Zithers take many forms, but fundamentally they are all strings stretched over a resonating box. The zither shown below is a 4-chord fretless zither. It has a bank of fifteen melody strings open-tuned to the C-scale and also four groups of four strings each for playing chords.
The finish, tuning pin arrangement, and inside label indicate this zither dates to circa 1900-1901. It probably cost about $2.00 brand-new.
The instrument shown below is a ukelin (a ukulele-violin hybrid). It has two levels of strings. The top sixteen melody strings fasten to loops on the long sides of the body and to tuning pegs at one end. These strings are played with a bow. The strings in the lower level comprise four chord groups and run along the length of the body. Ukelins come in rectangular or guitar-shaped versions. Music taxonomies classify the ukelin as a type of fretless zither.
The maker of this ukelin only produced rectangular ukelins circa 1930-1940. The inside label has a price tag of $35.00. This was a marketing ploy: traveling salesmen selling ukelins door-to-door routinely offered buyers a half-price “discount.”
It is believed that these zithers belonged to Irma Frey (née Schmidt) and/or her son Herbert Frey. Irma was born in 1886 near Highland. She married Arthur Frey of St. Jacob in 1906. The couple ran the Frey family farm until the 1930s. Their son Herbert was born in 1912.
Listen to Michael Garvin play the hymn “Amazing Grace” on a ukelin.
The 1902 Edition of The Sears Roebuck Catalogue. New York: Bounty Books, 1969. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.
Bob’s Ukelin Homepage. Accessed February 5, 2020. http://www.studiobobo.com/ukelin/ukelin.html
Collinsville city directories. Available at the Madison County Archival Library.
“Fretless Zithers.” Pick Away Press. Accessed February 5, 2020. http://www.pickaway.press/fz/index.html
Miner, Gregg and Kelly Williams. “Fretless Zithers.” Miner Music. Published May 2003, updated May 2015. Accessed February 5, 2020. http://www.minermusic.com/dolceola/fretless_zithers.htm
St. Jacob, Illinois, 1875-2000: Gem of the Prairie. Shawnee Mission: Printed by KES-PRINT, . Available at the Madison County Archival Library.
United States census records and other public records.
Williams, Kelly. “Friederich Menzenhauer.” The Guitar-Zither Clearinghouse. October 14, 1998. Accessed February 5, 2020. http://www.fretlesszithers.net/Frederic.htm