Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Sleuthing of the Musical Kind

February 12, 2015 Archive Insight

Harry Tuttle’s dulcimer.  Details of its construction tell us that this beautiful instrument was likely made in New York about 1860.

Visitors to The Henry Ford often marvel at the number and variety of historical objects found here.  Often, so does the staff.  As a presenter in Greenfield Village, I have been surrounded by these rich collections--many of the objects having been gathered during the 1920s and 1930s, when Henry Ford was avidly collecting for his museum.  An internship opportunity over the winter has given me a chance to further explore how a number of these objects—musical instruments—came to be part of The Henry Ford’s collections.  As a violinist, the topic of music was a perfect match for me.

Christina Linsenmeyer, a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of The Arts, Helsinki, is editing a book entitled Themes and Trends of the Musical Instrument Collecting Boom, 1860-1940.  As an avid collector of musical instruments during the early decades of the 20th century, Henry Ford is a perfect fit.  Jeanine Head Miller, The Henry Ford’s curator of domestic life, and Robert E. Eliason, curator of musical instruments at The Henry Ford during the 1970s and 1980s, will be co-authoring a chapter of the book discussing Henry Ford’s musical instrument collecting.

Henry Ford grew up dancing to the lively music of country fiddlers—and even learned to play the fiddle a bit himself.  Ford’s interest in traditional American music and in musical instruments, then, was personal one.  Ford’s efforts built an impressive collection—instruments which tell the story of music made by town bands, fiddlers at country dances, wealthy people in music rooms, and everyday Americans who purchased mass-produced instruments from local stores or mail-order catalogs.  

My role, as an intern working with Jeanine Miller, is to research more thoroughly the ways in which Henry Ford and his assistants gathered the collection of musical instruments.  In my research, I delved into the letters and other documents concerning these acquisitions filed in the Registrars office.  I also discovered additional materials within the Henry Ford Office Papers in the Benson Ford Research Center, piecing together some previously unknown stories about the objects and how they came to the museum.  Not surprisingly, I found a pattern similar to the way in which Henry Ford went about collecting other objects for his museum.  Musical instruments came to Henry in a variety of ways and from a variety of people.

Sometimes, Henry Ford acquired whole collections carefully gathered by others. The core of Henry’s early musical instrument collecting was the Pillsbury Collection.  In the late 19th century, musical instrument collector Daniel S. Pillsbury scoured New England, gathering 175 brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments.  Henry Ford purchased this outstanding collection from Pillsbury’s widow in 1928.

Even before this acquisition--as people got wind of Henry’s collecting--they began to contact him with offers to sell or donate musical instruments.  Some people were seeking a new home for family heirlooms where they felt they would be preserved.  Others offered instruments for sale to Henry, hoping to make some extra money or secure funds for everyday needs—especially during the depression.  Ford also had “pickers,” who kept an eye out for interesting musical finds as they traveled the countryside looking for “Americana.”

As I worked on this project, I was intrigued by the ability of the letters I read to draw me into another time and place. The Henry Ford Office Papers and the diaries of W.W. Taylor, one of Henry’s pickers, are two great resources that I was able to peruse.  Each letter or diary entry painted a picture of these long ago activities--making me feel like I was part of the story.

One of my favorite discoveries was a letter and sketch from 40-year-old Harry B. Tuttle of Millport, New York.  Tuttle contacted Henry Ford in August 1932 to see if Ford wished to purchase a dulcimer that had been in the family since his great-grandfather’s time. Tuttle had heard about Ford’s collecting from an antique dealer, and wished to offer his family’s dulcimer for sale to Henry Ford for his collection.  Tuttle later sent Ford a drawing of the dulcimer to help Ford decide whether to purchase it.  Ford did buy it—for the $10 asking price.



When Harry Tuttle learned of Henry Ford’s search for musical instruments, Tuttle offered his family’s dulcimer for sale.



Harry Tuttle sent this sketch of the dulcimer – including its dimensions – in response to Ford’s secretary’s request for a snapshot or sketch.

Although we can get a pretty good idea as to how Ford ended up with most of the objects, many of the stories are missing details we would love to know!  For example, Harry Tuttle says that the dulcimer had been in his family since his great-grandfather’s time—but doesn’t give us his great-grandfather’s name and the place where he lived!  It seems possible that this great-grandfather might have been the original owner, so knowing this information would have helped us further flesh out the dulcimer’s story.

I look forward to continuing to delve into the past—and learn more about the people and places related to Henry Ford’s collecting.

Amanda Craig is a Historical Resources Intern at The Henry Ford.

Henry Ford, research, books, by Amanda Craig, musical instruments, music, #Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford

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