Historical Authenticity Meets DIY: The Mass-Market Harpsichord in the Cold War United States
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Historical Authenticity Meets DIY:
The Mass-Market Harpsichord in the Cold War United States

In a 1970 episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers introduces his viewers to the harpsichord.1 After a brief discussion of teeth and feathers, Rogers sits himself at a 1967 William Dowd instrument and explains that “the harpsichord is like a piano but it sounds different.” He points out that harpsichords have two manuals (as opposed to pianos, which have only one) before moving to a more subtle distinction between the two instruments. “Now the difference about a harpsichord is that it has little jacks that pluck the strings. I’ll show you,” he says, as he takes the jack rail off. He pulls out a plastic jack and explains, “Each one of these is a little pluck. A long time ago, they used to even be made out of feathers and they would pluck the strings like that . . .” Rogers uses a feather to pluck one of the strings. He then holds up a gooseneck tuning hammer and demonstrates how to tune a string. Concluding the presentation, he summarizes: “It is a very fancy instrument.” A few moments later, harpsichordist Frances Cole knocks at the door. She has just enough time to play a Scarlatti sonata (K.146) and a Bach minuet (from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach, Anh. 114) before an ever-impatient Mister McFeely arrives to hurry her along to a concert.

In this brief segment, Rogers marks the harpsichord as both “fancy” and mechanistically accessible. Fitting within his larger project of demystifying technology, of unveiling the materials and processes behind everyday commodities, Rogers’s description makes plain the harpsichord’s inner workings: its plucking action, the shape and function of its [End Page 228] jacks and “little plucks” (plectra), the motion of turning a tuning pin.2 He even touches on the idea of old versus modern materials in noting that “a long time ago” the plectra would have made out of a different material (feathers as opposed to plastic). This episode of Mister Rogers exemplifies 1960s–1970s pop cultural representations of the harpsichord as “fancy,” where fancy translates as complicated, extraordinary, and expensive.3 At the same time, the segment also democratizes knowledge about the instrument, providing a history and explanation straightforward enough for a children’s television show. By beginning with a comparison to the piano, Rogers immediately translates the instrument into familiar terms.

During the Cold War years, several factors helped create a market for products possessing these dual qualities of fanciness and accessibility. Home ownership became possible for more (primarily white) U.S. citizens with the institution of federally subsidized loans, decreased down payments, and an increase in cheaper, mass-produced “starter homes.” More higher-paying office jobs became available, allowing many workers to move away from manual factory labor. Higher wages and increased disposable income gave this burgeoning middle class the means to invest in their new homes, including home improvement projects, furnishings, appliances and other niceties ranging from televisions to barbeques. Advertisements portrayed these products as steppingstones to a luxurious lifestyle, and many companies mass-produced cars, ovens, and coffee tables (for example) in ostentatious designs that connoted extravagance— even if they were priced affordably. Ownership of these products signified that one had money to afford the purchases, and, in some cases, that one had the time to enjoy them.4

In this context, the harpsichord emerged in the domestic marketplace. Articles and photo spreads in House Beautiful portrayed the instrument as a high-end accessory for the living room and as a rarefied hobby.5 Meanwhile, middle-class adults were purchasing masses of hi-fi equipment and long-playing records in genres of jazz, easy listening, classical music, and especially in the new niche category of “Early Music.” Recordings in all of these genres often featured the harpsichord, further raising popular awareness of the instrument in mass-market contexts.6 And as the U.S. harpsichord industry gathered steam during the late 1940s–1950s, magazines and newspapers ran frequent stories on the builders, stimulating the market for custom instruments. By the early 1950s Detroit builder John Challis and Boston builders...