Thursday, October 16, 2008


When I first visited the Mercer Museum last year, more than just handtools caught my eye. I was intrigued by folksy musical instruments, called Scheitholts (also Zither or Zitter). The Germans who settled in Pennsylvania and other parts of Colonial America in the early to mid-1700s brought the zither, or at least the idea of the instrument, with them.

The ones on display in the museum’s current exhibit "Everyday Rhythms" are 19th c. However, a few 18th c. zithers are know to exist, including a 1781 instrument on loan to the museum and one in the Colonial Williamsburg collection, which is represented in a photo enlargement. Zithers (both those played with a pick or quill and those played with a bow), dulcimers, and other early musical instruments are included in this special exhibit which will run through May of next year. Permission to include the photos I took provided courtesy of the Mercer Museum/Bucks County Historical Society, Doylestown, PA.

Zithers, although each one slightly different, are basically a tapering, hollow (but for the solid wood head) trapezoidal-shaped stringed instrument.

3 melody strings were accompanied by multiple, perhaps 6, drone strings and were plucked or strummed with a quill. Songs played on zithers tended to be slow and produced a deeper sound than that of a dulcimer. At the “Everyday Rhythms” exhibit, you can hear melodies played on a reproduction zither.

The strings, most likely made from animal gut, were tightened by iron or wood pins and passed over wire staple frets, of which there were normally 14. The instrument typically rested on a table top with the strings nearest the player as he/she strummed.

Although more refined and ornate versions of the scheitholt were made professionally in Europe, the ones discovered in Pennsylvania are much more modest and practical. Nonetheless, craftsmen decorated their product with simple carvings, cutout shapes, and chamfered edges.

I contacted the museum’s Vice President of Collections and Interpretation who granted me some alone time with two zithers and permitted me to take measurements and photographs. He also offered me a stack of information about the instruments from which much of this information was obtained.

One of the zithers I examined is left-handed, has 19 frets, and has cutouts of a circle, a crescent, and an “S” in the soundboard, which may be interpreted as initials: O. D. S. There are remnants of a reddish stain and the strings are secured with carved wood pegs at the tail end of the instrument.

The other zither is a little more elegant, with a shaped tuning head on one end and a round over on the other. The soundhole is made with semi-circle shaped holes and with punched indentations for decoration, presumably. Instead of wood pegs, strings are held in place with brads.

The soundboard on zither #1 is 1/4” thick while zitter #2’s soundboard is 1/16” - 3/32” thick. Both zithers’ sideboards are made from 1/4” thick lumber, and the tuning heads are solid wood.

Zithers were enthusiastically played throughout the 19th century among German speaking communities, and yet original instruments are difficult to find.

I was grateful to get an up close look at these rare scheitholts and look forward to making my own someday. Now, if only I were musically-inclined....


Woodbloke said...

Kari - interesting stuff. The only bit of music played on a zither (I think) that I can recollect is the theme from the 'Third Man'... - Rob

Anonymous said...

There are lots of dulcimer players in the PA/DE area. I belong to the Brandywine Dulcimer Fellowship, Wilmington, DE, started by Kevin Roth. I also take my dulcimer to Revolutionary War reenactments and play a lot of 18th century and older music and Old Timey music. Since reenactors like you to be "period appropriate", I explain that my dulcimer gets its heritage from the Scheitholt. It just morphed into what we have today. By the way, they are very easy to play. -- Lynn

Kari Hultman said...

Rob, I've never seen that movie, but I imdb'd it and it sounds interesting. I had heard of autoharps before, but never scheidholts/zithers before going to the museum.

Lynn, I'm hoping to find someone who can play a zither so they can tell me how to tune it. It looks like a fun instrument and may just be the first one I can actually play!

I didn't know there were Revolutionary War reenactments around here--thanks for the tip.

Woodbloke said...

Kari said - 'I've never seen that movie'
Old b/w spy film with Orsen'Cart, (Wells) set in Vienna (not sure on that one) just after, or at the end of, the war. Worth a view if you get the chance and once you've heard the theme music, you'll never forget it - Rob

Steve in Cheap Hill said...

The Third Man theme is played on a "zither" but a very different kind of instrument. It is a "concert zither". It is a European descendant of the scheitholt type zither, like the dulcimer is an American descendant.

The American version simplified, reduced the strings to three courses. The European concert zither, as the name indicates, strove for more complexity rather than simplicity. There are 4-5 melody strings, a full chromatic scale fret pattern under most of these strings, and the non fretted strings, 20 or more, are tuned in chord groupings so you can accompany the melody with complex chord underpinnings. Youtube has several videos of people playing concert zithers.

Thanks for the pics and info about the scheithot.

Kari Hultman said...

Steve, thanks for the comment. I have seen instruments called autoharps that have been referred to as zithers and I suspect they may be similar to the concert zither. I actually met the man who built autoharps for the June Carter Cash family. Cool instrument!

Strumelia said...

Hi there, the fretted zithers you see in the Mercer museum are the ancestors of the modern 'mountain dulcimer', played by many people today. Here is my blog about playing the mountain dulcimer in the traditional style:
Aren't those old instruments beautiful?
Lisa :)