Thursday, December 23, 2010

Civil War Era Drum and Fife

Lot 173:

Civil War Era Drum and Fife Drum has military motif stenciled on side, complete with all tensioners. Includes a set of drumsticks. Rosewood fife with silver fittings and 9TH Maine Infantry markings.
Realized : $1,265
Cowan's Auctions: Cincinnati, OH, USA
Auction Date: April 28, 2010


Auction House: The Gallery at Knotty Pine
Auction Location: West Swanzey, NH, USA
Auction Title: Antiques & Decorative Arts Auction
Auction Date: November 1, 2009
Realized : $1,500

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Green Drum

The Green Drum
From The Arlington Historical Society Archives
The accession page reads: “Drum carried by Jos. Dickson, 1862, Civil War. Donor George H. Shirley.”

This beautiful drum, from The Arlington Historical Society archives, pictured here, is a lovely soft green with blue undertones. Wooden bands of a soft, sad red anchor the main green body of the artifact on either end, held together with neat rows of rivets. Emblazoned on one side is a painting of a ship and a sunrise. This circular central motif on the drum’s exterior is the 1784 New Hampshire seal—a ship, flying American banners, resting on wooden supports, with a rising sun. The scene celebrates New Hampshire’s role as a major ship-building center during the Revolutionary War period. The seal is surrounded by laurel leaves and the Latin phrase: “Sigilium Reipublicae Neo Hantoniensis.” (the commonwealth of New Hampshire). Inside, written in a neat hand is the number “23” set at an angle. We are on solid ground interpreting the drum’s physical attributes. But, who owned this beautiful thing; who used it, and why?

The Dickson family has deep roots in Puritan Cambridge and Charlestown. There were Dicksons on Brattle Square in the 1640’s, and Jason Russell’s mother was Elizabeth Dickson. Although the accession information states that Joseph Dickson carried the drum in the Civil War, there is no conclusive evidence that an Arlington man owned this artifact.

Like the drum itself the chain of evidence circles in on itself: Arlington Vital Records contain one entry for “Joseph Dickson,” stating that he married Phebe L. Russell in 1833. That life event would make this Joseph quite old to be a Civil War “drummer boy” in 1862. In the 1865 census for West Cambridge, there is one Joseph Dickson listed: male, white,72 years old, born in Massachusetts, and (sadly) with an asterisked line adding a one-word description of “Idiotic.” Civil War records show a “Joseph Dickson” to have served in the Civil War from Massachusetts, but I haven’t yet been able to track down his hometown—most probably Charlestown. There are no “Joseph Dicksons” listed in New Hampshire Civil War records. But why would a Massachusetts boy—from West Cambridge or Charlestown– be carrying a drum with the New Hampshire state seal on it?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Sunday, November 28, 2010

How an 1827 (no. 1582) Brown Drum Got to Montana

Jim Doolittle of Montana wrote to us recently with these photos of his family’s 1827 Eli Brown drum. He included some family history:

The Doolittles settled in the Milford-Woodmont area of Connecticut in the late 1600’s to early 1700’s. Early family members were farmers, ice “harvesters” and deliverers and general handymen.

Jim’s grandfather, Trubee Doolittle, was a banker in Woodmont from the late 1800’s until about 1955. (There is a Trubee Doolittle Park in Woodmont. Also, see Families of Early Milford, Connecticut By Susan Emma Woodruff Abbott.)

Jim’s father, Charles Doolittle, was born in Woodmont in 1921, attended Columbia University Medical School, graduating in 1952, and moved to California with his wife Nancy.

When Trubee died in 1974 the contents of his home on Mark Street were distributed to family members and/or auctioned.

Charles Doolittle acquired the Brown drum at that time from Trubee’s estate. Jim reports that the drum has been in his family for more than 100 years. He does not know, however, how the drum came to be in his family.

When Charles retired in 1963 and moved to Florence, Montana to be near his son Jim, he brought the Brown drum.

Jim reports that the heads and ropes were replaced by Drum Brothers in Arlee, Montana using deerskin (not exactly traditional but easily corrected) and hemp.

Jim inherited the Brown drum from his father when he passed in October, 2009.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Restoration of a Mid-19th Century Field Snare Drum

I received this article today from Randolph ("Randy") Davis, a drummer and drum refurbisher. Compare some features of Randy's drum with those on my "Drum by John Lowell," this blog, March 5, 2008.

My New Player
Article Contributed by Randolph Davis
Baltimore, MD


Having just now tied off the drag rope, I’d like to share my newest toy which I bought at the Baltimore Gun Show last year (2009). There I found a cracked shell and counterhoops form a mid-19th century drum, and some old heads sans flesh hoops artfully displayed across the open ends of the shell. The shell had a crazed unidentified surface finish, and all-in-all, it looked like hell. I decided I wanted it, so my friend, Jim Kochan, lent me the cash to buy it. I recall it costing $250.00 (after a $50 talk-down). It is now sturdy player of which I am very proud.

I gave the shell a quick surface clean with a damp cloth and found several cracks spanning the length of the shell along the grain, one spanning the entire length of the shell. That was bad news for a drum that I wished to transform into a player.

I bought some 1/8” white oak strips, soaked them in water for about ½ hour, bent them around the shell to dry, and then I glued them across the cracks on the inside of the shell using Old Brown Glue. That stuff is a truly amazing organic hide glue with urea added to lengthen the working time. A simple warming makes the glue workable for several hours. This stuff is heaven, and I can recommend it without hesitation. I also used it to reglue the shell support hoops and loosening scarf joints on the counterhoops. It worked to great effect and, as advertised, simply bonded with the old glue. Other than a little spotting from the iron traces in Baltimore tap water reacting with the tannic acid in the oak (which I was able to correct with oxalic acid), there were no real issues.

View of oak reinforcement strips through vent hole.

Next I scraped the surface finish off using a water-based varnish remover which worked well after two applications. I used a flexible plastic putty knife because I wanted to retain the planer marks on the outer shell. I gave the shell a denatured alcohol bath and it cleaned nicely. I first attempted to shellac the drum, but I felt that this would not be a sufficiently sturdy finish for an outdoor drum. (I have since learned that the Noble Cooley 150th anniversary drums are using shellac and apparently this is the historic finish for Noble Cooley drums.) So I removed the shellac and hand rubbed the shell (first with my bare hands and then with the grain, using 0000 steel wool) using a 50/50 refined linseed oil/turpentine finish. I applied about seven coats which did a nice job to create a slurry to fill the cracks and other imperfections. I used Gamblin refined linseed oil which is said to use a refining process that is 150 years old. The final touch was wheat pasting a hand-made label inked by my good friend Fred Rickard.

Compare an original label that reads “John Lowell, Manufactor and dealer in all kinds of Musical Instruments No.[1] 4 Maine St Bangor

Reproduction label, reads “Randolph Davis Manufactor and dealer in all kinds of Musical Instruments No. 2105 Hargrove Alley Baltimore”.

With the shell and counterhoops complete, I ordered rope, heads, snares, strainer, and custom cut and bent flesh hoop blanks from Cooperman Drum Company. I sized flesh hoops to the shell, and glued them using the same Old Brown Glue. I nailed them with carpet tacks based on contextual examples in my own collection. I tucked the heads and dyed the rope overnight in a batch of strong English breakfast tea (Cooperman sells a sort of bleached linen rope.) The Cooperman linen rope is four strands, as is typical for drum rope on American drums of the period. Unfortunately, it is not spun as tightly as other original rope I have seen, and I wanted “drum rope”. I have heard other drummers speak favorably of hemp linen rope available in Eastern European markets, but I don’t know of any four-strand rope of this type, and I felt that the tea-dyed linen rope was the right decision for this restoration.

I made the ears, copying an original example on another drum in my collection. I used an antique pinking iron to punch the ends, and seven-cord hand waxed linen thread to tie the ears.

I mounted the Cooperman reproduction Civil War style strainer. But after roping the drum together, it occurred to me that this design would not work, for the rope hole was too close to the strainer side snare gate. There was no room for the upright thumbscrew to function. This posed a problem that might have prevented the result I wanted. But not so! I inquired with Noble and Cooley, who is embarking on a reproduction drum project in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the war, concurrently with contacting the one and only George Carroll of Carroll’s Drum Service. George gave me a different but common style (of which I have a couple on drums in my collection) counterhoop-mounted hinge-style strainer, which works excellently in the above mentioned situation. His casting apparently comes directly from an original dug at Brandy Station battlefield. I came to find out that Noble and Cooley is using the same strainer supplied by George for their restorations.

So I soaked and mounted the snares, and plugged a few small holes in the counterhoops where previous appliances had been mounted (a carry on the batter counterhoop, and previous strainers on the snare side). That was an afterthought, but something I could do without dismantling the drum.

And just a listing of my friends who helped me along the way: my wife for dealing with insanity on a regular basis; George Carroll for keeping this fife and drum business alive south of the Mason Dixon, and reproducing this strainer; Jim Ellis at Cooperman, who is the embodiment of kindness and sage; George Hardy for his magical tea-dying recipe; Jim Kochan for spotting me the money initially; Fred Rickard for the best label any drum ever had; and Al Saguto for teaching me now to make thread.

So there you have it. And it sounds great!

# # #

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Tompkins' (uncompleted) Drum #5 Surfaces on eBay


Note the beautiful grain pattern resulting from an oblique slice through the wood stock causing otherwise circular growth ring patterns to appear somewhat elliptical.

The two (of six) drilled holes in the bottom counterhoop were made to accommodate one of three short legs when the drum was converted to a small table.

Whether as a result of luck or care, the grain pattern partially lines up nicely at the glued seam. (Tompkins could have chosen the portion of the exterior veneer blank he used so as to cause the grain pattern to line up so well, at least partially, at the seam.)

This hole is one of three on the inside of the top counterhoop and was made to accommodate a circular tabletop that was screwed into the top counterhoop.

Not sure what happened here. It's a gradual thinning of the interior veneer such that the exterior veneer is exposed on the inside of the shell. That may have been a or the reason that this drum was never completed. Tompkins may have been concerned that the drum's thickness, being non-uniform, would lead to structural failure at that location.

Note the number "5" in handwritten in pencil on the inside of the shell

Note the number "5" in handwritten in pencil on the inside of the counterhoop

Note the strong construction evidenced by two-ply manufacture and reinforcing hoops top and bottom.
The grain runs vertically on the inside layer of the shell, and horizontally on the outside layer of the shell, for improved, cross-grain strength.

The counterhoops show no sign of ever having been used to tighten down the drum. No depressions in the top edge that would have been made by roped hooks under load.


eBay seller emilysattic ( 412) put this beauty on the market and it escaped my attention until my friend, George Kubicek, emailed me with about 3 hours left in the auction. I was glad he did. I placed my bid and waited patiently for the auction to close at about 7 minues past 7 o'clock in the evening while I was attending a business meeting (watching the clock count down on the auction during the last few minutes).

Final sale price was only $305 but there is alot missing. What I bought was just the shell and the hoops. They are characteristic of the work of William S. Tompkins, whose drums are featured in other articles on this blog (search above left for Tompkins). My guess is that this drum, marked #5 on the inside of one of the reinforcing hoops and on the inside of the shell (see photos), is one of Tompkins' early drums.

The drum had been used as a table. Three short legs (probably not period) accompanied the drum. They were screwed into drilled holes through the bottom counterhoop. A circular wooden top (probably not period) was affixed to the other counterhoop by small angle brackets screwed to the inner surface of that counterhoop.

There was no trace of any flesh hoops, skin heads, ropes, tugs or snare mechanism. Moreover, there was no evidence of any snare bed depressions in the shell. And there weren't any notch cutouts in either of the counterhoops to accommodate snares such as are seen on drums even older than this drum.

Drums manufactured prior to and even during the Civil War can be found with or without snare mechanisms. However, the field snare drums that I have seen that lack snare mechanisms had some sort of design feature to accommodate and allow the snares to be pulled through to the outside of the shell and kept tight against the snare head.

The shell of this drum has no such features. There are no bearing surfaces for the skin heads to smoothly transition from horizontal to vertical. Both shell edges are square to the shell surface. And, there is no vent hole. You can't have a good-sounding drum without a vent hole. There is no evidence of scratching to indicate damage caused by a flesh hoop. The hoops lack the telltale marks of rope hook depressions on the outer edges, and the shell lacks any evidence of vertical scratching caused by leather tugs moving up and down the shell. It's anyone's guess why that is, but I have mine.

I think that the drum was never completed and never used as a drum; that it was made to be a drum, but then set aside. Perhaps the drum was imperfect and not of the quality for which the maker wanted to known. That is, of course, merely a guess. Imperfections in the outermost circle of inlaid diamonds would be consistent with that hypothesis. Those diamonds, while attractive, are not set out along the circumference of the circle with the clock-like exactitude for which Tompkins' later drums are known. See, e.g., drum #22 from my collection.

Tompkins Drum #22, Hand-signed and Dated 1862
(Collection of Ellis Mirsky)

Tompkins drum #5 stands, perhaps, as a record of what a Tompkins drum look liked partway through the manufacturing process. It is, essentially, an uncompleted drum, apparently taken out of manufacture prior to finishing. It shows us the precision with which the surfaces were made. It's a real treasure in that regard.

The seller described Tompkins drum #5 as follows:

Up for auction is a Rare Antique 19th Century William S. Tompkins Burl Wood Civil War Drum Shell. This beautiful antique burl wood Civil War Drum Shell has a inlaid circular pattern with a center-concentric star, five-pointed stars and diamonds design with red, white-wood color, & blue hoops. The burl wood (shell-outside) has a natural & interesting design, and thought it was Birch at first, Maple or Ash ? I purchased this drum shell as a small antique side table, knowing-seeing it was a antique drum, (added later) with a antique spinning wheel top, three simple carved old oak legs, carefully placed. The top was attached with 3 simple L brackets-measured-spaced out, on the inside, holes going thru inside edge top-not going thru top R,W,B top hoop, and the simple carved oak legs, measured-spaced out, were carefully-neatly drill, thru R,W,B hoop-shell, legs were notches out-to fit on inside back, screw attaching thru the front-tighten by legs. (have to mention, is part of the condition)

Overall it is in good, restorable, condition, nice(original) patina with crazing-expected wear, inlay all present-intact, center concentric star-inlay has a vertical age split-indentation inside shell-not seen from front-seen before in other examples I have seen, 2 -3 age splits from age, hoops are strong-condition mentioned above. Signed 2x in pencil-number 5, inside of shell and inside support-hoop, measuring approximately: 17 1/4 inches wide by 13 1/4 inches high, please see pictures. I do not see any Vent Hole?

William S. Tompkins, born 1812-Drum Maker & Craftsmanin in N.Y., is known for his inlaid circular patterns of consentric stars, five-pointed stars and diamonds with red, white-wood color, & blue hoops, and why I am attributing this drum to him. (information provided by a good site on the internet [, of course])

P.R. Winn, Drummaker

An article by W. Lee Vinson, author and publisher of and . For Lee's story about ...