Musical Instruments

Guitar-zithers and barless autoharps

On 20 April 1893, Fredrick Menzenhauer, filed a US patent application for a “Guitar-Zither,” issued as USP No. 520651 on 29 May 1894. Its illustrations come very close to the current form of what is commonly termed a “chord zither.” The only differences are the fretted tuning device in the middle of the soundboard underneath the first melody string, and the separation between the bass string and the other strings in each of the chords (which are also recessed into the lower bridge).

Guitar-Zither patent drawing.

Chord zithers in the form shown two images below (minus the tuning scale) are still being manufactured and Menzenhauer is generally credited with their invention. However, his patent sought protection for “certain new and useful Improvements in Guitar-Zithers” and he refers to the instrument as “my improved guitar-zither.” This implies the prior existence of some other instrument that he referred to by the same name.

In the patent text, Menzenhauer derives the term guitar-zither from the conjoining of “a zither-like … open scale of strings” on which “the tune is played,” with “a number strings arranged in groups so as to produce the corresponding chords” on which “the accompaniment is played in the nature of a guitar.” Since a concert zither has a fretboard for the even more guitar-like playing of melodies, and its open strings are used for accompaniment, it is unlikely that it was his immediate point of departure.

An instruction book for the autoharp published by Theodor Meinhold somewhere between mid-1881 and mid-1883 (detailed in the preceding post) makes reference to “Autoharps without chord bars” (his italics). These would also be characterized by a zither-like open scale of strings. If this is what Menzenhauer had in mind, his primary innovation was adding block chords to it.

His instruments were advertised in Germany as “amerikanische Guitarenzithern” (American Guitar Zithers). In addition to being a distinctive product name this avoided confusion with the widespread German designation for an autoharp — Akkordzither (Chord Zither). Meinhold took the opposite approach and applied the label autoharp to both forms.

Meinhold’s instruction book explains the music charts he patented in 1891 for placement under the strings (also discussed in the preceding post, and as noted there, were derived from an earlier US patent that will be described in a separate post). His book additionally presents several pieces in conventional staff notation supplemented with numerical indications of the corresponding melody strings and chord bars. Menzenhauer’s patent includes another drawing of his instrument, marked with the same numerical scheme but numbering the chords blocks instead of the bars.

Figure 1 in 1894 patent

On 15 June 1897, Menzenhauer filed a British patent application for “A New or Improved Guitar-Zither” together with Oscar Schmidt, referring to themselves respectively as “manufacturer” and “merchant.” It was issued as BP No. 14459 on 2 Oct 1897. It retained the earlier system for designating melody strings and chords but placed the reference guide underneath the strings. (It also closed the gap between the bass and other strings in a chord and eliminated the notches in the lower bridge.)

Menzenhauer’s UK patent

At some time during the following two years Menzenhauer and Schmidt acquired an exclusive license to Meinhold’s 1891 patents, for the production of “zithers with underlaid music charts” and “underlayable music charts for zithers.” A ruling of the German Imperial Patent Office on 2 November 1901 gave the Berlin office of the firm Menzenhauer & Schmidt comprehensive rights to the production of any form of underlay chart that could be used with a guitar-zither. It specified a level of detail down to charts that are usable “first after cutting off the upper right hand corner so that they can be pushed into position under the strings.”

This device is seen in an advertisement placed in the 1 November 1901 issue of the Zeitschrift für Instrumentenbau (Journal of Instrument Making) in presumable foreknowledge of the impending Patent Office determination.

Menzenhauer-Schmidt advertisement

Menzenhauer’s genuine American Guitar-Zithers are without competition! The only guitar-zither that, by means of underlayable music sheets, can be played immediately by anyone.

The advertisement was expanded to two columns in the 1 December issue, adding mention of the ruling and its legal consequences. (I’ll go into this in detail in a separate post.)

Two-column ad

According to the decision of the Imperial Patent Office of 2 November 1901, even the manufacturing of mechanically playable music sheets for the zither is a punishable infringement of the Meinhold patents No. 60200 and 63702.
     Such music sheets for Guitar-Zithers should therefore only be obtained from us.

This exclusive licensing arrangement with Meinhold was the basis for the claim of competitive advantage over guitar-zithers made by other makers — and those in Germany were under no legal obligation to respect Menzenhauer’s (or anyone else’s) US or UK patents. The reason for his never acquiring a German patent for the guitar-zither may relate to the pre-existing form of that instrument noted in the initial patent, or whatever Meinhold designated as an autoharp without bars. However, in 1896, Menzenhauer did protect his design as a German Utility Model — easier to acquire than a patent but affording less protection.

It is unclear if Meinhold had begun making such instruments prior to licensing his patents to Menzenhauer & Schmidt. If so, it is likely that their formal arrangement authorized such production both retrospectively and on going. Meinhold labeled his models autoharps in presumable extension of his references to such instruments both with and without bars that still appeared in his tutorial publications.

Oscar Schmidt figured prominently in subsequent events relating to both the guitar-zither and autoharp but the circumstances of his entry into musical instrument manufacturing are often misrepresented. Oskar Emil Friedrich Schmidt was born on 21 December 1857 in Dresden, Saxony. He emigrated to the USA in March 1881, is listed as Oscar Schmidt in the 1885 New Jersey State Census, and became a naturalized citizen on 13 March 1891. He stated his occupation to be “Prof of Music” on a passport application from 1912 but was a “Manufacturer of Musical Instruments” and the President of Oscar Schmidt, Inc. on his next passport application, from 1920.

It is frequently maintained that he founded the eponymous firm in 1879, but his age and location at that time make this extraordinarily unlikely, if not preclude it outright. His attested involvement in the musical instrument industry began with the collaboration with Menzenhauer. The issue of The Music Trade Review from 21 November 1896 includes the following notice:

BUSINESS with Mr. W. F. Menzenhauer, of Jersey City, has developed so rapidly of late that it has been found necessary to enlarge the factory and, in addition, add more capital to the business. Mr. Menzenhauer has admitted Mr. Oscar Schmidt, a well-known publisher of this city, as partner, the arrangement dating from Nov. 2, and the business will be conducted in future under the name of the Menzenhauer Guitar-Zither Co.
     Mr. Menzenhauer is a German by birth, and although a skilled organizer and clever inventor, he admits that he is not qualified to give the business end of affairs the attention necessary; under the new arrangement Mr. Schmidt will direct this special department, also looking after the road interests of the concern, Mr. Menzenhauer devoting his time exclusively to the perfecting of his instruments, developing new patents and superintending the factory.

This was close enough to the start of 1897 that Schmidt may not have manifested his participation until then. That was the year when the partners founded their Berlin-based operation, named “Menzenhauer & Schmidt,” with the latter as proprietor. (The name was retained in a later change of ownership despite the renamings of the US operation noted below.) It therefore seems plausible that the erroneous 1879 might be explained as an inversion of the last two digits in 1897.

An article in the 14 January 1899 issue of The Music Trade Review includes an extensive history of “The Menzenhauer Guitar-Zither Business.” It emphasizes Schmidt’s role in its commercial development, noting that it was he “who conceived the idea to try the European market.” The article is preceded by a full-page advertisement showing the upshot of Menzenhauer’s focus on developing the instrument.

Guitar-Zither ad

The 12 May 1900 issue includes this announcement:

On Monday the interests of W. F. Menzenhauer of the firm of Menzenhauer & Schmidt, the well-known manufacturers of harp-guitars and other specialties in that line at Jersey City Heights, N. J., was purchased by Oscar Schmidt who has now assumed entire control of the patents, goodwill and business. The deal was consummated on a very friendly basis.

Later documents about that transaction (again to be be detailed separately) make it clear that their parting of ways was anything but friendly. Advertisements then began to appear for “Oscar Schmidt, Successor to MENZENHAUER and SCHMIDT.” The list of product offerings included “The Menzenhauer Guitar-Zither.” It would be another three decades before the autoharp was added to it. Interim references to the company’s significant production of zithers applied largely to the guitar-zither.

Meinhold remained a prolific manufacturer of both barred and barless autoharps. He died in 1913 but it is not clear when he terminated his active involvement with the factory that continued to bear his name. The date of manufacture of the instrument shown below is also uncertain. The two labels with the Meinhold trademark indicate either that it was made prior to 1913 or that the successor operators of his factory continued to use his labels.

Meinhold’s Autoharp Accord-Zither-Harfe

Here are close-ups of the label on the upper-left-hand corner of the soundboard, and the one affixed to the inside of the autoharp opposite the soundhole. The “Made in Germany” declaration was required by a British law enacted in 1887. The motto Volkommenstes Instrument der Gegenwart means “Most Perfect Instrument of the Present Day.” The same round and rectangular labels are found on both his barred and barless instruments.

Meinhold’s Autoharp Accord-Zither-Harfe

The underlay chart is for the German Christmas song Alle Jahre wieder (Every Year Again). It is a second Season’s Greeting to this blog’s readers, together with the following rendition of Silent Night being played on what also appears to be a Meinhold autoharp. (It doesn’t really matter who made it and there is a playlist with narrated demonstrations of guitar-zithers here.)

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Rick Meyers
Rick Meyers
29 December 2021 23:21

A fascinating post! I study “fretless zithers” and present papers at conferences regarding aspects of this subject. I’m particularly interested in the ruling you mention issued by German Imperial Patent Office on Nov. 1, 1901. What a great find! Is there any chance you’d be willing to email a link to the source that comes from and/or send a pdf of the actual ruling? I’d love to add that to my historical records!

Also, regarding the Menzenhauer ad you picture in your post. You mention that subsequently an expanded version appeared which includes mention of the ruling & its consequences. Any chance you could send an image of that to include in my records as well?

Finally, you cite Menzenhauer & Schmidt’s BP No. 14459. I just thought I’d let you know I have a paper original of that patent—two pages— which comes from the woven volume it was archived in, marked at the top with a purple ink-stamp stating “27 Oct. 97/Public Free Libraries/Manchester.” Let me know if you’d like an image of that for your records.

Thanks so much for considering my request!