What is a jaw harp, and what does it tell us? This little instrument likely looks familiar, but you may not know that much about it. That certainly proved the case for me when I decided to research the four we have in our collection.
To start, a jaw harp is an extremely simple instrument to make and play. It only requires an iron or copper alloy frame and a flexible metal tongue, or lamella, which runs through the center. Manufacturing styles vary, but many undergo casting or forging to create the bow shape and arms. The lamella most often attaches by hammering it in place. This part is rarely preserved in the archaeological record, so only the frame remains for us to find.
To play the instrument, one places it against their mouth and plucks the lamella while breathing out. Varying your breathing and the shape of your mouth cavity allows the sound to change. That said, while the instrument is easy to play, it proves difficult to play well, and many dislike its boings and buzzes. Those skilled at the jaw harp, however, went on to play for the likes of Frederick the Great and George IV. They even managed to play more than one jaw harp at once.
The history of jaw harps dates beyond the fifth century BCE in Asia. Archaeological evidence places the instrument’s arrival in Europe around 1200, with the migration occurring along northern routes through the Baltic. Due to their mundane nature, jaw harps rarely appear in historic accounts or art. Two exceptions include Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Sleeping Peddler Robbed by Monkeys (1562), which helps identify peddlers as the main purveyors of jaw harps, and accounts of the North Berwick Witch Trials (1590-1592), where one of the accused performed for James VI of Scotland. Witches aside, the most common players at this time included the lower classes and soldiers.
While jaw harps may not have generated the most attention, they played key roles in early trade deals in North America. Jaw harps likely first came to North America in the company of soldiers, but they soon gained popularity amongst indigenous groups, such as the Five Nations Iroquois. Confirmation of this occurred as early as 1595, with Robert Dudley reporting that the instrument made a successful trade item. As trade continued, the exchange of jaw harps frequently related to the fur trade, but some larger and more dubious, deals included the acquisitions of Staten Island and Maryland. That said, even the fur traders came under fire for using jaw harps of poor quality.
Within established colonies, jaw harps appeared as an item frequently sold by merchants. Numerous adverts appeared in papers between the 1730s and 1780s. For Virginia, this included merchants in Williamsburg during the 1760s, as well as Alexandria and Gloucester in the 1770s. Production would have occurred in England with the then imported good available to all customers in the colonies. We know that soldiers played them during the French & Indian War and the American Revolution. This connection to soldiers would even continue through the Civil War. As for other players in Colonial times, a couple of adverts for runaway indentured servants placed in Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette listed jaw harps as a special talent of the individual and amongst the items possibly carried by them.
Aside from these individuals, the other most common players consisted of enslaved people. Evidence of this comes solely from the archaeological record. Excavations have uncovered jaw harps at a number of sites in Virginia, including Monticello, that date from the mid-1700s to early 1800s. In all of these cases, the instruments came from enslaved domestic quarters and work areas. Due to their nature, jaw harps would have proved an easy item for an enslaved person to hold on to, use, and share with others. In use, they would have been part of the enslaved music culture, which offered individuals a respite from work, a way to express themselves, and perhaps an outlet for the continuation of West African cultural practices.
As I mentioned earlier, four jaw harps reside in our collection. Three came from the Washington cellar, while the fourth came from a Civil War trench that ran through the cellar. To understand their significance, an examination of the artifacts themselves and their contexts help us identify and date them.
Physically, all four appear to reflect a design known as Gloucester. This means they consist of an iron frame and represent one of the most common designs in America during Colonial times and after the Revolution. We know that the ones that came directly from the cellar pre-date the 1830s due to the collapse of the house. A closer look at the artifacts accompanying them provide us with a range of the 1780s-1830s for the date of deposit.
As for the harp from the Civil War trench, while this may seem like an obvious identification, it remains tricky. A Union soldier may have played and discarded it while encamped here. However, when people filled the trench after the war, they may have used dirt that contained earlier artifacts from Ferry Farm. As the trench ran through the cellar, this harp ultimately lay close to the other three, and the dirt used to fill the trench may have come from that area. We may never know for sure on this particular piece, but it likely dates either to the war period or as a contemporary of the other three.
While the dates provided occur after the Washington occupation of Ferry Farm, jaw harps existed on the market during their time, meaning the instrument may have had an earlier presence. As for who played them, these instruments likely reflect use by enslaved individuals. After the Battle of Princeton (1777) claimed the life of Hugh Mercer, who had purchased Ferry Farm from George Washington, the property passed through a series of renters. None occupied the site for long, but an enslaved population maintained a constant presence as each renter relied on enslaved labor. This continued up until the Civil War. With the evidence of enslaved people using jaw harps at other sites in Virginia and the fact that enslaved individuals constantly lived or worked at Ferry Farm, we can attribute these artifacts to them.
One of our future projects involves reconstructing the enslaved quarters at Ferry Farm to better represent and tell the enslaved narrative. As jaw harps represents an activity that occurred during the limited down time allocated to enslaved people and reflects the importance of music in the culture, one will certainly be included upon completion of the project.
After all that history and archaeology, I leave those wondering what a jaw harp sounds like with the perfect piece. Fittingly titled “Washington’s Birthday,” this 1909 piece by Charles Ives utilizes the instrument to invoke the sound of country dances on a cold, dreary day in February. To hear the jaw harp, skip to 7:37. Enjoy!
Clyne, Anthony, 1928. The Jew’s Harp a Century Ago. The Musical Times 69(1024): 508-509.
DAACS, 2022.Artifact Query 3, 8 August 2022. The Digital Archaeological Archive of Comparative Slavery (https://daacsrc.org/queries/aq_three_results).
Kolltveit, Giermund, 2006. Jew’s Harps in European Archaeology. Archaeopress, Oxford, UK.
2009, The Jew’s Harp in Western Europe: Trade, Communication, and Innovation, 1150-1500. Yearbook for Traditional Music 41: 42-61.
Samford, Patricia M.,1994. Searching for West African Cultural Meanings in the Archaeological Record. African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter 1(3): 1-3.
Wright, Michael, 2008. The Jew’s Harp in the Law, 1590-1825. Folk Music Journal 9(3): 349-371.
2011, The Jew’s Harp Trade in Colonial America. The Galpin Society Journal 64: 209-218.