Last updated: January 25, 2018
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.