SPINETS, virginals, and harpsichords were brought to the American colonies in English ships as early as 1645, when "An old pair of virginalls" appears in an inventory; and another, in 1654. In 1667 a pair of virginals is valued at two pounds. In his diary of 1699 Judge Samuel Sewall alludes to his wife's virginals. In 1712 the Boston News Letter contained an advertisement that "the spinet would be taught," and in 1716 the public were requested to "Note, that any Persons may have all Instruments of Music mended, or Virginals or Spinets strung & tun'd, at a Reasonable Rate, and likewise may be taught to play on any of the Instruments above mentioned." From the wording of this advertisement it is evident that these instruments were no novelty.
I have not been able to learn of an existing virginal which was in use in this country, but occasionally a spinet is found. The expression a "pair" or "set" of virginals was used in the same manner as a "pair" or "set" of steps or stairs, and in England an oblong spinet was called a virginal, in distinction from the spinet of triangular shape, which superseded the rectangular, oblong form in which the earliest spinets were made. Both virginal and spinet had but one string to a key, and the tone of both was produced by a sort of plectrum which picked the string. This plectrum usually consisted of a crow quill, set in an upright piece of wood, called a "jack," which was fastened to the back of the key. The depressing of the key by the finger caused the quill to rise, and as it passed the string, the vibration produced the musical tone, which is described by Dr. Burney as "A scratch with a sound at the end of it." The name of the spinet is by some supposed to be derived from these quills, - from spina, a thorn. According to other authorities the name came from a maker of the instrument, named Spinetti. The virginal was so called because young maids were wont to play upon it, among them that perennial young girl, Queen Elizabeth. The most famous makers of spinets in England were Charles Haward or Haywood, Thomas and John Hitchcock, and Stephen Keene. In Pepys's diary are the following entries : -
"April 4, 1668. Called upon one Haward that makes virginalis, and there did like of a little espinette and will have him finish it for me; for I had a mind to a small harpsichon, but this takes up less room."
"July 15, 1668. At noon is brought home the espinette I bought the other day of Haward; cost me 5£."
Illustration 281 shows a spinet in the Deerfield Museum, which formerly belonged to Miss Sukey Barker of Hingham, who must have been a much envied damsel. It is marked Stephanus Keene, which places the date of its make about 1690. The body of the spinet stands twenty-four inches from the floor. Its extreme length is fifty-six inches, and the keyboard of four and one-half octaves measures twenty-nine inches. There are but six keys left, but they are enough to show that the naturals were black and the sharps white. There is a row of fine inlaying above the keyboard, and the maker's name is surrounded with painted flowers. The spinet, as may be seen, was a tiny instrument, in shape similar to our modern grand piano. The body of the spinet was entirely separate from the stand, which was made with stretchers between the legs, of which there were three and sometimes four, so placed that one leg came under the narrow back end of the spinet, one under the right end of the front, and one or sometimes two at the left of the front. The instrument rested upon this table or trestle.
Illus. 281. - Stephen Keene Spinet, about 1690.
The name upon the majority of spinets found in this country is that of Thomas Hitchcock. His spinets are numbered and occasionally dated. There is a Thomas Hitchcock spinet owned by the Concord Antiquarian Society, numbered 1455, and one owned in Worcester, numbered 1519.
Illustration 282 shows a spinet which was owned by Elizabeth Hunt Wendell of Boston. It was probably an old instrument when she took it with her from Boston to Portland in 1766 upon her marriage to the Rev. Thomas Smith, known as Parson Smith of Portland. It is now owned by her great-great-grandaughter in Gorham, Maine. The board above the keys has two lines of inlaying around it, and is marked "Thomas Hitchcock Londoni fecit, 1390." The front of the white keys is cut with curved lines, and the black keys have a line of white ivory down the centre. The parrot-back chair in the illustration is described upon page 168. Authorities seem to vary upon dates when the Hitchcocks made spinets. Mr. A. J. Hipkins of London, the well-known authority upon pianos, harpsichords, and spinets, writes me that he dates the Thomas Hitchcock spinets from 1664 to 1703, and those of John Hitchcock, the son of Thomas, from 1676 to about 1715. Mr. Hipkins says that the highest number he has met with upon Thomas Hitchcock's spinets is 1547, so it is safe to date this spinet in Illustration 282, which numbers 1390, to about 1690.
Illus. 282. - Thomas Hitchcock Spinet, about 1690.
By the latter half of the eighteenth century proficiency upon various musical instruments was not uncommon. John Adams in 1771 speaks of a young man of twenty-six, as "a great proficient in music, plays upon the flute, fife, harpsichord, spinet, etc.; a very fine Connecticut young gentleman." In 1768 in the Boston Chronicle appears the advertisement of John Harris, recently from England, "that he makes and sells all sorts of Harpsichords and Spinets," and in 1769 the Boston Gazette says, "A few days since was shipped for Newport a very curious Spinet, being the first one ever made in America, the performance of the ingenious Mr. John Harris." In 1770 the same paper praises an excellent "spinet" made by a Bostonian, "which for goodness of workmanship and harmony of sound is esteemed by the best judges to be superior to any that has been imported from Europe." This would seem to indicate that a tone of superiority in musical matters was assumed by Boston at an early date. The statement with regard to the first spinet made in America is incorrect, for over twenty years earlier, in 1742, Hasselinck had made spinets in Philadelphia.
Illus. 283.- Broadwood Harpsichord, 1789.