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5.6: The Sweet Family Dulcimer - Object Study

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    Capture-1024x380-1-1024x380.png Hammered Dulcimer
    Orrin Sweet, 1857-1858
    Wood, metal
    Gift of Delma Donald Woodburn Estate
    MHAHS 2002.001.0147


    The object that we are looking at is a hammered dulcimer- a musical instrument with ties back to biblical times. There are two types of dulcimers prevalent in America, similar only in their names. They have extremely different body shapes and are thus played differently. The Appalachian dulcimer is played like a banjo by fretting the strings, while the hammered dulcimer is closely related to the piano and relies on strings tuned to different pitches and hit with mallets. For the purpose of this study, we shall only be referring to the hammered dulcimer, and thus “dulcimer” herein shall be equated with “hammered dulcimer.” This hammered dulcimer is crafted out of walnut wood from Wisconsin, handmade by a man named Orrin Sweet in 1857. The dimensions of the dulcimer are 4 inches in height, 39 inches in width, and 15 inches in depth. The body shape is a rectangle with two heart shaped holes cut into the soundboard. The way that the dulcimer was designed is in a popular style from the mid-19th century that was widely released by companies in Chautauqua County, New York. This dulcimer has 11 treble courses, each with 4 strings, and 7 bass courses with 2 strings a piece.

    An American dulcimer usually has a rectangular or trapezoidal body, made out of various kinds of wood depending on the region. The instrument has a variety of strings which are arranged in groups called “courses.” Courses are groups of strings that would be tuned to the same pitch. Dulcimers usually have both treble and bass sets of courses organized within the circle of fifths pattern. Average instruments have around 60 strings stretched over the bridges on the soundboard. The bridges are a strip of hardwood about an inch high that give the strings different heights- the shorter strings have higher pitches and lay on top of the treble bridge while the bass courses pass through holes carved in the treble bridge and bass bridge, having longer strings to create a deeper sound. To play the instrument, you strike the strings with hammers, usually made of leather, at different places on the strings to create different notes.

    The modes in which the dulcimer was historically played would vary across America. Based on which region you lived in, styles from different countries would come into contact with each other. States like New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Minnesota experienced the greatest popularity in dulcimer playing initially, however, the dulcimer eventually spread to most parts of the United States. Due to the fact that dulcimer music was mostly played by ear and had no standardized style, regional playing styles emerged. Great Lakes players played in an improvisational style known as “chording” that was spread by word of mouth. Despite taking a back seat to the fiddle and other dance instruments, the dulcimer became the accompaniment of choice among the pioneers of Wisconsin in the 19th century.


    The history of the dulcimer is seen as coming from Persia and brought to Europe by the Moors and returning Crusaders between 900 and 1200 BC. Instruments resembling the dulcimer have been recorded all the way back to Biblical times- much of the records prevalent in artworks of the time. The original version of the dulcimer was known as a psaltery, and was portrayed as a trapezoidal instrument held close to the body, often played by celestial beings. Historian Paul Gifford, however, argues that the dulcimer was developed independently in Europe, more specifically in Western European countries like Germany. The German “hackbrett” was a slightly altered version of the dulcimer that was commonly used in dances and was extremely popular with a group of Germans who had moved to Russia, known as the Volga Germans, many of which would later migrate to America.

    After the establishment of the dulcimer in Europe, it became increasingly used by harpsicord players that were drawn to the more versatile sounds the dulcimer produced. It was the prevalent usage of the dulcimer in dances and gatherings of the time that brought about the creation of the pianoforte by Italian Bartolemeo Cristofori. By adding keys to the shape and design of the dulcimer, the pianoforte would emit similar sounds to the dulcimer and eventually come to replace the dulcimer in popular music.

    The first dulcimer came to America in the 1700s and was used as a domestic instrument. The migratory patterns of many German, English, and Dutch immigrants brought people, as well as the dulcimer, to the early colonies of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New York. In its conception, the dulcimer was a handmade instrument that would be created for and by the person with the intent of using it. It would be crafted in homes or small shops, with an abundance of people making them, leading to the appearance of the American dulcimer varying by the maker. Very little is known about specific dulcimer makers, as many did not sign their work or keep detailed records. What little we do know about early American dulcimers comes from the remaining artifacts themselves, speaking to larger trends more than anything else.

    The dulcimer was increasingly popular in America during the late 18th and early to mid-19th centuries. As an instrument used commonly for large gatherings and dances, the dulcimer gained notoriety with people who could not read music and wanted to provide entertainment. The ready availability of dulcimers, as well as their light nature lead to their importance with American pioneers moving westward. Pianos had come into fashion with many people on the East Coast, but they did not travel well before the creation of the railroads. Due to their size and relative easy make, dulcimers also became extremely popular with lumberjacks of the Midwestern region, appearing in stag dances at lumber camps as “lumberjack pianos.”

    Dulcimers appeared in advertisements as early as 1770 in the Boston Gazette being sold by auction. Later in the 18th century towards the early 19th century, dulcimers would begin to be produced en masse. C. Haight was the first to produce the dulcimer commercially in 1848. The diagram that remains of his model shows 11 treble courses of 4 strings and 7 bass courses of 2- the same design presented on the Sweet dulcimer. This design would influence mass producers in Chautauqua, New York, where many dulcimer manufactories popped up. Many factories that produced pianos would begin to produce dulcimers for the pioneers moving from the east and began to widely advertise them. Montgomery Ward sold American made dulcimers crafted of rosewood for $16.00 in 1895. The Sears Roebuck catalog in 1903 had advertisements for “zithers” and “autoharps,” both which are early forms of dulcimers, as well as hammered dulcimers. The hammered dulcimer weighed 50 pounds, was crafted of European spruce, and had pearl-inlaid sides, all for $13.85. The popularity of the dulcimer during this time is easily seen by the mass marketing of catalogs depicting numerous kinds of dulcimers, made to order.

    The dulcimer fell into wide disuse after the Civil War. With the improvements in the shipping industry that came with the creation of trans-continental railroad systems, it was no longer necessary to travel with instruments. Thus owning a piano became much more feasible for people migrating, even those who were moving out to the west coast. Another cause for decline was the fact that very few dulcimer songs were written down. As the generation born after the Civil War did not pass on the skills or the songs, their children did not learn the dulcimer. Similarly, the World War I generation would learn the guitar, mandolin, and piano instead of taking up the dulcimer.

    The dulcimer experienced a mild resurgence in the 1930s and 40s with the popularization of Henry Ford and His Early American Orchestra, a folk-type band that utilized the dulcimer in their music. The current popularity of the dulcimer began in the 1960s with the movement towards pop traditional and folk music. Nancy Groce states that “the hammered dulcimer occupies that musical no man’s land between “pure folk” and “popular” traditions,” meaning that the popularity of the dulcimer in historical times is tied to the current popularity of the dulcimer in folk music.

    Family Ties

    The dulcimer we are looking at belonged to the Sweet family of Mount Horeb, Wisconsin. Originally from Chautauqua County, New York, the patriarch, William Sweet, bought land in Springdale, Wisconsin in 1854. Most of the early settlers to the Mount Horeb area travelled by the Military Road, established in 1832 for settlers moving westward. In 1855, William Sweet then moved his family, including his wife, Sally Clark Sweet, and their 7 young children to come live in Wisconsin.

    Wisconsin was established as a state in 1848, after many of the Native populations were forcibly removed after the Black Hawk War of the 1830s. Early migrants to Wisconsin came from the East Coast, as well as countries like England and Scotland. Overcrowding in European cities, as well as favorable accounts of Dane County, published widely in European newspapers, brought immigrants from Norway, Germany, and Ireland to the region. Most popular history focuses on foreign immigrants and their influence on the Mount Horeb area, while the history of eastern US settlers is equally as intriguing. The early pioneers would settle in the southern regions of Wisconsin, contributing to the population growth seen between 1830 and 1850. Between these years, Wisconsin saw populations soaring from 11,000 to 305,000 inhabitants, many of them establishing farms in the southern regions.

    The Sweet and Donald families were only some of the families that took advantage of the newly inhabitable Wisconsin farmland. The Sweets and the Donalds were both from New York State, and moved to Wisconsin around 1855 and established large farms next to each other. Their histories become intertwined with the marriage of William Sweet’s daughter Ellen to John Strong Donald in 1868. The person of utmost interest in the case of the dulcimer is Ellen Sweet Donald, the original player of the dulcimer in her youth.

    Ellen Sweet Donald was born in Chautauqua County, New York on September 29, 1849. She was the sixth of seven children born to William Sweet and his wife Sally. She was 6 years old when her family moved to Wisconsin in 1855 and 9 when the dulcimer was given to her family. The dulcimer was crafted by a young cabinet maker named Orrin Sweet (no relation to Ellen Sweet) in 1857. He had come from New York to make and sell dulcimers to the pioneers moving westward and stayed in a log house owned by Ellen Sweet’s family. Orrin Sweet, like many dulcimer makers of the time, has very little known about him. He gave the Sweet family this dulcimer in payment for letting him use the house, and then very little is recorded of him after that. Crafted from Wisconsin wood, more specifically walnut, Orrin Sweet made the dulcimer personalized for the Sweet family and their new home in the Midwest.

    The Mount Horeb area was known for being quite musical in the 19th century. Various bands and choral congregations performed at dances, annual parades, and town gatherings. The Sweet family children partook in this musical pastime and the dulcimer was an integral part of this. Her brother James Sweet played second fiddle, her sister Addie played the melodeon, and Ellen played the dulcimer in various public events. The first appearance that Ellen is on record recalling was at Arnold’s Tavern in Blue Mounds for a Fourth of July party. They made other appearances after that, always having the dulcimer in tow. The Sweet family’s ties to musical tradition would influence the early settlers of the Mount Horeb region, bringing their New York traditions to Wisconsin. After her brother James married, he took the family dulcimer with him and his new wife, removing the instrument from use, as he did not play. The dulcimer would remain in the Sweet family, eventually being owned by Ellen’s son, John Sweet Donald, who she then taught to play.


    The dulcimer remained within the Sweet family until it was donated to the Mount Horeb Area Historical Society, where it now sits in the collections. Looking at the long history of the dulcimer in America, and this dulcimer specifically, we can see that this piece could play a crucial part in revitalizing the Mount Horeb Area Historical Society’s new exhibition projects. Its ties to the popular New York style of dulcimer speaks to the stories of immigrants from the east coast that came to settle in Wisconsin; a history that is not commonly told in the migration record. It also tells us about the kinds of activities that the Sweet family, and the citizens of Mount Horeb participated in during its early days, which could be a crucial story.

    The Sweet family were migrants from Chautauqua County, New York; home to the first factories to mass produce the dulcimer for the American pioneers. The maker of the dulcimer, Orrin Sweet, was also from that region, most likely influencing his format for dulcimer making in the popular 11 treble chord/ 7 bass chord style. Dulcimers were played by pioneers, which was integral to the use of the dulcimer in the Midwest region, especially in states like Wisconsin. By bringing these instruments with them, the pioneers would influence the formation of new regional music styles that would develop on the frontier. Thus the dulcimer became a symbol of westward migration, due to the relative ease in bringing it along on journeys, influencing its place in the historical record.

    As an instrument that has largely fallen out of popularity in recent years, it is useful to think about the dulcimer in its particular historical contexts. The dulcimer is largely important to Mount Horeb, not just because of the important family it belonged to, but how it had larger ties to the community. In displaying this object, we can see its use to a family and a town, which would develop an early Wisconsin culture, deeply rooted in New York State traditions. The stories of immigrants to Wisconsin focus mainly on foreign immigrants, but what new things could we learn from stories of emigration? The dulcimer is a perfect example of an object that shares the history of early Wisconsinites and Americans simultaneously.

    Works Cited

    “100 Years Commemoration: William Sweet.” Sweet Family Tree. Mount Horeb Area Historical Society. 1996.

    Donald Parks, Inc. Settlement: The Family History of the Donald’s and the Sweet’s. Online.

    Donald, John Sweet. “Dulcimer.” Scrapbook news clipping. Mount Horeb Area Historical Society.
    Gifford, Paul M. The Hammered Dulcimer: A History. Scarecrow Press, 2001.

    Groce, Nancy. The Hammered Dulcimer in America. Smithsonian Studies in History and Technology, no. 44. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983.

    Kettlewell, David. “Dulcimer.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed March 6, 2016.

    Kansas Historical Society, “Hammered Dulcimer,” June 2013 online.
    Montgomery Ward & Co, Spring and Summer 1895 Buyer’s Guide, no. 57. Dover Publications, 1969.

    Mount Horeb Area Historical Society. Mount Horeb- Presettlement to 1986: A History Celebrating Mount Horeb’s Quasquicentennial. Blanchardville: 1986.

    Mount Horeb Area Historical Society, “Mount Horeb Area Past Times- Newsletter,” May 2009.

    Mount Horeb Area Historical Society. “Mt. Vernon Wisconsin: 100 Years Down By the Old Mill Stream.” Park Printing House Ltd, 1996.

    Mount Horeb Area Historical Society, “Dulcimer Object Label.”
    Passen, Phil. A Brief History of the Hammered Dulcimer. Phil Passen’s Hammered Dulcimers, 2010.

    Rizetta, Sam. “Hammered Dulcimer: History and Playing,” Division of Music, Sports and Entertainment, in cooperation with Public Inquiry Services. Smithsonian Institution. Accessed 4/10.

    Sears Roebuck Catalog, no. 112 (1903), p.200-201. Online, accessed 3/30.

    Wisconsin Historical Society, “19th Century Immigration,” website.
    Wisconsin Decorative Arts Database. “Dulcimer.” Hosted by the Wisconsin Historical Society. Accessed 4/3.

    This page titled 5.6: The Sweet Family Dulcimer - Object Study is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Ann Smart Martin (University of Wisconsin Pressbooks) .

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