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If Only Flutes Could Talk – A Tale of Science, Music, and Napoleon’s Flute!

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This is a guest post by Lynn Brostoff, a chemist in the Preservation Research and Testing Division. Her research interests include the characterization of iron gall ink, verdigris pigment, and glass deterioration.

A photograph of two people examining a glass flute under a microscope.

Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford (left), Curator, and Lynn Brostoff (right), Chemist, examining a Laurent flute in the Music Division’s Flute Vault. Photo Credit: Larry Appelbaum

Besides the millions of books that the Library of Congress (LC) holds, the collections contain untold numbers of rare gems. Often, scientists in the Preservation Research and Testing Division (PRTD) are called upon to perform technical studies in order to better understand the collections. One such collaborative study involved twenty rare and exquisite flutes of glass made in Paris by Claude Laurent from 1805-1848; these are part of the Music Division’s renowned Dayton C. Miller collection (DCM) of flutes. Our research team not only included scientists from PRTD and the Library’s Music Division, but researchers from George Washington University and the Catholic University of America as well. To find out more about the collection and the study, see Laurent Glass Flutes and Technical Study of Claude Laurent’s Glass Flutes.

Photo Credit: PRTD

A major finding of our research uncovered, for the first time, that a good portion of Laurent’s flutes are made from potash glass, which can deteriorate from exposure to high humidity, including a player’s breath. The distinction between potash glass and lead crystal glass, crystal being extremely durable, can be quickly ascertained using ultraviolet (UV) light. Potash glass glows green under UV light, while lead crystal glass is purple. The identification of potash versus lead crystal glass has a large impact on the likely state of the material and its preservation needs. Through the course of this study, we created a decision tree examination protocol for Laurent flutes. For the first step in the decision tree, we incorporated a UV light into a simple viewing box, developed in-house. In addition to the decision tree, we also published articles and created a dedicated website to help other institutions identify 19th century glass at risk.

It has been truly wonderful to experience the delight with which people respond to these historic instruments. While not widely known to the general public, Laurent flutes have been highly prized and collected over time. Following Miller, there are many passionate collectors today and they appear to have taken notice when PRTD and the Music Division started speaking about our work with the Laurent collection. It was with great pleasure that the research team had several occasions to invite collectors of Laurent flutes to the LC. During these visits, we successfully tested our newly developed decision tree examination protocol for Laurent flutes and we were able to collect additional data from flutes that are not part of the DCM collection. We also had the opportunity to discuss the collectors’ interesting points of view. Historic musical instruments are often maintained in performance condition, in accord with the current movement to recreate historical soundscapes and perform on period instruments.

One such visit involved two collectors spending the day with the research team while we examined four of their Laurent flutes. One of the collector’s flutes originally belonged to none other than Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon’s flute is quite similar in appearance to two DCM flutes, including President James Madison’s flute (DCM 378); Madison was gifted this lead crystal glass flute from Claude Laurent himself.

A photograph of a Napoleon's glass flute.

Claude Laurent, Napoleon flute, private collection. Shown in original case and disassembled into head joint, upper body joint, lower body joint, and foot joint. Photo Credit: PRTD

Laurent’s flutes were owned by many aristocrats and heads of state, being quite expensive and considered fashionable for high society salon concerts. It is interesting to note in this regard that Napoleon promoted the manufacture of French luxury goods at the famous Paris Expositions, as well as the elevation of specialty crafts to “beaux arts,” along with their makers’ status.

A photograph of a glass flute under UV light.
Photo Credit: PRTD

During the collectors’ visit, there was a collective gasp when the Napoleon flute was observed under UV light. Napoleon’s flute glowed a definitively green color, revealing it is not made of lead crystal glass, but of the common, inherently unstable, potash glass!


Provenance, the journey from maker through owners until the present, is always an important aspect of cultural heritage objects and items. We know a reasonable amount about the provenance of the LC’s DCM flutes. Miller carefully documented how he acquired each item, including all relevant information and correspondence. Lapses in these records are unavoidable, however, and it remains the work of curators and scientists to uncover missing documentary and material evidence. For example, we can now trace the Madison Flute all the way back to its original gift in 1813, due to the discovery of a letter from Claude Laurent to President Madison asking if the flute had arrived safely. In addition, our research uncovered details that help explain the flute’s survival of the White House fire of 1814. Check out LC’s blog post about the mystery of James Madison’s crystal flute to learn more.

A photograph of the letter from Claude Laurent to James Madison.

Letter from Claude Laurent to President James Madison, dated 1815. Photo Credit: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, James Madison Papers. Digital ID:

During our examination of Napoleon’s flute, the owner regaled us with stories of its possible provenance. While these cannot be confirmed, they do provide interest and intrigue. One story he related entails a robbery: in 1814, with 100 carriages ready to journey to the southern coast for Napoleon’s embarkation to Elba, the flute was purportedly stolen by an Irish officer, Ralph Mansfield, in whose family it remained until 1952. However, Mansfield claimed that he obtained the flute as legitimate loot from Napoleon’s carriage after the Battle of Waterloo (1815), but a hidden note was discovered by Manfield’s heirs inside the flute’s original case that was signed “Jean-Pierre Tahan, 1814.” The mystery deepens because there are two engraved identification marks on the instrument’s silver ferrules, one of which was partially filed off at some point. The remaining inscription on the head joint ferrule shows Napoleon’s coat of arms, and one can still make out “[…] Paris, 1812.” A second inscription on the upper body joint ferrule reads: “Laurent / à Paris 1813.” The latter mark is commonly found on Laurent flutes, but usually on the head joint ferrule. The Madison flute is engraved with “Laurent / à Paris, / 1813” on the head joint ferrule, and with “A.S.E. James Madison / President des Etats=unis” on the upper body joint ferrule. The provenance of Napoleon’s flute remains an enigma for now. The flute did find its voice when we were treated to an impromptu rendition of Greensleeves!

This research project focusing on Claude Laurent’s flutes is an excellent example of the type of work we do. We translated scientific results into an accessible tool that can assist collections care staff to identify glass at risk. As part of this, we worked with collectors so that they could also understand and integrate this knowledge to their collection items.


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