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.

28 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.

    • 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

  2. 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.

  3. Janice Poss
    September 29, 2022 at 9:02 am

    Thank you all for this detailed examination of this extraordinary artifact of US and French history. I am richer for it. It is amazing it has survived, but it and all the stories surrounding it are valuable to our understanding of our American historical heritage of the men and women, however flawed, appreciated beauty and fine craftsmanship and deemed it worthy of perservation for future generations to learn about and love as music is precious and the technical expertise needed to create such an incredible instrument that can still produce fine notes.

  4. Kathleen Coombe
    September 29, 2022 at 10:55 am

    Really? Can anybody get to play that flute?
    The answer obviously is yes. As long as you do it publicly as you show your absolute disdain for American history/culture.
    Talk about cultural appropriation.

  5. B. F. Franks
    September 29, 2022 at 2:02 pm

    I became aware of the Madison crystal flute via this CBS news story:
    https://www.cbsnews.com/news/lizzo-crystal-flute-president-james-madison-200-year-old-library-of-congress-washington-dc-concert/

    Apparently the flute had indeed been played previously, according to comments supplied above by Rob Turner. I am shocked that a precious and delicate artifact of such national importance would be trotted out for use by anyone, much less a pop figure who used the opportunity to twerk and play a couple of notes any beginner could produce. Questionable judgment on the part of the LOC guardians of our national heritage, but wonderful to have learned of the flute and it’s history. Take care.

  6. Scott Henson
    September 29, 2022 at 3:41 pm

    Lizzo played that flute like a boss. Nobody blinks when a white guy plays a 400-year old violin. The complaints here are utterly disingenuous. It’s amazing that the LOC has compiled this collection and bully for them for collaborating w/ a truly masterful artist to broaden appreciation for it. Well done, LOC!

  7. John Flukinger
    September 29, 2022 at 4:03 pm

    Thank you so much, Library of Congress and Lizzo, for bringing the existence of this flute to the stage. THIS is how we spread history. THIS is how we do it! Y’all rock!

    – John, an amateur history buff from Alabama

  8. T.R.C.
    September 29, 2022 at 5:54 pm

    In response to B.F. Frank’s comment above, I implore to to watch the below video of her playing the instrument beautifully. She is a very well trained flautist and hits notes that no beginner could hit, might I add. Enjoy!

    https://www.facebook.com/libraryofcongress/videos/1151676919112809/

  9. Katie Estelle
    September 30, 2022 at 8:11 am

    I love how pressed people are out Queen Lizzo playing the flute.

    Let’s take a step back and realize how many folks now have read up on this piece of history because of the publicity, and how this is probably going to a jeopardy question one day. A historical moment indeed!

  10. Martha R Hertz
    September 30, 2022 at 8:39 am

    I entered this conversation in one frame of mind ( YUCK! Why would they do THAT?) and walked away with an added perspective. Thank you John F. Your point is well taken. While I decry the means I appreciate my discovery of a beautiful piece of history.

  11. Ruben Trevino
    September 30, 2022 at 10:08 am

    The LoC is doing the right thing by helping history come alive and making it accessible to Americans whose ancestors were in chains when the flute was gifted to Madison rather than burying it in a book or the basement of a museum

  12. Stefanie
    September 30, 2022 at 12:22 pm

    I am in awe of such intricate and exquisite work, and the history that it has become a part of! I am curious to know what something like this would be worth?

  13. A. Swale
    September 30, 2022 at 12:23 pm

    Who thought it was a good idea to allow such a precious artifact to be used to promote a predictably trashy performance. What is SOOOOO wrong with holding standards for dignified behavior? LOC appears to have gone WOKE.

  14. D
    September 30, 2022 at 2:16 pm

    Certain people in this country continue to believe that they and only they are the true Americans and are the anointed keepers of all of our country’s history, its culture and its symbols of patriotism. They’ve even chosen a national religion for us. Sorry, but that’s not the way it works. Lizzo is an American, just like you and me. She is also a well-known personality and was invited to play the flute. You may not like it, but she is as entitled as anyone else who might get such an invitation. Were you as bothered by Ted Nugent and Kid Rock when they were allowed into the Oval Office?

  15. CS Graham
    October 1, 2022 at 12:54 pm

    The Madison flute looked quite striking in videos I saw of Lizzo playing it. Was Laurent the first – or perhaps the only – person to have produced crystal flutes? I suppose they were cast and then engraved? The article states that “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.” Is the Madison crystal flute one of those showing deterioration?

    The music I heard from Lizzo’s playing, even though it had surely been greatly compressed for digital transmission and it was coming from my TV’s less than stellar speakers, was a great sound. It seemed to have a quality that is crisper, or clearer, than metal flutes.

    Thank you for the information presented by this article. It is fascinating!

  16. Rob C
    October 1, 2022 at 5:24 pm

    This blog post answered my questions about the Madison crystal flute, prompted by Lizzo’s performance in the library. (What a beautiful tone! No wonder Mr. Brent in 1842 recalled it as “that sweet crystal flute.”) Specifically, your photo shows some metal keys in addition to the open finger holes, and the [enlarged image](//www.loc.gov/resource/musdcmflute.0378.0?r=-6.133,3.004,13.266,6.598,0) in the Dayton C. Miller Collection clearly shows four silver keys. I never suspected the existence of glass, much less lead crystal, flutes. I appreciate the LOC’s longstanding policy of not just caring for historic instruments but inviting musicians to play them and make recordings. (I have a boxed set of LPs from 1978 of Bach performances on your 1745 Dulcken harpsichord.) It’s good for the instruments, the musicians, and the public — maybe even the grouches who need something new each day to feel indignant about.

  17. Sarah
    October 2, 2022 at 12:39 am

    Thanks LOC and Lizzo for drawing my attention and teaching me something I didn’t know!

  18. Andrew Larkin
    October 2, 2022 at 4:28 pm

    I didn’t realize any crystal flutes existed. yet reading the story and comments generated, I notice everyone seems to ignore the fact that Lizzo is a classically trained flautist. I have seen both the concert and impromptu concert in The Library of Congress. nowhere in the concert footage did I see Lizzo twerk while holding the flute, and an earlier comment about any beginner could play the notes. I guess no one noticed that Lizzo has beautiful longer nails that would make playing more then a few notes a little problematic. Instead why doesn’t everyone drop the negativity and look at the use of the crystal flute for the positive that it is. The younger generation of fans that Lizzo’s music attracts now know a little more about the vast and varied artifacts that are being cared for and cherished for the Nation by the Library of Congress. I for one am very pleased to learn more about my country’s history. I am older and am very happy that Library of Congress has found an unique way to attract interest in both the collections and our history.

  19. mean
    October 2, 2022 at 9:07 pm

    “any beginner could produce”?
    um, that’s the Poulenc Sonata she was playing. Not beginner flute music. Keep your ignorance to yourself, please.

  20. Louise Thompson
    October 3, 2022 at 12:37 pm

    It is amazing that some people think that Lizzo defiled the flute by playing it. Others have played it in the past apparently, and Lizzo is a classically trained flautist. If they heard her play, they’d know how beautiful it sounded. She wasn’t twerking – she was just playing a flute that none of them would be capable of even blowing one note on.

    Furthermore, it’s not clear that James Madison ever actually laid a finger on it, let alone played it. And if he had, it would still not be defiled nor history changed by Lizzo or anyone else playing it.

  21. Merilyn
    October 4, 2022 at 9:27 am

    Thomas Jefferson had 600 slaves and spent over 4 decades with one who bore him 6 children. I’d say that playing that crystal flute by a classicly trained flutist of color is an enhancement to our history. Thank you. Way to go!

  22. Merilyn
    October 4, 2022 at 10:26 am

    Thomas Jefferson had 600 slaves and spent over 4 decades with one who bore him 6 children. I’d say that playing that crystal flute by a classically trained flutist of color is an enhancement to our history. Thank you.

  23. Maria
    October 4, 2022 at 2:17 pm

    Kudos to Lizzo & The Library if Congress for connecting the younger generation to a piece of American History!
    Now they know of the man known as the Father of our Constitution & fourth President of the United States.
    Maybe Lizzo truly did make American History “cool” by
    playing “classical music” on an instrument! Such a great
    plus to pass this on …Learning beyond the walls of a classroom & textbooks… making History come alive thru a modern rapper, Grammy musician, songwriter, that they can relate to ! Just like “ Hamilton”, the musical did!
    Such a Positive, during such Negative times! So wonderful to see an artist that young people relate to May influence some to learn to play an instrument ( flute or other) , or just read /google more about our nation’s history! What a great conversation you have started!
    Thank you Lizzo for inspiring every generation to appreciate the music and history lesson that was taught!

  24. Doris W
    October 4, 2022 at 3:30 pm

    Dear Sir/ and or Madam, would you kindly advise me if the flute that Lizzo recently played on stage was potash glass or high-leaded glass (Crystal). Also would you please be so kind as to inform me if you know with certainty that the flute she played was indeed the authentic crystal flute made for James Madison by Claude Laurent of Paris or was it a reproduction or other potash flute. Thank you.

  25. Anthony
    October 4, 2022 at 10:12 pm

    But did Madison actually know how to play the flute? I’ve read several articles about Lizzo playing the instrument, but not one addressed the issue of Madison’s ability to play. Lizzo only played a few notes, but they had a sweet sound. No beginner could do that on the flute unless she was exceptionally gifted. For most people, it takes some time to develop a beautiful tone. Fascinating story. I knew the loc had an extensive collection of period musical instruments, but did not know its flute collection was the largest in the world. Would love to hear James Galway play the crystal flute. The loc should invite him. But Lizzo did well. No surprise considering her musical training.

  26. Liz
    October 7, 2022 at 9:27 am

    I am an oboist which is the best sounding instrument on Earth when played right. That is a personal opinion. Still, watching Lizzo twerk with the flute felt like watching Regan in the Exorcist movie stick the crucifix in her crotch while possessed. There is a huge lack of morals in the world today, of class, and dignity. I do not know where people get off saying Lizzo Twerking while trilling on stage is akin to other people who played antiques with decorum, other than they are mentally at the level of primitive spoiled children who never had a parent teach them how to preserve the integrity of their possessions and are filled with Hate. Are these the same people who destroyed statues a summer ago without group consensus required in a democracy? Of course they are. Back to constructive critical thinking skills sorely lacked by many stunned by the debacle of a white privileged star, Lizzo, being leased with a piece in the archives while wearing a nightgown exposing butt cheeks onstage. Of course the instrument was played elsewhere prior. A lie was perpetrated saying it was never played or heard before, to what ends? I do love Lizzos real music making and her playing for the private audience is what the whole world should have seen instead. That playing was beautiful and her attire tasteful. She played like a professional in that private performance. The performances should have been reversed. Twerking in night gown for the archivists who don’t get out much and fully clothed with proper playing position for the rest of us. Now, if the archives wanted publicity for its flutes, as a trained musician on the most beautiful instrument in the world, the OBOE, which requires much more intelligence, skill, and perseverance than a flute player, I tell you this: The archives should have joined up with Halls who produces crystal flutes and had them make a replica to gift to Lizzo, and then Hall should have sold this replica as a new model with proceeds going to the archives and to Halls. They could even make a design just for Lizzo on a version of it and called in the Lizzo model. If Hall was not interested they could have gone to Eric the Flutemaker, or any flute maker willing to make it, to have it commissioned. With that money the archives would have had more funding for study or acquisition. They would have brought the attention they sought. The playing of the glass lead flute did bring attention but what it showed was poor judgement on the archives part and a lack of propriety. The archives demonstrated they are poor caretakers, at least currently, and of poor taste. I would question any finding they said they found now. That is the consequence of poorly played stunts. Private collectors must give better care to their possessions than tax payer funded so called experts meant to preserve artifacts in their keep. If I had an item coveted by the institute, I would not let the archives touch it. Perhaps the potash flutes are disintegrating based upon their greasy fingers doing something bad to them now not done in the past.

  27. Sally Greenfield
    October 27, 2022 at 11:27 am

    I am a classically trained musician AND a trained archivist. The comments here are disheartening at best. Lots of people shared their opinions despite possessing very little understanding of the facts.

    The FACT is that people handle and use archival materials all the time. It is actually the point of an archive to make its materials accessible while simultaneously doing our best to preserve them for as long as possible. It is NEVER the case that the ultimate goal is to cryogenically freeze items (or whatever) to keep them the same for all of time and eternity. YES, it does make sense to limit the handling of fragile documents or materials (such as clothing, vellum, etc.). Most musical instruments do not fall into this category…certainly not a crystal flute. Handling a musical instrument and, yes, playing it, is crucial to keeping the instrument in working order. If, while it is being handled, it is treated with care, it will not be damaged. This is why playing these items is limited to those who have the appropriate training, which Lizzo OBVIOUSLY does. Properly cleaning and oiling the instrument for long-term maintenance is also important, but there are circumstances under which even that NECESSARY HANDLING can be as damaging (if not MORE damaging) than playing it.

    Going back to my point about how playing an instrument is crucial to maintaining it, let me share an anecdote about my horn. I have played the horn now for over 24 years. I am not just classically trained…I have actually played professionally. One of the longest breaks I have ever taken from playing happened during COVID…I just didn’t feel like playing. Because my horn sat for approximately four months before I picked it up to play it again, the valves froze. I had to take the instrument to be professionally repaired because I WASN’T playing it. Not playing an instrument is neglecting it’s purpose, but it’s also damaging to the instrument itself.

    I won’t get into the racism and disinformation about humans and the importance of an item like this flute that led so many of you to come here and write hateful comments, because the bottom line is that the entire premise of your argument is wrong. The flute is fine, despite your racist dislike of it being played by a perfectly qualified black woman.

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