COLLECTION: Musical Instruments

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Brass Fifes and Fife Case

Origin: Britain
Case: 15 1/2" x 2 1/8" x 1 1/2" Fifes: 15" x 11/16" and 13 3/4" x 11/16"
Brass, iron, wood, cork, and silver
Museum Purchase, Mitchell Arms and Military Accoutrements Fund
Acc. No. 2015-207,1-3
Set of military fifes composed of two cast brass fifes, of different keys, with turned ends and sheet silver lip plates. Each fife has six finger holes. These instruments are contained in a case of sheet brass, of oval crossection, with a hinged and latching lid and two sets of brass suspension loops on the sides. A replacement wooden spacer is fitted into the mouth of the case to keep the fifes in place when stowed.

Label:Fife and drum tunes like "Yankee Doodle" are inexorably linked with the American Revolution and are known around the world. Standing in sharp contrast to this fame is how little we know about the actual fifes that were used to play these tunes during the war. To date, none are known with a verifiable history of having been carried during the Revolution. Based on datable examples of similar instruments, period fifes were made of woods like boxwood, ebony, mahogany and laurel, and were frequently mounted with a brass ferrule at either end.

It is also believed that fifes made of brass were also played by British military musicians during the last part of the 18th century. Colonial Williamsburg's set includes a pair of fifes, of two different keys, and their sheet brass carrying case engraved with the arms of the British United East India Company. Although these were used halfway across the globe, similar sets of brass fifes may well have been played by British musicians serving in America during the Revolution.

Although an extremely rare survival, a nearly identical set is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Inscription(s):Front of the case is engraved with the coat of arms of the British East India Company, being a shield flanked by lions holding flags, above a banner inscribed with the Latin for "By Command of the King and Parliament of England."