Musical Instruments

The value of $50

One of the most widely known details about the history of the autoharp is that its name first appeared in a US patent issued to Charles Zimmerman in 1882. Seeing one mentioned in an advertisement in the 21 September 1884 issue of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat is therefore unsurprising.

E. W. Muller instructs on piano, guitar, mendiline, zither, auto-harp, singing, etc.: a lodging-room in exchange for instructions.

This also provides a concrete date by which the autoharp had come into circulation, pushing the generally accepted estimate back from 1885. There is a useful clue about the model that Muller owned, in the section headed “Criminal Notes” in the 16 February 1885 edition of the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

Frank Muller was jailed to-day on a charge of stealing an autoharp valued at $50, from Ernest W. Muller.

Assuming that it was made by Zimmermann, $50 is roughly what one might expect him to have charged for a handmade instrument of the design illustrated in his patent. We know that such things existed through a photograph of him playing one, in an article by Ivan Stiles in the Spring 1991 issue of the Autoharp Quarterly, titled “The True History of the Autoharp.” (However, a close look at that photo shows a bar arrangement that may differ from the one in the patent drawing.) Here is the patent illustration, flipped vertically for comparison with the following images.

Patent detail

Zimmermann changed both the action of the bars and the profile of the instrument in a numbered production series that began with a Style No. 1, costing $3.50. (The radical redesign also reflects a keenly competitive relationship with innovative European instrument makers, about which a lot remains to be said.)

It is uncertain that the top-of-the-line Style No. 6 was available at the outset but its price was just over half of what Muller paid. When an elaborate Concert Grand (illustrated in a previous post) was added to the line-up a decade later, it cost three times his investment.

The $50 may have been an exaggerated figure and Muller can conceivably have owned an imported German-made instrument. (There is more about this in an exchange of comments following this post.) However, it is unlikely that his students would all have been able to afford such money for an autoharp, especially if they were beginners uncertain of how persistent their interest would become. If the production series were available at the time of the initial advertisement, the prospective autoharpists would have been able to select styles commensurate with their personal economies.

Zimmermann retained the symmetrical profile of his patented design in a model with an elaborate bar mechanism that was initially intended for exhibition. A widely syndicated newspaper article about its development had the dateline “Philadelphia, Feb. 28 [1885]” and was published under varying titles. These included “A Search for Harmony: the Strange Career of Carl Zimmerman, the Inventor of the Autoharp,” in the 1 March issue of the St. Louis Globe Dispatch. The following two snippets are taken from the 7 March 1885 issue of the New York Sun.


An Ingenious Musical Instrument Which he has Completed at 70 Years of Age.

PHILADELPHIA, Feb. 28. — Even if Carl Zimmermann had not invented a new system of musical notation, a private view of his autoharp would have been of special interest from the fact that it represents the result of a life labor of seventy years and the embodiment of a dream. Since he was born at Morgonroth in Saxony, in 1816, it has been the aim of Zimmermann’s life to produce a single instrument combining the range and volume of the piano with the sweetness of the harp. In the autoharp, which is not for sale and of which there are only two in existence, he professes to have accomplished this design, and more. …  A private view of the autoharp was had at the depot of John Albert, on Ninth Street, near Samsom, in this city. Albert has long been a friend of Zimmermann. The only autoharp in existence besides that seen here has been shipped to the World’s Fair at New Orleans. It is a chromatic stringed instrument, in general appearance more like the zither than any other, The models made are about twenty inches long by eighteen wide. The autoharp has the same system of stringing as the harp. It is played, however, by pressing on a series of knobs which produce a series of chords in every key.

It is not at all clear how literally this can be read. There are a few puzzling details of no particular consequence, such as an innocuous error in the indication of Zimmermann’s birth year as 1816. (The record of his baptism states: “Carl Friedrich August Zimmermann … born the 14th Febr 1817 and baptized the 23rd Febr.”) The article goes on to claim with overt hyperbole that he began mulling over the autoharp shortly after seeing the light of day, made its “first designs” at the age of eleven, finally to “abandon them in despair” in his mid-teens.

Zimmermann cannot have been unaware of autoharps being in circulation at the time of the interview. It is therefore safe to presume that he was referring explicitly to the exhibition model when saying that only two existed and were not for sale. The shipment of one of them to the 1884 New Orleans World’s Fair meshes with information provided by Becky Blackley in The Autoharp Book, published in 1983.

The full name of the event was “The World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition” and took place from 16 December 1884 to 31 May 1885. Blackley illustrates the “Certificate of First Degree of Merit” issued to Zimmermann on its penultimate day for the autoharp he displayed there. The entry in the Official Catalog of the exhibition is otherwise as terse and erroneously unhelpful as could possibly be: “Zimmermann, C. F., Philadelphia, Pa. Alkor Harp.”

Blackley notes that Zimmermann then exhibited his autoharp at the “Novelties Exhibition” held in Philadelphia from 15 September to 15 October 1885. He placed an advertisement in its Official Catalog, describing the displayed instrument in both German and English. There is one subtle but crucial difference between the two versions. The German text uses the term Accordtasten — “chord bars” — and says that the instrument had twelve of them. The English text simply calls them “keys.”

This is important because Zimmermann’s initial patent describes two types of bars. One damps strings to enable the production of chords, of which there is no set number. The other raises the pitch of all strings by an octave. There can only be one such full-length bar and the patent differentiates it from the others with the prefix “flageolet.”

It thereby becomes possible for an undated Zimmermann instrument that Blackley illustrates to be the exhibition model. She describes it as having one flageolet bar, 12 chord bars, and 27 shifters that permit “all major, minor, dominant seventh, minor seventh, and diminished seventh chords.” Zimmermann’s own description doesn’t mention the flageolet bar but the 12 chord bars can produce all “major, minor, seventh and diminished seventh chords.” (The shifters are also found on the production styles nos. 3‍–‍6.)

There is an identical instrument in the collection of my friend Rick Meyers, shown here with his kind permission. The stylized “1881” above the button slots in the decorated guard plate is the year Zimmermann filed his patent application.

Photo: ©Rick Meyers

He ran an advertisement in the Bulletin of the Novelties Exhibition, the first issue of which was published on 15 May 1885, illustrating an autoharp of the same basic profile but with a simplified bar mechanism.

If it weren’t for the discrepancy between this illustration and the catalog description, it would seem as though two distinct models were displayed respectively at the New Orleans and Philadelphia exhibitions. The hand-drawn labels in the colorized illustration and the notification of intent to exhibit may suggest a preliminary rendering pending the construction of the actual instrument. Since no such exemplar has come to light and Zimmermann described the more elaborate form as being the one he exhibited, it is reasonable to conclude that he did not proceed with the model shown in the pre-event advertisement.

The colorized drawing is significant nonetheless by showing bars without the mechanized intricacy of the full exhibition model. This is also a characteristic of the lower-numbered production styles. Although the shapes of the two designs would obviously be described with different adjectives, both are autoharps and labeled as such.

Beyond the number of bars (and the need for a symmetrical profile if a flageolet bar is to be included) they do not differ in any musically relevant or mechanical regard. Although sometimes treated as such, the outline of an autoharp’s body is not a definitive attribute of the instrument, itself. A trapezoidal autoharp from 1893 is illustrated in the preceding post and Zimmermann returned to that form in a patent he obtained in 1897, explicitly for an “Autoharp.”

Blackley concludes that the shift in Zimmermann’s focus from the exhibition to the production designs occurred between the New Orleans and Philadelphia exhibitions. This is based on the cover (also shown in the comments following this post) of an undated booklet that attests his participation in the earlier event but not the latter, and illustrating a five-bar autoharp with the same profile as his Style No. 1.

The documentation surrounding the Philadelphia exhibition corroborates that the transition was in progress prior to the event. If we take $50 as a baseline figure for a custom-made autoharp in the mid-1880s, it is worth noting that its present-day equivalent in terms of purchasing power is just under $1,500 — about where luthier-built autoharps now start.

This post’s featured image shows the pavilion in New Orleans where the autoharp was exhibited. Zimmermann’s 1882 patent is available here. Ivan Stile’s article is here. Becky Blackley’s book is out of print but its text can be searched online. Rick Meyers has his own website. The newspaper articles are behind a paywall. All other cited documents that are available in digital form can be retrieved via the following links:

The volume of The Galpin Society Journal from 2023 includes an article titled “Northern European Contributions to the Development of the Autoharp.” This extends the main topic of this post and cites extensive additional source material. Further information about it is provided here.

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Lucille Reilly
18 March 2022 22:32

Very interesting and thank you! I would like to offer some thoughts. Are the dates of both news bits concerning EW Muller accurate? A few years ago, my research assistant found an 1880 reference at a paywall newspaper site mentioning an autoharp offered as a prize, only to later discover when he saw the entire page containing the article that the year of the prize offer was 1890! (Also, Vol. 1 of the newspaper in question first appeared in 1882!) Could it be that EW Muller’s autoharp was stolen ten years later, in 1895, with his initial advertisement for teaching music lessons appearing in 1894? It’s good to check. The autoharp was just starting to perk in Germany in the mid-1880s, beginning before Saxon Karl Gütter filed a joint British patent on 4 September 1884, followed by Hermann Lindemann in Germany about six weeks later. These events leave little time to mass-produce and flood a music market with a new instrument. And would a builder of a novel instrument like this really give up a hand-made, one-of-a-kind autoharp to just anybody, even for a commanding price? Assuming EW Muller emigrated from Germany to St. Louis, when and from where might… Read more »

Paul of Flowerland Mountains
Paul of Flowerland Mountains
4 May 2022 21:55
Reply to  Lucille Reilly

Goddess Lucille: Be sure and hunt me down at 2022 MLAG so you can see and play one or both of my renovated Zimmerman #6’s (one of them is a post 1900 DeLuxe – but same body and string schedule – and I gave the chord bar set with the sharping levers to Doc for his #6).