In the library catalog of 1783, Jefferson listed a pamphlet "By Miss Ford, Instruction for Playing on the Musical Glasses; so that any person, who has the least Knowledge of Music, or a good Ear, may be able to perform in a few Days, if not in a few Hours." Although he doesn't seem to have purchased the pamphlet, he showed a great deal of interest in the developing instrument, but left no record of owning a set of musical glasses - also known as a glass harmonica or armonica - or any of the similar instruments.
It was known early in the 18th century that rubbing a moistened finger around the rim of a glass produced musical notes. Varying amounts of liquid, along with the size and the thickness of the glass would determine the pitch. It was first presented in churches in England and Ireland by striking the glasses with sticks, accompanied by violins and basses and was referred to as a Vierillon. Known throughout the 19th century by different names and a variety of configurations, the instrument was most commonly called a Harmonium or Harmonica.
Benjamin Franklin was an early promoter of musical glasses in the United States, having written instructions for the assemblage of such an instrument in 1762. He managed to build one although he kept it a secret from his wife. He finally played it one evening while she was sleeping. She likened the sound to "music of angels." Franklin also had an instrument similar to a dulcimer with glass bars and three octaves that seemed to interest Jefferson.
Robert Carter of Nomini Hall owned one of the styles of musical glasses that Franklin invented and it was most likely the only set in Williamsburg. In his Account Book, on May 16, 1772, Jefferson "pd. Hearing musical glasses 2/6," most likely played by Peter Pelham, organist at Bruton Parish Church.
Francis Hopkinson, signer of the Declaration of Independence and gentleman musician, wrote to Jefferson that he was trying to perfect a method of playing the Armonica or Musical Glasses with "keys like an organ. I am now forward in ths Scheme and have little doubt of Success. It has been attempted in vain in France and England." Jefferson responded that this would be the "great present which has been made to the musical world this century, not excepting the Piano forte." The closest Hopkinson came in the endeavor was to attach artificial fingers to keys. He also constructed keys with cushioned pads to strike the glasses but there still had to be some sort of applied moisture for the desired notes.
Fifteen years after the Musical Glass concert in Williamsburg, Jefferson, now in Paris, wrote Charles Burney in London, praising the Kirkman Harpsichord. Musical glasses were still on his mind though, commenting, "However imperfect this instrument is for the general masses, yet for those of a certain character it is delicious." Later in the year he wrote to John Trumbull that he would like to know "the price of a good harmonica, the glasses fixed on an axis, to comprehend 6 octaves...in a plain mahogany case." Trumbull responded that three octaves would be the limit available and such an instrument could be purchased from Longman and Boderip of London for 30 guineas.
Jefferson's last known comments on the Harmonica were addressed to Francis Hopkinson. He wrote of improvements he had seen in the instrument that included revolving glasses, draped with woolen cloth, and dampened with a vinegar-water mixture. It still "receives the touch of fingers. It spares the trouble of perpetually wetting the fingers." Beyond that, it seems that a Harmonica never made its way to the Parlor at Monticello.
↑ This article is based on S. Meyer, Monticello Research Report, November, 2000.