What does a Revolutionary War fife look like?
This is a question we get all the time, and here is the answer.
We do not know!
As crazy as it sounds, we do not have in any collection/museums/etc…, to my knowledge, at this time, any fife that can be documented to have been used in the American War for Independence .

We do know that both the British and Americans used fifes, but what did they look like?
When researching something that is unknown, one must become a detective, putting together facts, and pieces of information to form a conclusion. When doing this one must work from a set of guide lines, and not bring into the study one's own opinions.
The following are the guidelines I used in this study.

1. Was the instrument marked?
2. Was the maker in business during, or right before the war?
3. Was there anything “period” from a woodwind maker's point of view?
I only was dealing with marked instruments made by woodwind makers.
( I understand that there were instruments made by clock makers, etc...but without a marking,

we cannot tell who made the instrument.)
4. What key (ie. C, Bb, etc...) is the instrument in?
5 . Is there another instrument by the same maker that can be examined?
(2 instruments by the same maker will give a better look at the manufacturing process)

6. Dates of maker.

What did I come up with?

For the British: Woodwind making was well established in Great Britain during the time of the American War for Independence , so finding instruments to examine, was easy.

The first is Thomas Cahusac of London .

Using my guidelines:

1. Marked Cahusac/London Mark used during entire time in business.
2. In business during the war. Also states on a trade card from 1780: “Fifes for the Army.”
3. Period feature: Boxwood, ferrules and tone holes.
. C
5. Yes, the Metropolitan Museum has a Cahusac which I have examined.
6. Date of maker: 1738-1816.

The second is George Astor of London .

Using my system:
1. Marked Astor/London
2. In business during the war.
3. Period feature: Boxwood, ferrules and tone holes.
4. A (or low pitch Bb)
5. No, not at this time.
6. Date of Maker: 1778-1831.

The 3 rd (and 4 th ) are from George Miller of London .

Using my system:
1. Marked G. Miller/London/unicorn head/Unicorn rampant
2. In business during the war.
3. Period feature: tone holes.
4. C & Bb
5. Yes, there are 2 fifes at the Metropolitan Museum , with no markings, but the fife case has
the markings of the East India Company. These 2 fifes match the description of 2 instruments
found in Edgeware England , marked with above marking.
6. Date of maker:1765-1790.*

*note: there is a patent by a George Miller granted in 1810, per Langwill, for a two-jointed brass fife. Langwill states that the relationship to the above is unknown.

So, with all this, and until something else appears, we can say that a Cahusac, Astor and Miller fifes would be a good examples of instruments, that could have been used by the British Army during the Revolution.**

**You will always find me saying “could have been used”, ”may have been used”, when I give an opinion on whether these type of instruments were used during the war. My experience has shown that something might come out of the woodwork, so to speak, that will
prove me wrong.

So, what did the British use during the Revolution?

Until others surface:

Cahusac C fife.

Astor A Fife (Bb low pitch?).
Miller C and Bb fifes made of brass, with “silver foil” lip

(We will deal with the types of wood at the end of this study.)

Now for the American side.

What was available for the Americans?

Aside from the “cottage” makers, (ie. Clock makers, etc....)
which we cannot, at this time, find any that can be historically

We did have 3 woodwind makers in this country during/before the war.

Gottlieb Wolhaupter of New York
Jacob Anthony of Philadelphia

Ahashuerus Turk, Sr of New York (The diary of John Greenwood states that his regiment purchased a set of fifes from Turk in 1777.)

Unfortunately, no fifes from any of these makers have been found
at this time. From Wolhaupter and Turk, nothing survives. From Anthony, 5 instruments survive, none of these are fifes.

We do know that Wolhaupter advertised in 1775 that he “Makes and
sells all sorts of Drums and Fifes.” Anthony states in an add of 1772 “Soldiers fifes”. To my knowledge, there are no advertisements from Turk at this time.

So, what to do for the Americans?

Well, until something else comes along, this is what I have

1. We had 3 woodwind makers in this country.
2. Since we were a under British rule, and these makers operated in
this country, chances are they followed what the makers in England
were doing. Is this a fact, no, but until something turns up to show
otherwise, this is what we have to work with. As a matter of fact,
Wolhaupter advertises in 1761 “has just imported from London , a
choice parcel of the best English boxwood, were he continues to make
and mend all sorts of musical instruments such as....fifes.” This
proves the tie to England .
3. Wolhaupter was making fifes. Anthony was making fifes, and was known to
the army. Turk was making fifes as early as 1777, and most likely before.

So, for the Americans, at this time, we will have to say that they used similar looking instruments to what the British were, thus:

Cahusac in C

Astor in A (low pitch Bb?)

Now for the wood.

For the British:

What woods were used in woodwind making of the day?

Boxwood, Ivory, (mostly for flutes) Ebony and Cocoa were mentioned on a trade card, circa 1780, of Thomas Cahusac.

So the woods/materials for the British:


For the Americans:


Was boxwood around for the makers here?

Yes, but it was imported, as referenced above. (there is also a boxwood clarinet, made by Anthony, in the Dayton Miller Flute Collection)


Was Ebony around for makers here?

Yes, there is an ebony flute made by Anthony in the Dayton Miller Flute Collection.

Is there any other reference to a wood being used for army fifes?

Yes, the 2 nd VA Reg. purchased fifes made out of mahogany and laurel
wood. There might be other references, but at this time I am unaware
of these. It is said that the Americans used fruit wood. Well, could
be. Cherry and Pear were available, as were others.

So the materials for the Americans:


Physical Characteristics

The fifes made by both Cahusac and Astor are not similar to modern fifes. These instruments are much greater in diameter, and have less of a taper. The ferrules are made of seamed brass*, and are around an inch long. The finger holes are of different diameters, but not like the system of use today, and they are spaced at different intervals, more like a woodwind maker of the day would do.

*Seamed brass is a process of making a tube from the flat material. The brass sheet would be formed around a mandrill and a seam of solder would be applied. These tubes would be scored and cut to length to make a ferrule.

Playing Characteristics

The fifes made by both Cahusac and Astor have a flute like quality in the lower register. The higher register is somewhat harder than a fife made today, and can be a problem for the player who does not have a strong embouchure, and good wind power. This being said, the high register is not as shrill as smaller diameter fifes, even when the instrument is pitched in C.


 Until documented evidence surfaces regarding Military fifes used during the American War for Independence , we must conclude that both Army's used fifes similar to what has been discussed in this article.

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