"On the Ropes" by Brian Hill
Reprinted from Not So Modern Drummer.
BOSTON Lt. INFANTRY 1798 FIELD DRUM
Drums from the late 1700s are not only really cool, but fairly valuable! Hard to find, the price on a nicely painted drum with some sort of unit or player identification would have a cost estimate of around $7000.00-$10,000.00. Ever since people began prizing and collecting rare objects, other people have been faking them for profit. Many antique dealers love to find creative ways to add “value” to collectable antiques, even at the expense of the object, and drums are no exception. So if you are one of the many collectors of relics from the past or are just thinking about jumping in for fun or investment, then you probably should heed the old adage: “Let the Buyer Beware”. Drums that look great and have lots of exciting and leading information can be sending the wrong signals if you don’t take the time to interpret the clues correctly. Thus.…you could spend too much money on something that isn’t quite what you thought it was. That was exactly the position with which I was faced when I first came across this remarkable drum. I had an opportunity to own a drum from the late 1700s but was wondering if it would cost me my retirement fund to collect such a rare gem. This drum had an enormous amount of information on it, including the year “1798” painted on the shell. I began to assume the best story and the best price to fit my brief and somewhat short lived fantasy. That’s exactly when I can get into the most trouble! So, here’s my story of assumption and research.
Well, the drum does read….”Boston Lt. Infantry 1798,” and could lead someone to assume that it dates to 1798. It certainly does look that old. But, how old is that old? The painting on the front side of the shell has great patina and great colors, centered on two rope tensioned drums surrounded by out-stretching bugles and spear-tipped flags, all with an eagle flying over-head, clutching a streaming banner in its beak. The banner’s motto reading: “Death or an Honorable Life.” That certainly sounds colonial and patriotic and could be consistent with a drum from the late 1700s. If that’s the case, this is going to cost plenty! But, I don’t think I can casually drop the kind of “big bucks” that a drum from this period will command without checking it out further and making sure I’m investing wisely.
Since I had first encountered this old drum, the final restoration has been completed. New skins, ropes, leather ears, and double-butt gut snares have made it once more a player. Originally, two old flesh hoops and what appear to be the original counter hoops, one needing a repair to an earlier repair, were all that accompanied the shell. There are three small holes clustered on the bottom counter hoop suggesting the drum may have originally had a metal snare adjuster, long since missing. I’ve found metal snare adjusters dating back to the 1820’s, and possibly earlier. The shell is 15”(h) x 16”(dia.) and appears to be in fairly solid shape, although a bit smaller than what I would expect for an 18th. Century drum. Inside the shell is evidence of a repair consisting of a wooden patch covering an elongated, horizontal tear in the shell, made of a thin veneer ply of wood about 4”x 5”. Where the wood was actually missing from the shell, a filler material was used to fill in the empty space, covering the wooden patch from the outside of the shell. The paint was expertly matched to complete the repair, including some of the yellow lettering, camouflaging it completely from the casual eye. When I find evidence of this type and quality of repair, I naturally get a little nervous. To me, I think it can actually hurt the value in many cases. So, I questioned the owner (an antiques dealer) about this and he told he had sent the drum out for “paint cleaning and restoration”, and that’s when the patch-and-filler thing happened.
Inside the drum are 3 paper labels opposite the vent hole from 3 very well known Boston drum makers of the 1800’s and a name. From top to bottom the labels are from A. W. White, John C. Haynes, and Henry Prentiss. At the bottom of each label is a hand written line indicating that the drum was repaired on a certain date. The earliest date is on the Henry Prentiss label and reads: “Repaired June 28th. 1853, L. O. P.” Placed directly above the Prentiss label is John C. Haynes’ label with a hand written message along the bottom: “Repaired Jan. 23, 1863 B. H.” (This would be the middle of the Civil War. Is there a Civil War connection?) The third label is also placed directly above the other two and is that of A. W. White, with a hand written note reading: “Repaired May 22, 1879” and singed “J.B. Treat.” Written in chalk on the inside of the shell opposite the labels in letters about 2 inches in height is the name of “John Sylvester.” Maybe a Civil War soldiers name.
All this information could lead one to assume that this drum is from 1798 and was first repaired by the Henry Prentiss Co. in 1853, again in 1863 by the J. C. Haynes Co. during the Civil War, and once more in 1879 by the A. W. White Co. The name on the inside of the drum, John Sylvester, could be one of the owners and could have been used in the Civil War by this soldier. That would make a great story and add all kinds of value to an already great looking drum…..if that was indeed the right story. So, let’s re-examine the clues a little closer and see what some research reveals.
The first thing I researched was the motto on the front of the drum which read: “Death or an Honorable Life.” I found that this motto appeared on United States paper currency as early as 1779, written in Latin: “Aut Mors Vita Decora.” On the drum it was written in English, leading me to wonder exactly how common this popular phrase from Colonial and Federal Period America was, and that it came to be included on a parade drum in its English form. Following the War of 1812, the atmosphere of patriotism and “Home Guard” in America began a steady rise in popularity until the outbreak of the Civil War, which gave militia units something new to concentrate on. In the Northeast, militia units were running out of people to fight, so they began to participate in parades, and many social and political events. The “Boston Lt. Infantry”, AKA “Tigers,” Company “A,” Fourth Battalion Infantry,” is one of the oldest and most venerable of Massachusetts Militia organizations in the nation’s history. Originally formed in 1798, they still have direct linage to units in today’s Mass. Army National Guard. As the unit began to travel all over the Northeast to parade, the Boston Brigade Band was formed to march with the Infantry as the units of the day were in great competition to out-do each other. Thus being said, I’m of the opinion that the design of the painting on the front of the drum, being of drums, bugles and flags, would foster the idea of a parade band. It would also not be uncommon to paint the name of the unit on the drum, nor a commemorative date of organization. If this was a band drum, there are probably more of them around. I’ve found in military collector circles, there are no shortages of relics from Mass., often making them more common than items from other states.
In 1859, the Boston Brigade Band came under the direction of Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, who went on to become one of the most famous bandleaders and musical impresarios in American history. The band was experiencing some difficulties at the time of Gilmores arrival in which he apparently dealt with in his usual, efficient manner. During his revitalization of the band, he not only enlarged its size, but also changed the name to “Gilmore’s Band.” In October of 1861, Gilmore and his band enlisted with the 24th. Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, serving with General Burnside in North Carolina until discharged in August of 1862. This enlistment fell in to the period known as the “regimental band period” of April 1861 to August of 1862. In July, 1862 the U. S. War Department issued General Order 91 directing that all regimental bands be mustered out of service within 30 days, due to the fiscal pinch the government was feeling because of the large number of non-combatants in service, in this case, bandsmen. As can be seen, this order was followed by Gilmore’s band. There are no records that prove that this was the drum carried during the War, but, then again, it was repaired in January of 1863, possibly to repair damage sustained during a year of active field service. Upon returning home to Boston, the band resumed giving concerts and parading.
Historical documents from Worchester County, Mass. mention a John Gardner Sylvester, born in 1790. He was described as a gifted artist and musician. Hailing from Boston, he achieved a reputation for his wonderful skill as a drummer. He was a very prominent Free Mason, and in his day the only Thirty Three Degree Mason in the county. I found no records of a John Sylvester serving during the Civil War in Mass. regiments or the Union Army in general. So, I don’t think the name of John Sylvester was the name of a Civil War soldier, but, rather a member of the Boston Brigade Band. During the Nation’s Centennial celebration, the unit showed up on the roster of the “Centennial Legion” which comprised of one historic military command from each of the original Thirteen Colonies and marched in Philadelphia for the July 4th., 1876 Centennial Parade. Since this drum was repaired again in 1879, there’s a good chance it may have been used in this historic event.
Now let’s take a look at the Maker’s labels on the inside of the drum. According to American Military Goods and Makers (Bazelon & McGuin), Henry Prentiss was in business as early as 1825 and made drums through 1846. He had several locations on Court St. in Boson including, numbers “23”, 1825-27; number “ 52”, 1827-33; and number “33”, 1834-46. Number “33” is not listed in Bazelon & McGuin, but appears on the Maker’s label applied to 3 other drums that I know of. He was listed as a drum and umbrella maker, a pianoforte and a painter in 1834, and also ran a music store. George Prentiss’s label is found on 2 other drums, ca. 1840’s (?), for the “1st. Corps of Cadets, Boston.” There was another drum of the “1st. Corps. Of Cadets” by Henry Prentiss that turned up on the “Field Drums” blog a while back. I remembered it because I thought the drum extremely beautiful with the flags and spears out-stretched from the centered shield, all on a white background. This label matched the “1798” drum exactly, including the “33 Court Street” address. That drum claimed a circa of 1834 and identified the painter as Charles Hubbard, a landscape and sign painter from Boston. Charles Hubbard is also credited as the painter for the “Boston City Guards” drum, circa 1824, formally of the Wm. Guthman collection.
The next label is John C. Haynes of Boston, also well know for the drums he made, sold and repaired. In 1863, he is listed as the “Mass. Drum Manufactory,” Cambridge, Mass., and as “Haynes & Co.” where he maintained a music store at 33 Court St., Boston, from 1863 to at least 1888. He is known to have made drums that were used in the Civil War.
A. W. White was also a well known drum maker in the Boston area in the mid 1800’s. I could find little information on White, but I do know that some of his drums were used in the Civil War (as I own one) and he was still in business through at least 1879. He may not have had any formal government contracts for supplying drums to the government as his name does not appear in Bazelon & McGuinn’s Military Goods book. However, this label has the signature of Joseph B. Treat. It appears that J.B. Treat was the repairman who worked on the drum in 1879 at White’s shop. Treat was a well known drum maker of the time and is often associated with the firm of Thompson & Odell, also well known drum makers. He is known in the industry from ca. 1859 to the mid 1880’s.
In examining the condition of the labels, I noticed that the Prentiss label showed much more ware than the other two labels. There are 10 years between the date on the Prentiss label (1853) and the date on the Haynes label (1863) and from there, seventeen years to the date on the White label (1879). It seemed unpractical for that much deterioration to occur in only ten years when the latter two seemed in much better and similar condition. The Prentiss label seemed to look much older than the 1853 date would indicate if one was to assume that to be the date of origin. But, I think the label is older than 1853.
Another feature that caught my eye in the construction of the drum was the extra care in the shaping of the reinforcing rings, top and bottom. The maker seemed to take extra care in the construction and shaping of these inner hoops. Both the top and bottom side of each ring was strongly tapered by hand in an almost circular shape. I find this practice on many of the drums hand-crafted from the earlier “cottage-industry” period to be more defined, rather than what you see on many of the mass produced drums of the Civil War era. I remembered another article that showed up on the blog about this drum. It seems that Terry Cornett (Heritage Drums), of Alabama, also wrote an article on the “1st. Corps. of Cadets” drum. Terry had the honor of restoring the drum in 2006, so, I called him up to ask about some of the details of the drum. I was most interested in the label and the craftsmanship on the glue rings. According to Terry’s description, we had a pretty good match.
In combining this information, I think it’s safe to say that this drum was not made in 1798. Nor do I think it was made in 1853. But what about the 1853 date on the Prentiss label? Well, since Henry H. Prentiss only made drums thru 1846, his company probably wasn’t responsible for the repair made on June 28, 1853. So what then? I think the repairman of 1853, identified only as “L.O.P.”, decided to put his mark and date on the only paper label in the drum at that time as opposed to writing on the inside of the shell where it could not be seen. Remember, the labels are all directly across from the vent-hole where they can be seen. I think the other two repairman followed suit with their repair dates and wrote on their company’s label, possibly acting as a form of receipt for the work performed as was done on the Prentiss label. Therefore, considering the above mentioned information, I believe this to be a drum made by Henry H. Prentiss, circa 1834, for the Boston Brigade Band, played by John G. Sylvester and was in use through at least 1879. It also may have been played in Philadelphia during the Nation’s Centennial celebration. Whether it saw any action during the Civil War or functioned only as a regimental band is a matter of debate. We do know that it was repaired during the War, and that the first call by Lincoln for 75,000 volunteers, was answered primarily by members of the militia, all facts that only add fuel to the debate. As for who painted the drum, we can only speculate that Charles Hubbard, who is credited as the painter of the other two Boston Militia drums of the same era and of similar design, and the Boston City Guards drum, made by Prentiss, may be responsible for the artwork. But, again, a matter for debate.
Determining the real story of a drum can be difficult in many instances. But with the right amount of luck and effort, and digging into the clues and hints that are present, it is possible to unlock many of the secrets that lay hidden and obscured by time and assumptions. The story thus uncovered is quite different from the one I had first speculated, and even though the drum is not from the 1700’s, nor probably ever saw the bloody fields of battle, we now have a clearer view of the truth. We know a lot about the rich and impressive history of this drum, but there is so much more to uncover. We also need to remember that investments like these should be treated as investments and the more you know about the truth of the matter, the better you can appraise the item. During my research I was able to find the auction house that handled the last transaction of the drum, view the estimate and sale price, calculate the premium and estimated restoration costs. I also asked several collectors and experts for their opinions on values for drums like this and considered my own personal experience. Therefore, I would probably estimate the value of a drum like this one somewhere around $4500-$6500, and to keep increasing in value, but, that’s just a guess. So, consequently, I had to let this one get away as the $15,000.00-$16,000.00 asking price didn’t make much sense to me. But that’s just my business side coming out. What I really like, is that the story reveled can be one of the most rewarding aspects of researching and collecting historic antique drums…Sometimes, I find that what I thought were Drums of WAR!, are really, Drums of Music.
Thoughts from the Shop … Brian S. Hill
Brian Hill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org