Antique Mandolin Harps: Overview of These Unique Instruments

Updated March 12, 2022
Man plays an Autoharp In outdoor show

To a novice musical instrument collector's surprise, antique mandolin harps are neither a mandolin nor a harp. In fact, these strange geometric instruments filled with strings that can fit comfortably in your lap are actually members of the fretless zither family of musical instruments and have an incredibly distinctive sound. That being said, these niche musical instruments can bit of zaniness to your growing antiques collection.

Mandolin Harps and Their Unique Inner Workings

Manufactured at the very end of the nineteenth century into the early years of the twentieth century, mandolin harps are a type of fretless chord zither. Like all fretless zithers, players can only play one note on each string since it has no fingerboard or frets. It's the fingerboard and the frets that allow players to finger different notes on the individual strings.

Mandolin harps, commonly known as American mandolin harps, had the unique feature of having small buttons in a panel over the strings called a gizmo. The idea behind the addition of the buttons was so players that had difficulty mastering the staccato picking or tremolo playing on a mandolin could get a similar effect on the chord-zither.

When a player pushes the button that coincides with the chosen melody string,

  • A plectrum, which is a flat small tool like a pick, lowers down alongside of the string until it can make contact
  • The button panel, which sits on two wooden rollers, moves in the proper direction
  • Then button panel is then moved rapidly back and forth

The Oscar Schmidt Company

Antique wooden autoharp from the early 20th century

The company instrumental in developing the mandolin harp is the Oscar Schmidt Company of Jersey City, New Jersey. Although the company also had five factories scattered throughout Europe, it was the Jersey City factory, founded in 1879, where mandolin harp production began.

Through the early part of the twentieth century, Oscar Schmidt partnered with Friederich Menzenhauer, a well-known inventor of musical instruments including the guitar-zither, metallophone zither and harp cithern, to continue improving on their mandolin harps. Many of the existing early mandolin harps have the Menzenhauer & Schmidt labels attached.

Mandolin Harps' Iconic Body Styles

There are three basic body styles of mandolin harps:

  • The earliest mandolin harps have a curved body style
  • The bombe style body is similar to the early styles, with a very wide curve on the left side
  • The later body styles have straight lines

Common Finishes

Antique black autoharp

The most common finishes found on mandolin harps are:

  • Dark burgundy
  • Black
  • Silver

Inside Labels, Decals and Decorations to Look For

Additional design and manufacturing elements that you should keep an eye out for include labeling and decals, which you can find in various locations in and around a mandolin harp's body.

Labels

The label inside the sound hole of mandolin harps generally includes:

  • The model name
  • Style designation
  • Manufacturer name
  • Manufacturer address

Sound Hole Decals

Common sound hole decals include:

  • Swans
  • Menzenhauer Harps
  • Pearl chips
  • Harps, mandolins, ribbons and scrolls
  • Red international
  • Music books

Soundboard Decals and Trim

Soundboard decals and trim design decals include these designs:

  • Tornado
  • Filigree designs
  • Groundstake
  • Jamestown special
  • Daisies
  • Music books
  • Admiral Dewey design
  • Niagara Falls
  • Red international
  • Oriental looking designs
  • Gilt rope and flowers

Examples of Mandolin Harps to Explore Online

Antique Zihter

Since mandolin harps aren't as well-known as more popular instruments like guitars and drum kits, a great way to familiarize yourself with the different designs and styles of the past few hundred years is by looking at the many digital collections available online. Here're a few examples of antique mandolin harps to enjoy:

  • Oscar Schmidt harp from 1894
  • Oscar Schmidt Style B mandolin harp from 1900
  • Mandolin harp from the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair
  • Multiple images of Menzenhauer Schmidt mandolin harps with the first body style
  • Examples of inside labels from Fretless Zithers

Where to Purchase Antique Mandolin Harps Online

Antique and vintage mandolin harps are often offered for sale from antique shops both on and off line, auction houses and online auctions such as eBay. The following is a small sampling of the many other online retailers that generally have these unique American musical instruments available:

  • Ruby Lane - Ruby Lane is one of the largest auction websites on the internet, with loads of antique and vintage goods for you to buy and sell. Unfortunately, since they have a revolving inventory, you should try to stay updated as to what they have available.
  • Etsy - Etsy's specialty sellers have a sizable inventory of antique mandolin harps available; and although each seller tries their best to describe the harp's condition, it's always best to double check using the images they provide and by asking whatever followup questions you might have pertaining to the instrument for sale.
  • Ebay - Ebay is also a great place to look for antique instruments like mandolin harps. Just like with Etsy, you do run the risk of not knowing the instrument's exact condition, but as long as you're carefully assessing the listings that you're looking at, you shouldn't have a problem with making a bad purchase.

For Musicians and Collectors

If you're a collector of old musical instruments, antique mandolin harps will make unique additions to your burgeoning collection. However, if you're looking for an antique musical instrument that's fun and easy to learn to play, and you want to wow the world with your whimsical musical choices, then an antique mandolin harp might be the next instrument for you.

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Antique Mandolin Harps: Overview of These Unique Instruments