Anatomy of the Flute

(The following is a feature on “Technology at the Library” from the September-October 2014 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM. You can read the issue in its entirety here.) 

Lynn Brostoff of the Preservation Directorate and Carol Lynn Ward- Bamford of the Music Division perform an X-ray fluorescence analysis on a glass flute from the Library's collections. Photo by Abby Brack Lewis

Lynn Brostoff of the Preservation Directorate and Carol Lynn Ward- Bamford of the Music Division perform an X-ray fluorescence analysis on a glass
flute from the Library’s collections. Photo by Abby Brack Lewis

The Library of Congress holds the largest collection of flutes in the world, due in great measure to the generosity of Ohio physicist and amateur flutist Dayton C. Miller (1866-1941). Miller donated his collection of more than 1,700 flutes and wind instruments to the Library upon his death.

Housed among Miller’s gold, silver, wood and ivory flutes are 18 flutes made out of glass during the first half of the 19th century by Claude Laurent of Paris. The Library holds nearly half of the approximately 40 glass flutes known to exist worldwide, in institutions like the Metropolitan Museum, the Corning Museum of Glass and the Smithsonian Institution.

Although trained as a clockmaker, Laurent took out a patent for his “crystal” flutes in 1806 and won the silver medal at the Paris Industrial Exposition that year. Laurent’s flutes, with their intricate cut patterns and ornate jeweled keys, are also functional instruments. Some were made for heads of state. One such flute, which was crafted in 1813 and presented to James Madison during his presidency, is permanently on display at the Library of Congress.

The Laurent flutes are the subject of a collaborative research project between the Library’s Music Division and its Preservation Directorate. This cross- disciplinary collaboration is shedding new light on the Madison flute and its sibling glass flutes. The research will allow the Library to care for these rare instruments with the most up-to-date preservation methods, provide a new understanding about the place of Laurent’s flutes in history and enrich the world’s knowledge of 19th-century glass preservation.

The sheer number of Laurent’s flutes in the Dayton C. Miller Collection makes the Library an ideal place for researchers to carry out this work, which was prompted by senior curator of instruments Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford. She observed that some of the flutes were undergoing subtle changes in appearance and enlisted the help of research chemist Lynn Brostoff and conservator Dana Hemmenway. The team is moving forward with an in-depth study that seeks to bring to light the remarkable story behind Laurent’s creation of glass flutes, as well as their current preservation needs. Their tools include a high-powered microscope and the use of X-rays to “see” into the glass and discover its composition.

Close-up of a glass flute undergoing X-ray analysis. Photo by Abby Brack Lewis

Close-up of a glass flute undergoing X-ray analysis. Photo by Abby Brack Lewis

The materials analysis carried out thus far by Brostoff has revealed that only two of the 18 flutes are, in fact, made of “crystal,” which is technically leaded glass. The remaining flutes are made of potash glass, so named due to the presence of potassium from the ash used in their manufacture. As the study continues, Library researchers–aided by glass chemists at the Vitreous State Laboratory of The Catholic University of America–will investigate how a new understanding of the materials and manufacturing methods that Laurent used in different flutes may aid in their conservation. Library Junior Fellows Dorie Klein and William Sullivan also are assisting in the Library’s efforts by learning more about Laurent, including a possible family connection to the famous Paris maker of cut crystal, Baccarat.

“The project is amazing,” said Klein, a history and museum studies major at Smith College– and a trained glassblower. “Our goal to determine the structure and significance of these rare flutes is important, both to the Library and to the larger mission of preservation of history.”

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