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Harp string boxes

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

Amongst the accessories a 19th-century harpist could buy were string boxes. As their name suggests, these were simply boxes in which you would store your strings. However, they came in a multitude of shapes, sizes, and colours, and could be decorated to match an instrument. Today, they still occasionally appear at auction; I acquired the one below, yesterday.

As the paperwork accompanying this box indicates, it was sold by the Erard company, probably with the tuning key that accompanies it. The strings are old but without further study its not possible to date them. The box is made of tin and the outside is grained (painted to imitate wood).

The Erat ledger (1821-1824) reveals that from J. Bryan, the company bought 'long' boxes (of which the above is an example) for -/8/6, selling them, depending upon decoration and material, for between -/18/- and £1/11/6. Round ones were purchased for between -/1/2 and -/1/- and sold for as much as £2/6/-. Round topped (arched) boxes, were bought for -/17/-, their sale prices unknown; and square ones, bought for between -/8/6 to £1/1, ranging in retail price up to £1/11/6-. String boxes were sold in three timber finishes (mahogany, rosewood, and deal), and four colours (black, blue, red, and crimson, but presumably, like Erat’s harps, the customer could choose any colour).

A price list surviving from Grosjean (Bodleian Library, Oxford), although later (c1838) reveals that prices had changed little. Grosjean offered three string boxes, but also two additional packages. For 7 guineas a customer could have a square box with a tuning key and fork, and string gauge, and with a set of gut and silver strings, in light or dark blue, green, or red, painted with Raphael’s arabesks; for 6 guineas one could buy the same in any fine wood, decorated with lines, and with a draw; a black one, less ornamented and unfurnished (without tuning key, fork, string gauge or strings) was £2/12/6; a plain long one, also with square lines was £1/11/6; and for -/18/- a common long one with square lines could be bought.

Like the box in the above photograph, this box is made of tin but rather than being grained is enamelled in black. To the right you can see the lot for the string gauge and hole for the tuning key. This box, like some sold by Erat and others, had a lock although the key is lost.

An alternative design, again in grained tin, this time decorated, is this long, coffin-shaped box which accompanied a Gothic harp by R & L Lewis of New York (c1850) (Neal Auction Company, sale 15 & 16 Sept 2012, lot 108).

Also wedge-shaped, this box (with strings, tuning key, string gauge, and bridge-pin puller) is of boxwood lined in tin, maker unknown (Gardner Houlgate, 14 Sept 2018, lot 1050).

And finally, this japanned timber box with box lining and lock is are more straightforward design, although it, like the others, contains inner divisions to hold the strings (National Trust, Snowshill Manor).

It is likely that there are many more harp string boxes out there. Where the contents are lost, the original use of the boxes may have been forgotten. Analysis (especially dating) of surviving strings adds to our understanding of how the tension of harp strings (and consequently sound and playing technique) have changed over time.

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