet after the most approved manner.”(South Carolina & American General Gazette, 25 May 1778.)
The oldest surviving American-made dulcimer, now in a museum in Scottsville New York, was made sometime between 1800 and 1805 for a young lady in Seneca, New York. I am indebted to Paul M. Gifford’s book The Hammered Dulcimer; A History, for much of the above information.
And I find the earliest mention of a dulcimer in the Ohio Valley region to be that of a travelling entertainer in 1823, when a grand exhibition of living animals, including a Shetland pony, lion, leopard, etc. toured Germantown, Dayton, Xenia and Waynesville. The show also featured good music on the “ancient Jewish cymbol [the tsimble, cimbal of Eastern Europe] and other instruments.” The History of Montgomery County, Ohio ( Chicago: W.H. Beers & Co. 1882).