In honor of our annual German Festival that was held June 20th (we hope you enjoyed this year’s offerings!) and the traditional German music associated with the event, this month’s Collections Curiosity comes to us from Germany! We have an interesting and broad range of musical instruments that make up our Musical T & E (Tools and Equipment) section of our collection including a number of zithers.
So, what the heck is a zither?! The word zither is a German rendering of the Latin word cithara, from which the modern word guitar is also derived. It has been used to describe any instrument which has many strings stretched across a flat, thin body. Traditionally found in the southern regions of Germany and alpine Europe, immigrants from these areas during the 19th century introduced the zither to North and South America.
The zither was very popular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries when it was used as a parlor instrument in many homes. Zithers are musical instruments that are played by plucking strings with both hands. The left hand plays the melody while the right the accompaniment. By the 1920s, use of the zither began to wane as other string instruments, especially guitars, increased in popularity with the new jazz music.
One of the zithers in the collection, called a guitar zither or chord zither, is a design by Friederich Menzenhauer, widely believed to be the father of the guitar zither in the United States.
Friederich (Frederick) Menzenhauer was born in Magdeburg, Germany on January 3, 1858. He traveled to the United States, arriving in New York on May 8, 1882. By 1887 he was living in Jersey City and was known as a maker of musical instruments. His first patent, in fact, was issued this year, and was for a “Tremolo Attachment for Cornets.” His next patent was issued soon after. In 1892 he married Wilhelmina Geibel, who was born in New York in 1860. Their only child, Theodore, was born in June, 1897.
At the end of 1896, the Menzenhauer Guitar Zither Company leased a two-story tin-roofed building in Jersey City. In 1897, he and Oscar Schmidt founded the U.S. Guitar-Zither Co. and the next year Menzenhauer also started the Menzenhauer Guitar-Zither Co. However, their partnership began to dissolve in 1904 and after this, Menzenhauer retreated from the manufacturing scene and continued tinkering and applying for patents instead, leaving the production itself to Schmidt. Frederick Menzenhauer passed away on March 1, 1937, leaving a widow, son, and grandson.
Remember to stay tuned every month for the newest installment of Collections Curiosities!