Here, Natalia “Saw Lady” Paruz (an expert saw player) from Astoria, Queens, New York, shares her story:
The one thing I cherish is my glass harmonicon. The glass harmonicon was a musical instrument popular in parlors of the 19th century. It was made in the United States.
It is an amazing musical instrument, which today is almost extinct. It makes sounds that remind me of stardust from a fairy magic wand.
I saw it offered on eBay. My husband and I traveled all the way to Virginia from New York to get it.
In order to play it, you dip your finger in water and rub the rims of the glasses. Each glass is tuned to a different note. You can play one note at a time or two notes at once [one with each hand].
The Glass Harmonicon’s History
This instrument was probably made by Francis Hopkinson Smith of Baltimore, Maryland, who manufactured glass harmonicons back between 1828 and 1833.
The previous owner purchased it 40 years before I got it, in the mid-1960s in San Francisco from what was then one of the finest antique shops there. For a portion of this time (1971–1977), these glasses were exhibited in the Yesteryear Museum in New Jersey, as [the previous owner] was the director there.
Tours at the museum were treated to a solo on the glasses, either by the director or his associates, the nationally known music box and bell collectors George and Madeleine Brown.
The Glass Harmonicon’s Inherent Values
Such instruments are not made anymore today, and I feel privileged to be chosen by fate to be the guardian of a piece of history.
It has taught me the value of history and how we can connect to it, and to the people who lived back then, through using their objects.
When I play this instrument, it makes me wonder who the people were before me who played it. I feel a direct connection to them, even though I have no idea who they actually were. It fosters a bond through history, a continuity.
Without the glass harmonicon, my room would be a lot more spacious, as it is rather a large piece of furniture. But the room, as well as my life, would lose a lot of its magic without this object.
More on the Glass Harmonicon
Natalia’s glass harmonicon is made of 25 chromatic stemmed glasses tuned from C to two octaves above C. Each glass is tuned by the manufacturer, grinding the glass at the bottom of the cup.
The order of the glasses is the reverse of a piano keyboard in that the sharps and flats are below the natural notes instead of above, as you would see on the piano.
The wooden casing is 41 inches by 22 inches when closed. The diameter of the largest glass is 5.25 inches, and the smallest is 2.5 inches.
Musical glasses were thought to be the inspiration for Benjamin Franklin’s glass armonica in 1761. As an American delegate, Franklin heard a set of musical glasses being played by amateur musicians while he was traveling through London and Paris in the mid-1700s, according to The Franklin Institute.
Franklin’s invention differed in design from the harmonium. It consisted of glasses stacked inside one another, each tuned by different glass thicknesses and joined together by a central rod, which was controlled by a foot pedal. The armonica could play chords and more complex melodies than its predecessor.
“Of all my inventions, the glass armonica has given me the greatest personal satisfaction.”
~ Ben Franklin
In this series, edited for style and length, we interview people about their most precious possessions. While the objects around us may seem inanimate, our connection to them and our stories about them often bring them to life.
Do you have an old object you cherish (pre-1955) that shows fine craftsmanship and traditional values? If you’d like to share your story, please write to Lorraine Ferrier at [email protected] with a short description and we’ll be in touch.