Fife Myths

We have all seen the show “MythBusters” where general public myths are looked at, investigated and either proved as true, or as the show states “BUSTED”.

Over the years of collecting I have run into many of the “Fife Myths”, some that are maybe true, some that are just downright myths and falsehoods.

But, with that said, I am here to investigate and either prove or disprove these myths and stories that have developed over the years.

So let’s get down to business!

George Washington burns the fifes!

Here’s a good one that I wanted to start off with, and it goes something like this:

After the American Revolution, General Washington was so disgusted with how the fifes of the Army played that he gathered them all up and burned them, which is why no fifes from that era survive!”  

Over the years I have heard different versions of this story, but generally it is basically the same.  This is not the place I want to discuss that Music of the Army, nor do I want to discuss Revolutionary War fifes.  All I want to do here is handle the one question:

Did George Washington have the fifes gathered up and burned?

Well, fortunately, this is a very easy question to answer, and the answer comes right from the General himself:

Head Quarters, June 8, 1783.

Dear Sir: In ansr(sic) to the question which has been proposed, whether the Music are entitled to fire Arms, under the Resolution of Congress of the 23d of April, I am to give it as my opinion, they are not; but that they should be allowed to take their Drums and Fifes, which is the mode that has been adopted respecting the Music who have been furloughed from this Cantonment. I am etc.*

*From the Washington Papers held in the Library of Congress.

So it seems that Washington let the fifers take their fifes home, which would make sense, because why would Washington want to destroy Government property?

So with that said:


The myth of the space between the finger holes.

There seems to be a myth floating around regarding finger hole spacing and how it relates to the dating of a fife.

The myth sort of goes like this:

“If you see that a fife has a large space between the 4th and 5th finger holes this means that the instrument was made after 1840.”


Well let’s see if this myth stands up to the facts by examining some known, dateable instruments.

If we look at this fife made by John Parker of London, in business from circa 1770-1815 (Per Langwill) what do we see?

Looks like a space between the 4th and 5th finger holes?

This should mean that this instrument was produced after 1840.

Was it?

Wait, we show that this instrument maker was in business until 1815.

Let’s even add another 10 years on that that to 1825. (Not all dates for makers in Langwill are exact)

Could this myth be busted?

Wait, maybe they were referring to the American makers.

Yes, that must be it, American makers!

Once again let’s see if this stand up to the test by examining one of the American made fifes that is datable.

We have a fife made by William Callender, which was made after 1803 but not later than 1830. (My research shows that by the 1830’s Callender was an old man and seems to not be making fifes any longer)

Is that a space between the 3rd and 4th hole?

I think it is!

Let’s do a measurement to make sure:


 Looks like this fife has a very large space between the 4th and 5th finger holes.

Well it looks like this myth is …..


The myth of the ferrule scoring.

This one goes like this:

“You can tell the maker of a fife by how the ferrule is scored/marked.”

Ok, I will admit that is true……some of the time.

Certain makers did use the same type of mark on their instruments most of the time they were in business….but not always.

Yes, all the Crosby made fifes in my collection are scored the same way.

Yes, MOST of the Cloos fifes in my collection are knurled the same way.

Yes, all the Cahusac fifes that I have in my collection and have seen in person are scored the same way.

BUT….and there is a but!

Not all fifes from the same maker are scored/marked the same way!

Here is an example:

These 3 fifes all have different markings on the ferrules, and as a matter of fact, they all look very different and 2 have nickel ferrules while one is brass.

Should be three different makes, right?

Nope, all three are from the same company…..Klemm and Brother of Philadelphia.

Yes, I know Klemm was an importer, but when it comes to identifying the fife it doesn’t matter, and plays into my point that not all fifes can be identified by the ferrules.

Is the myth correct?

Yes and no, so we’ll give this a half pass!


​We’re all the same size.

Here’s how this myth goes:

“The older fifes had all the finger holes the same size!”

Well, ok, but that depends on what you call “old”.

Would you say that the late 1700’s would be considered old?

I would.

So, if we have a fife that is dating from the last 1700’s all the finger holes should be the same size according to the myth.

Well let’s have a look at one from that period.

Here is a fife made by Thomas Cahusac which was in business from 1736 to around 1816.

If you look, the top finger hole and the bottom finger hole are smaller than the others.

I find this the same with many of the English fifes from that period.

They are using a hole pattern that has some of the holes different sizes.

You can also look at the Parker fife that is listed on this site, and it has a different pattern.

Seems like not all fifes from an earlier era have the same size finger holes.

Well, I guess this myth is…..


I might not be born yet, but I can still make fifes!

Here is how this one goes:

“George Cloos and his son Frederick sold many fifes to the army during the Civil War.”

First off, I am not going to deal with George Cloos and his fife making here as I intend to do so in another essay.

Let’s deal with the statement of Frederick working with his father.

Yes, this is true, Frederick did work at, and also took over the Cloos factory after his father’s death.

100 percent correct.

The problem is with the myth that Frederick worked with his father during the Civil War.

Well, the answer is very simple:

NO, he did not!

How am I so certain?

Frederick wasn’t born until 1867*, and the Civil War ended in 1865.

*Per the 1880 Census.

If he did work for his father before he was born, it was a miracle!

So with that said, this myth is


I invent a gun drill to……..make fifes!

Here is how this one goes:

“You do know that Ferrary invented the gun drill and that’s why his fifes played so well.”

With no disrespect to Ed Ferrary, as he made wonderful fifes, this is just a merging of 2 facts to make a falsehood.

Yes, Ferrary did use a “gun drill”, no he didn’t invent it.

Here is a short history of the gun drill, from a site that deals with…….gundrills:

“Gundrilling has its roots in Europe during the late 19th and early 20th century. Early gun barrels were produced either by roll-forging or “Damascus” spiral welding. The advent of more powerful propellants led to the need for stronger, more dependable steel barrels. Drilling of alloyed steel bars proved necessary.

Drilling with twist drills welded to extended shafts was laborious, time consuming and liable to drift and wander.

There were already well-established methods used in woodworking for the drilling of deep holes that employed long, straight grooved or D section augers. Such tools, ground with eccentric cutting edges, had been found to provide very straight, controlled results. The successful introduction of these ideas to the cutting of metal greatly improved hole quality.

The final step to bring the gun drill to today’s design occurred in the 1930s with the idea of attaching the cutting tip to a formed tubular shank through which cutting oil could be passed. In turn this flowed through an adjoining hole in the tip to lubricate, cool and flush chips.”

From Kays Engineering Web Site:

Better yet, here is the Wikipedia article on the subject:

Well, sorry to say, another myth….


​​The older you get, the smaller your ferrules are, and your finger holes too for that matter!

Here is how this one goes:

“The older fifes, especially those made around the time of the American Revolution, had small ferrules and small finger holes.”

Well, I guess this comes down to the question:

What do you consider small?

Let’s go to the facts and compare 2 fifes, one made by Thomas Cahusac (top fife) of London, 1738-1816, and one made by Edward Baack (bottom fife) of New York, 1837-1872.

Now, according to the myth, the bottom fife should have larger finger holes and larger ferrules.

Wait, this isn’t true!

The Cahusac, a much older instrument, has larger finger holes and larger ferrules. (and to top it off, different sized finger holes, another myth which was busted)

Oh well, guess we have another myth……


Putting a new spin on things!

Here is how this myth goes:

“The machinery for George Cloos to spin his fife ferrules wasn’t available until after the Civil War”

I am not going into the history of George Cloos here, but will do so in another essay.

What I will address is the comment “machines to spin ferrules”.

Quite simply, ferrules are not spun!

Anyone who has any knowledge of the making of musical instruments knows the following:

You spin a trumpet bell.

You spin a trombone bell.

You spin a tuba bell!

You draw tubing.

The Cloos ferrules were made of seamless tubing, (I am will be writing an essay on seamed/seamless tubing at a later time.) which George Cloos would not have made.

He would have purchased the tubing from a supplier and shaped the ferrules by using a draw bench, an Arbor Press or just by annealing the ferrule and pushing it up a mandrill, but he would not “spin” the ferrules!

Well, I guess this puts a new “spin” on this myth…..


​When is a taper a taper?

This myth is connected with the last one, referring to the ferrules of George Cloos and the machines to make them.  It sort of goes like this:

“The machines to make tapered ferrules were not invented until after the Civil War.”


If that is true, how is William Callender making tapered ferrules?

And he died in the late 1830’s?

Again, coming back to basic musical instrument making:

You don’t need a machine to make a tapered ferrule, you need a mandrill, a hammer and some brass, that’s all.

Tapering of brass has been done for thousands of years, so why all of a sudden would you need a machine?

The answer, you don’t.

Tapered ferrules were being produced WAY before Cloos came along.

So, I guess this was a way to “taper” the truth, but unfortunately this myth is…..


We mark our fifes so the mark can wear off.

On EBay recently I read a description for a fife which stated this myth:

“This fife seems to have been made by Klemm of Philadelphia but is not marked as their marks were light and wore off.”

First off, this fife looked like no Klemm I knew of, but that didn’t matter, as Klemm did purchase fifes from many different makers, so it might could have been a maker I had not seen before.

I inquired if there was a fife that the seller had compared it to?

The answer was, they had not compared it to a Klemm, it just looked like one, and their marks always wore off.

Marks always wore off?

I have 6 Klemm fifes in my collection, all marked.

I have 325 fifes in my collection, and yes I do have 2 that look exactly like 2 Klemm fifes.

Does this mean the stamp wore off?

Maybe, maybe not.

The one I have is in very good condition, and I can tell it was never stamped.

How can this be?

Didn’t Klemm want to stamp all of their fifes?

Yes, most likely, and yes this could be one that was missed, but a better answer is that since Klemm had many of their instruments produced by others, this fife was made at the same time as the Klemm fifes, but sold to another firm that didn’t mark it.

It didn’t mean that the mark wore off.

As a matter of fact, the Klemm fifes in my collection all have very readable marks.

Guess this myth just wore out……


We soften the holes.

Another myth that was repeated on EBay was this one:

“This fife was made later than the 1870’s because the holes have been softened.”

First off, let’s define softened:

What this is referring to is the finger holes of a fife being beveled.

Beveling is the process of shaping the tone hole to give a slightly smoother, indented feel.

In the research of anything there are no hard fast rules, thus to use one statement to cover everything just doesn’t work.

This myth is an example of that.

Below are the finger holes of a fife, seen from both the top and the side.

This show that the finger holes have not been beveled, or softened.

The next is a picture of another fifes finger hole section.

As you can see, this fifes fingers holes are somewhat beveled, or softened.

This should mean that the top fife is older than the bottom fife because of the sharpness of the finger holes.


The top fife was made by George Cloos, circa 1940 and the bottom fife was made by Walter Crosby before 1872.

As I state on my page “How old is my fife”, you cannot just look at one aspect when researching an instrument and say that is what dates the instrument.

Guess this fife myth just got…..