The Mystery of James Madison’s Crystal Flute

It is well known that Dolley Madison rescued a now-iconic portrait of George Washington as she fled the White House on August 24, 1814, just before British troops set fire to Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812. Less well known is exactly what else she managed to take with her amid the chaos of the attack.

“At this late hour a wagon has been procured, I have had it filled with the plate and most valuable portable articles belonging to the house,” the first lady and wife to President James Madison wrote to her sister, Lucy Payne Washington Todd, in a letter she had started the day before. The articles packed reportedly included red-silk velvet draperies, a silver service and blue-and-gold Lowestoft china purchased for the state dining room.

James Madison’s crystal flute, made by Claude Laurent. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Might an exquisite crystal flute made for James Madison by Claude Laurent of Paris – one of 20 Laurent glass flutes in the Library’s Dayton C. Miller Collection – also have been packed?

Laurent patented his “flute en cristal” in 1806 in France, winning a silver medal at the Paris Industrial Exposition the same year for his invention. Known for their intricate cut patterns and ornate jeweled keys, the instruments – which are functional – soon became very popular. They were owned by emperors, kings and other heads of state, including Madison.

Madison’s flute is distinctive in that Laurent made it specifically for him in honor of Madison’s second inauguration. Its glass is styled in a way that Laurent seems to have reserved for especially illustrious figures, and its silver joint is engraved with James Madison’s name and title and the year the flute was made: 1813.

The flute stands out among the Library’s Laurent holdings: it is one of only two made of crystal. Initially, all 20 Laurent flutes were thought to be crystal. But about five years ago, expert staff at the Library began to study the flutes to determine how to address worrying signs of deterioration on some of them.

Noninvasive analysis of the flutes’ composition using X-ray fluorescence showed that 18 of the flutes are actually made of potash glass as opposed to high-leaded glass, or crystal. Those 18 glass flutes remain precious – only 185 Laurent glass flutes survive worldwide today – but the crystal flutes are exceptionally rare.

Laurent engraved Madison’s name and other identifying details on the crystal flute he made for Madison. Photo by Shawn Miller.

It isn’t totally clear how Madison’s flute made its way from Laurent to Madison, as no system for tracking package delivery existed in the early 1800s, and no record of the original arrival of the flute remains. We do know, however, that Madison received a letter in French dated March 25, 1815, inquiring about the arrival of “une flute en Cristal de mon invention” and asking whether Madison found the flute agreeable. The letter is cataloged under “Laurens” in Madison’s papers – the final letter in the signature is styled with a flourish, making it difficult to decipher.

One thing we know for certain about the flute is that Dolley Madison’s son from her first marriage, John Payne Todd, bequeathed the flute to Dr. Cornelius Boyle of Washington, D.C., in his will.

Cited as “the bad boy” in a White House Historical Association profile, Todd was known for gambling, womanizing and drinking – he was jailed several times for disturbing the peace. Yet he was also a lover of fine art, and both James and Dolley Madison helped to support him and get him out of scrapes. Apparently, at some point, one or the other bestowed the flute on Todd.

Dr. Boyle treated Todd before Todd died in 1852 at age 60, at which time he was in considerable debt. It is possible, but not certain, that Todd willed the flute to Boyle in payment for medical services.

In any case, Boyle’s heirs arranged for the flute to be exhibited in 1903 in the United States National Museum – part of the Smithsonian Institution – after which they sold the flute to Dayton C. Miller with the understanding that he would ensure its display in an important national museum.

Miller was an Ohio physicist with a passion for flutes and wind instruments. He donated his collection of more than 1,700 instruments, including the Madison flute, to Library of Congress in 1941.

So, was the crystal flute saved by Dolley Madison as she fled a White House under siege? The flute’s value, portability and origin – Madison was known to appreciate fine European goods – would seem to make it a likely candidate for rescue if it was indeed at the White House, as research into the Madisons’ whereabouts during the period suggests that it was. Many years later, in a letter to Dolley Madison, Thomas Ludwell Lee Brent, also seems to recall the flute having been in Washington: “How I should like to be in Washington this winter,” he wrote wistfully in 1842, “and play for you upon that sweet cristal flute.”

But, alas, unless or until more documentation about the precious flute’s history is unearthed, we will have no way to know for certain whether the flute escaped the White House with Dolley Madison in 1814.

Read more about the Dayton C. Miller Collection on the Library’s website.

This blog post incorporates research into the Library’s Claude Laurent flutes by Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford, senior curator of musical instruments; Lynn Brostoff, a chemist and conservation scientist in the Preservation Research and Testing Division; and Dorie Klein, an intern from Smith College who has worked with Ward-Bamford and Brostoff.

3 Comments

  1. Rob Turner
    August 11, 2019 at 10:55 pm

    I’m curious: what documentation supports the statement that Laurent made the Madison flute “for [Madison] in honor of his second inauguration?” Laurent’s 1815 letter does not say that he had made the flute for Madison, nor does he associate it with any historical event at all. Laurent merely inquires if the flute he had sent Madison a couple of years previously was ever received – a reasonable question, given that it would have had to have gotten through the War of 1812 British naval blockade to reach Madison.

    Additional evidence suggesting that the flute was inscribed to Madison as an afterthought is the presence of traces of file marks and of a previous inscription on the ferrule of the head. It seems quite possible that this was an instrument that Laurent made for someone else but which he had on his hands and decided to send “His Eminence President Madison” in a bit of early “push marketing.” I have wondered for many years if more detail of the earlier engraving could be made visible with the right imaging techniques. The flute is a virtual twin, by the way, to another 1813 Laurent flute that David Shorey (personal communication) called “Napoleon’s consolation prize for Russia.” This other flute was supposed to have come into the hands of a British officer (and, later, his descendants) after being taken from Napoleon’s baggage at Waterloo.

    And, by the way, the Laurent letter was found by David B. Mattern, one of the editors of the Madison papers, at my instigation: the only information available until his discovery was Miller’s report that “family tradition” (whose family? Madisons? Boyles?) was that the flute was a gift from Lafayette. I asked Dr. Mattern if he had ever seen mention of the flute in any Madison-era inventories or correspondence, where the provenance might also be mentioned, and he said that he had not, but would keep an eye out. About 18 months later my phone rang one day and he said, “We have the letter” – the Laurent letter, as it turned out, had been at LoC all along. So now we knew that the flute came from Laurent, not Lafayette It’s not hard to see how the one name might have been turned into the other over time – oral history often works that way. But, again, there is really nothing in that letter that explains Laurent’s motivation for this extraordinary gift.

  2. Neely Tucker
    August 12, 2019 at 1:53 pm

    Hi Rob,

    The curator familiar with this is out for the week, but we’ll get you an answer when she comes back.

    Best,
    Neely

  3. Wendi Maloney
    September 10, 2019 at 3:15 pm

    Response from Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford, curator of the Dayton C. Miller Flute Collection:

    Dear Rob Turner:
    Thank you for your response and interesting observations regarding the Madison flute in the Dayton C. Miller Flute Collection at the Library of Congress and the related blog post. In addition, we wish to thank you for your contributing work and very fine recording you made on the flute, as it answers the question we receive most often: what do the glass flutes sound like?

    Over the past few years, we have been studying the flutes by Laurent and his workshop so that we might learn more about the provenance of this particular flute as well as the history of how glass flutes were made in the early 19th century. This was conducted through archival research beginning in the summer of 2014, when we also commenced scientific research on the 18 flutes of glass in the Miller Flute Collection. To learn more about the historical research into the provenance of the Madison flute, we refer you to (www.loc.gov).

    In summary, after research in Paris and the regional archives of Haute Marne, Aire de Lys and Sucy en Brie, as well as the Library of Congress Madison Papers and the Dolley Madison Digital Edition at the University of Virginia, we were able to rule out some speculation, information and other stories to posit that the flute was no doubt made for Madison (although the original packing and case are missing) given the 1813 Madison timeline that we recreated from our archival research. We leave it to future researchers to track down shipping logs or records of Paris vessels, an avenue that we have suggested but not yet pursued.

    In our ongoing studies, we have carefully examined in person approximately 50 of the approximately 185 extant flutes by Laurent and his workshop, either at the Library of Congress in our Preservation, Research and Testing Division with flutes from the Miller Collection or those brought to us by private collectors, and outside the Library at museums and collections in the U.S., the U.K. and Europe as a part of our multiyear National Endowment for the Humanities grant to study glass stability.

    We have conducted studies using low- and high- magnification and other state-of-the-art imaging techniques. What we see with the naked eye and with our imaging analyses on the ferrule in question are polishing marks, stray nicks, engraver mistakes, scribe lines and a distinct line of mistakes from an engraver’s tool.

    In our research we have seen, as you suggest, an instance of erasure of a date on a flute owned by a private collector – thus on only one flute out of about 50. Further, this technology has helped us identify the marks on the silver parts of the flutes by Laurent, and we have been able to study the glass as well.

    One of our early discoveries is that the flutes, while patented in 1806 as “en cristal,” are for the large part potash. Only about two of the 50 flutes we have examined are made of leaded glass and, fortunately, one of the two is the Madison flute. The other flute entirely of crystal is also in the Miller Collection; otherwise we have seen only one section (or joint) of crystal in only one other flute.

    Again, many thanks for your questions, curiosity and interest.

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