NEW YORK FOLKLORE QUARTERLY
Vol. XIX, No. 4, December, 1963
THE AUTOHARP: ITS ORIGIN AND
FROM A POPULAR TO A FOLK INSTRUMENT
A. Doyle Moore
“BE IT known that I, Charles F. Zimmermann...have
invented certain new and useful Improvements in
Harps....A harp so provided has the size of a zither,
and which I term an ‘autoharp,’ and the manner in which the
instrument is played is entirely new.” These words were contained
in the inventor’s patent application, (257,808) filed on
December 10, 1881. He had coined the new instrument’s name
while perfecting his models and drawings. Although Zimmermann’s
autoharp and its successors have been manufactured continuously
for nearly 80 years and have been much used by folk
musicians in the Southern Highlands for half a century, it has not
been described, historically or stylistically, in academic journals.
My personal curiosity as to the autoharp’s technical development
and folk role came after I learned to play. The paucity ot recent
literature on the instrument led me to its present site of production,
Jersey City, New Jersey, and from there back by stages to
the home of its gifted creator.
Charles Zimmermann had worked at many jobs in the 48 years
before he came to Philadelphia from Germany in 1865. Here he
joined his brother in the musical instrument sales and repair
business and here he became a United States citizen. All his jobs
in the old country had been in the music field where he had successfully
improved the mechanical function of the accordion. Zimmermann’s
dedication to the accordion, he was to write in later
years, followed the acclamation accorded him and his dance music by Danzig newspapers. He now determined to build a bigger
instrument. Working with the mechanical production of notes
and chords gave Zimmermann an insight into music that led him
to establish a number system of notation. He vowed that music
was of divine origin, but its divinity could not reach out to the
notation system regularly used.
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