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Help identifying old instrument
Old 09-19-2016, 02:06 PM   #1
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Help identifying old instrument

Oddball question for the group (no snide remarks required).

DW has an old fife that has been in her family for generations, and the family history has it that it was used in the War of 1812 (a couple of ancestors served in that).

I seriously doubt it's that old, because as far as I can determine online, all the old fifes of that era were made of wood, and this appears to be mostly nickel-plated brass or some other metal. The section where the mouthpiece goes looks like plastic, but definitely isn't (we know it's much too old for that). Most likely ebony or something like it.

Careful examination with a magnifying glass reveals no markings of any kind, beyond a lot of stains from normal wear and tear.

I know we have experts here on every subject under the sun, so if anyone has an idea or can point me towards a place where I can research this, it would be most appreciated.

Regardless of whether it has any value, it won't be sold since it's a family heirloom with an interesting (and possibly somewhat true) story.
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Old 09-19-2016, 02:24 PM   #2
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Very interesting story, but I have no experience with this sort of thing. Maybe we have an Antiques Roadshow-type expert around here that can help. Hope so!
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Old 09-19-2016, 02:26 PM   #3
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Could the mouthpiece be bakelite, if so this gives you an earliest possible date.

I looked it up and a couple of sources do say bakelite was invented in 1907.

"Bakelite is actually an early type of plastic. Physicist-types will recognize it as “thermosetting phenol-formaldehyde resin” (huh), which is produced when phenol reacts with formaldehyde under certain conditions of heat and pressure. For our purposes, though, all we need to know is that it wasn’t invented until 1907. So, if the ferrules on your fife are truly Bakelite (or a similar type of resin), that pretty much gives us a “no earlier than” date for your fifes.
However, if they are made of “hard rubber,” that’s a different story. Hard rubber is a natural substance that in its earlier years was called “vulcanite” and “ebonite,” produced by a process patented in 1844 by its inventor, Charles Goodyear. By the 1860s it was widely used for all kinds of things, including musical instruments. So, it is entirely possible that your unusual ferrules were made of hard rubber (I have a Cloos Model fife as well as a knock-off Cloos made in France that were both made from hard rubber, which I suspect dates from around 1920 or so).
You can test for the Bakelite by releasing some of the formaldehyde, which has a distinctive odor, except that most testing methods are damaging and some of them dangerous. You could, though, try rubbing the ferrule briskly with your fingers to see if the low heat generated thereby produces the telltale odor of formaldehyde. Or, you could go to the Dollar Store and buy something called “Scrubbing Bubbles.” You’re supposed to clean bathtubs with it, but if you moisten a piece of a cotton ball or a Q-Tip in some and then lightly apply it to the ferrule, it won’t damage the ferrule but it will the cotton, which will turn yellow…why? I don’t know, it just does — and if so, you’ve got Bakelite!
Testing for the presence of rubber is more difficult. You could try the brisk-rub-test, in which case the odor produced will be similar to what you smell when you walk into the tire department at Wal-Mart. Another test would involve removing the ferrule and wiping the inside with fine garnet paper or sandpaper. If it produces white (or purple) dust, you’ve got some kind of plastic; if it produces black dust, it’s hard rubber. But why risk the damage? If you do the (harmless) Scrubbing Bubbles test, you either have Bakelite or you don’t. And if you don’t, you probably have hard rubber.
"
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Old 09-19-2016, 02:56 PM   #4
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Maybe contact this guy?
Historic Fifes
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Old 09-19-2016, 03:35 PM   #5
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I've contacted him. No response yet.
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Old 09-19-2016, 03:52 PM   #6
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If you ever get this figured out, please share the story with us. I am intrigued.
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Old 09-19-2016, 04:01 PM   #7
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By coincidence, I received a reply from the guy kaudrey recommended just a few minutes ago. He kindly asked for detailed photos, which I have supplied.
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Old 09-19-2016, 04:09 PM   #8
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This is very interesting, it's so fun to find out the history of family relics.

It seems the stories get embellished as time goes on in my family
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Old 09-19-2016, 07:16 PM   #9
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I don't know how much googling you have done so far, but 2 sites that came up were

How old is my fife?
and
How Old is My Fife?

The museum one is run by a very knowledgeable collector, with many pics.
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Old 09-19-2016, 07:58 PM   #10
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Skimming those sites, the raised finger holes seem to be uncommon, as well as the mouthpiece and the body being made of metal (most are boxwood, rosewood, etc). I once owned a (modern) recorder made of pear wood.

I saw one pic that looked to have a 'mouthpiece' similar to your pic. They referred to it as a 'cheater' - I'm guessing it just helped keep the embouchure in place relative to the blow hole? So it sounds like an accessory, that either was somewhat uncommon, and/or got lost with most old fifes.

If it really is old, I wonder if what looks kind of like plastic might be bone, ivory or horn (cow, deer, etc?).

Seems unique enough that the pro might be able to narrow it down. DO let us know (and don't be surprised if the family history got embellished along the way!)!

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Old 09-19-2016, 08:07 PM   #11
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Somebody here might know -- Yale Collection of Musical Instruments
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Old 09-19-2016, 08:21 PM   #12
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In the U.S., nickel plating was developed and patented in 1869. I suspect within a decade or two after that, most brass musical instruments were being nickel plated. I would guess that the fife is early 1900's, but can't be positive. Before brass fifes, they appear to be all wood (rosewood, etc).
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Old 09-19-2016, 10:27 PM   #13
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OP could start a poll , I would guess 1920.

Anyone else want to guess ?
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Old 09-20-2016, 04:15 AM   #14
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My guess is somewhere around the beginning of the 20th century. We'll see if I can get a pro's opinion. I've spent quite a bit of time searching every site that came up via Google, and have contacted several. No luck yet, but I still think someone here may have the answer.
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Old 09-20-2016, 04:29 AM   #15
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I will say that I have no background in musical instruments, but my google skills are decent.

This doesn't look at all like 1800s, and honestly I'd be surprised if it is a fife at all. It looks more like a piccolo or small flute that lost its key/fingerhole cover thing.

I'd say 1930s to 1940s. It's old-ish but not anywhere near Civil War old.
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Old 09-20-2016, 05:52 AM   #16
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Just got an answer from Steve Dillon, the fifemuseum.com guy.

He agreed with me that it's early 20th century.

Since DW does have other (verified) artifacts used by her ancestors in the War of 1812, it would seem that this fife simply got mixed in with them and acquired the reputation of belonging to that era.

Thanks for all the interesting comments!
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