January 25, 2018 Posted by: Kathleen Moenster, Assistant Curator

The zither became a popular folk music instrument in Bavaria and Austria in the early nineteenth century and later in the United States. Our museum collection has an interesting zither from the 1880s. The instrument is made of dark wood and features 46 pegs and 44 strings. A handle was built onto the frame on the right side, and a hole in the sound box is surrounded by gilt-painted wreaths of leaves and cherubs holding lyres and bows. The top left corner shows a crest with an eagle and shield in red and black . Inside the sound box is a paper label that reads, “Oscar Schmidt 1880 Manufacturer of musical instruments and Novelties. 87-101 Ferry Street, Jersey City, New Jersey.” Oscar and Otto Schmidt opened their company in the 1870s and became one of the largest manufacturers of zithers in the United States.

The zither went through two periods of great popularity in the United States. The first of these was in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century when it was greatly in vogue as a parlor instrument. At the time, young women were encouraged to have some kind of musical skill. The zither was lightweight, affordable and easy to learn, so it proved very popular for family entertainment. During that period, a number of American based instrument manufacturers produced these instruments. Many of these companies were founded by or staffed with Germans and Austrians familiar with the zither of the old country. By the 1920s, however, the popularity of the zither began to wane as other string instruments, such as guitars, became more prevalent.

Interest in the zither resurfaced in the 1950s due in great measure to the success of the 1949 British film noir, The Third Man. The soundtrack from the film featured a solo concert zither, and The Third Man Theme, played by Anton Karas, became an immediate hit single first in the U.K. and then in the U.S. The single stayed on the Billboard charts at #1 for eleven straight weeks. This renewed interest in the zither lasted well into the 1960’s.

The company that manufactured the zither from our museum collection was eventually purchased by U.S. Music Corporation, which continues to manufacture autoharps, ukuleles, guitars, banjos, and mandolins. But the zither will always hold an interesting place in the history of music with its very unique sound.





8 Comments Comments icon

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  6. John Maurath maurath1@juno.com
    August 25, 2018 at 03:23

    Forgot to mention in the previous posting, that St. Louis has it's own Zither Master Craftsman ..... Mr. Sasha Radicic, who makes and repairs zithers right here in the St. Louis area. Sasha's website is .... www.radicic-guitar-zither.com

  7. John Maurath
    August 25, 2018 at 03:10

    Thank you so much for posting this wonderful information about the beautiful zither ! The zither is no stranger to St. Louis. The zither was introduced to St. Louis some time around the 1840's through German immigrants and travelling German entertainers, namely the Hauser Family. The Hauser Family would come to America on travelling musical tours from Germany, and travel throughout the United States, starting as far back as the 1830's. They were the German musical stars of the day here in America. So, St. Louis has been a zither town for a long time. St. Louis even had several zither clubs back in the 1800's, including the St. Louis Zither Club (which use to be located at 604 Market St.), the Edelweiss Zither Club, and others. We even had a zither manufacturing plant in nearby Washington, Missouri. For a long time, it was the only zither manufacturing plant in the US. Franz Schwarzer and his actress wife Josephine immigrated to America from Austria during the American Civil War, and eventually settled in Washington, MO He was purportedly making zithers here in Missouri as early as 1864. The Washington Historical Society now houses an awesome Zither Museum, showcasing many beautiful, ornate Schwarzer zithers. Throughout the years, Schwarzer has manufactured thousands of hand-crafted zithers, which have been distributed all over the world. For those who are interested, a new zither club is now forming in Washington, MO. We even have a Schwarzer Zither on display here in our museum ... www.mcwm.org Our friend Dave Kyger, who lives near Washington, DC, hosts an awesome website about the zither at www.zither.us He highlights St. Louis and Franz Schwarzer's Missouri zithers, and even includes an article about my ancestor, who was a local St. Louis zither player at http://www.zither.us/zitherist.louis.maurath There is even a very interesting article about a zither-playing Union soldier during the Civil War at http://www.zither.us/concert.zither.civil.war Dave includes a picture of the soldier playing his zither, in his uniform. Even today, the zither is still very popular, and it's popularity is promoted through young musicians, such as Tomy Temerson from Germany, and Lotte Landl, a German immigrant to Austria, and Josef "Sepp" Diepolder, a German immigrant living in Florida, but who travels all over the U.S. playing his zither for thousands nationwide, and many others. A zither search at YouTube will delight you with the pleasant, soothing music of the sweet zither, one of the most beautiful sounding instruments on earth.

  8. 1
    July 30, 2018 at 07:54


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Last updated: January 25, 2018

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