Tuesday, April 14, 2009

A face from the past

Dulcimer musician Stephen Seifert recently asked me about the picture I had used on my second blog entry that I posted on Feb. 14, 2009. Stephen wondered why he had never seen the image before and asked me where I got it. It is a tintype of a bearded man holding a lap zither or scheitholt and a bow:Well this little picture has an interesting story...
Several years ago, I was searching the term 'zither' on Ebay, and this tintype popped up in the antique tintype category. I realized it was an important and marvelous image that looked to be from the first half of the 1800's, important especially because the fellow is holding a bow. New photographic proof that lap zithers were sometimes bowed does not pop up often. This was a rare image and appeared to be in very good shape.

I would have loved to try to buy it, but I figured it would sell for well over $100 to tintype collectors, and I really couldn't justify spending that on an image as opposed to something more 'useful'. No other dulcimer collectors were likely to find it since it was not in the Ebay 'instrument' category at all, and it didn't have the terms scheitholt or dulcimer anywhere in the auction either.
So I contacted Ralph Lee Smith about it, because I thought he might view it as something worth trying to get, from the dulcimer history standpoint. Ralph was very excited by the tintype zither man, and said it was indeed a wonderful image with historic value, and that he could certainly use for an upcoming museum exhibit he was planning. We both estimated its date to be likely somewhere between 1860 and 1880.
Unfortunately, Ralph was not an Ebay member and had no clue how to go about bidding on anything, and had no idea how much to bid. I offered to bid for him, and we then figured out a logical maximum price for the tintype that would give us a decent chance of winning it.
So I bid on the tintype at the last few moments of the auction and happily I won it for us. I had it shipped to me, where I would scan it in high resolution before sending it on to Ralph.

It arrived and it was truly marvelous! It was on a tiny piece of tin, only about 1 1/2" x 2 1/2", and the image was CRYSTAL CLEAR. The bearded scheitholt player's piercing eyes stared out at me from a time long past. I so wondered what his name had been, and where he was from, what language had he spoken?
I scanned it at very high resolution and further brought out it's details in PhotoShop, so that I would have a nice image of it and so I could send the scan to Ralph as well, for his reproduction purposes.

I hated having to part with it and ship it off to Ralph, but it was to have a great home and be 'safe' with him. Ralph reimbursed me the Ebay price, I remained with a beautiful photo image to remind me of it, and Ralph used a large poster print of the scan in his recent Mercer museum exhibition .

Ralph still has the little jewel, and he told me he didn't mind at all if I told the story of the tintype here.


  1. Interesting photo and great story. From this photo and the two pictures shown on the museum link I could see no frets on these bowed instruments. As I recall the scheitholt and other presumed ancestors of the lap dulcimer were fretted. I wonder (if my eyes are correct, and if these are in fact "genetically related" to the dulcimer) if the frets were lost to make bowing easier or if they were added after these instruments were made.


  2. Hi David,
    Actually, I can see the small staple frets on the photo. And the instruments there in the Mercer museum display do have the small staple frets under the melody string as well. The little 1/4" long frets are not easy to see in the photos, but the instruments pictured are not fretless.
    But thanks for your input, good to know folks are reading and pondering it all! :)