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Eisenbrandt Fife

Eisenbrandt Fife (bottom), circa 1811
Courtesy of Andrew Parker

During the War of 1812, some American fifers—probably a large number of them—were equipped with fifes made by Heinrich Christian Eisenbrandt (b. 1790, Gottengen, d. 1860), a young German immigrant who at age 18 had fled his native Germany and the wars raging there. He arrived in New Perth, Delaware, and shortly thereafter made his way to Philadelphia, where he taught flute-playing and also made woodwinds, a trade he had learned from his father in Gottengen. Heinrich's son, Henry, recalled how so many fifers ended up with Eisenbrandt fifes during the war:

. . . At this time (1811) America was preparing for war & Father immediately got work at good wages at making fifes. He was a quick worker, but worked in the old German way & could only make 1/2 doz each day, whereas an American alongside of him made a doz. Papa bored his from 2 sides; figuring this too slow, he studied out a plan to bore them from one. Soon equaled the Americans & determined to succeed, surpassed [them] and made 2 doz a day. . .

It is not clear whether "Papa" and the "Americans working alongside him" were employed by any one of the Philadelphia instrument makers active at that time or in Eisenbrandt's own shop, which he later claimed to have founded in 1811, but in any event, Eisenbrandt did not stay in Philadelphia very long. His biographer tells us of a short stint in Baltimore and another in New York before returning to Germany in 1816. He worked in the family woodwind business before winning appointment as "court instrument maker in Hanover." However, in 1819 he was back in Baltimore and this time established a musical instrument business that would flourish for 130 years. . .

The outstanding feature that distinguishes Eisenbrandt's work from any other is his use of rosewood. Throughout the eighteenth century and extending well into the nineteenth, the tonewood of choice in both London and America was boxwood. Turkish boxwood was preferred, as it was thought that the dry climate might produce wood less susceptible to warping, but in truth, all boxwood, unless perfectly seasoned and used in extremely short pieces, tends to warp. The dark, dense hardwoods did not, and by the 1820s-30s American makers had virtually abandoned the use of boxwood in favor of the tropical tonewoods. However, British makers continued to use it (for fifes, at least) even as they produced flutes, clarinets, oboes, and other woodwinds from rosewood, cocus wood, cocobolo, and ebony. Eisenbrandt was unique in his use of rosewood a full 10-15 years before its adoption by other woodwind makers. In fact, according to Henry, his father's skill in producing fine rosewood instruments guaranteed the success of his second Baltimore venture in 1819:

. . . he became famous for his work. The Americans at that time knew nothing of polishing hard woods & he often received double the amount of his price when a piece of work was completed; this in fact had been the case frequently, from the very first, in Phila[delphia]. . .

Otherwise, the straight, narrow bore and the thin-walled, tapered body with upper body swell found on Eisenbrandt fifes were typical of American fife design. Eisenbrandt drilled the bore and turned his fife with care, probably on a foot-powered lathe. The small, even tone holes are also typical of the time period. Of note, though, is Eisenbrandt's careful undercutting of only some of the tone holes. Undercutting was a subtle way of enlarging the tone hole on the inside of the body without disturbing its appearance on the outside. When left uncovered by the fifer's finger ("open"), the widened tone hole would effectively shorten the sounding length of any pitch dependent upon that open hole, resulting in slightly sharper intonation. By choosing which tone holes to undercut, Eisenbrandt improved specific pitches that, on other fifes, were noticeably flat.

Certain other characteristics, however, show where Eisenbrandt cut corners in order to complete his 2 dozen fifes per day. The brass ferrules (metal end caps) are nicely fitted but without decoration. He snipped them from seamless metal tubing, which took a lot less time than cutting up brass sheets, hand-rolling each ferrule to fit the fife, and then finishing with a burnished seam, which is what other makers did. Both ferrules are the same size (3/4"), thus eliminating the necessity of turning different seating lengths at each end of the fife, even though it was standard practice at this time to apply a longer ferrule at the foot end. On this particular instrument, his brand mark, a seriffed "H.E.," missed the midline entirely and is only partially visible despite being double-struck. Perhaps he excused his haste or inattention to such details, which did not affect either intonation or gross appearance, because it allowed him to tend more carefully to other characteristics that did, the overall result being a well-constructed instrument that exceeds the standards of its day.

Andrew Parker is a reenactor who portrays a War of 1812 Soldier at Fort George, NY.   He also plays fife with the Excelsior Brigade in Rochester, NY.

Excerpted from
Copyright August 2012, Andrew Parker.  All rights reserved.