Vintage Piccolos: Hidden Gems or Dust Collectors?

Those of us who frequent flea markets and eBay hope that one day we will get the deal of a lifetime. That one item that turns out to be too good to be true, a diamond in the rough, seems to elude us. Finding a five-dollar purchase that turns out to be worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars is always a remote possibility, but it is usually more of a gamble. Vintage piccolos are no different. Their obscurity makes them a fun collectible and something of a show-and-tell must-have for most piccolo players. First, knowing your motivation and end goal is important.  Are you collecting for personal enjoyment or are you hoping to play and perform on the instruments?  Second, knowing the historical background of the piccolo is also important for anyone who wants to begin collecting. This way you know what you are getting and know the resources to identify the instruments. The history of the piccolo is not as easily traced as the history of the flute and there are some rather vague points on the timeline. The piccolo has many forms of key work (one-key, four-key, six-key, eight-key, ring system, Böehm, reform) and several transposition sizes (Ab, Eb, Bb, Db, F, C), to give an oversimplified list.  Here is a brief timeline for the piccolo and its various forms—keep in mind that there is a great deal of overlap in design.

Fife (500-present)

The fife developed during the Middle Ages and was a military instrument with origins in Switzerland. It has a small, cylindrical bore and no keys. The lack of keys requires cross-fingerings to produce chromatic pitches. Its shrill and piercing tone made it ideal for use in calling troop movements on the battlefield. Although the fife was not suited for the concert hall, it is still frequently included in modern military ceremonies around the world.

One-key (circa 1650-present)

Anonymous one-keyed piccolo

The one-keyed piccolo had the same range and pitch as the fife.  The separation of fife and piccolo began with the addition of a key and changes to the bore. Although there are one-keyed fifes, it is the combination of changes that delineate the instruments. Eighteenth century texts mention the development of a one-keyed piccolo with better intonation as a fife alternative. The French were the first to develop the one-keyed piccolo, although there is debate over which maker first introduced the concept. The one-keyed piccolo appeared in Germany around 1750, but not in England until around 1800. Early piccolos were generally made of boxwood, although other materials were used less frequently. Piccolos were made in three or four parts and had three corps de réchange, unlike their Baroque flute counterparts that often had as many as seven corps.

Four-key and six-key (circa 1800-present)

Anonymous English six-key, E-flat military piccolo, circa 1890
Anonymous German reform piccolo in the style of Schwedler, circa 1890
Jean-Louis Tulou, Paris. six-key D-flat Piccolo, Pitch A=435. Photo Michael Lynn

Boxwood was less preferred on multi-keyed instruments due to the weak points the additional key work created in the body, which increased the likelihood of cracking. Hardwoods like grenadilla and cocus provided more stability. The standard shape for multi-keyed instruments moved from three or four pieces to just two (head and body with a tuning barrel). The key work was often made of silver. These additional keys eliminated the need for cross-fingerings and provided better intonation. Many companies produced several forms of simple-system piccolos even into the mid-1900s.

Böehm system (circa 1850-present)

Anonymous English piccolo, circa 1870
Thibouville Cabart ring-system piccolo, circa 1878

The Böehm-system piccolo met with resistance initially. Many players did not want to learn the new fingerings required for the instrument. The popularity of the multi-keyed systems and high cost of the newer system also hindered the acceptance of the Böehm-system. This resistance to the new system inspired the development of alternate, or reform systems. Eventually, players desired piccolos that had more stable intonation, with mechanisms that matched the mechanisms of their flutes.

Modern piccolos

Boehm-system by Emil Rittershausen, Carl Fischer stencil piccolo, circa 1927
Keefe piccolo with C# trill, Brossa F#, vented C key, 2009

In the twenty-first century, we are lucky enough to have makers who are still pursuing design and innovation. Leonard Lopatin has designed instruments with square tone holes which creates a straight edge for venting. Eva Kingma has created a line of open-hole, quarter-tone instruments. Jim Keefe has added a C# trill key, once again allowing the piccolo mechanism to match that of the flute. Eldred Spell, Tobias Mancke, and Adam Pettry are on the cutting edge of head joint design (pun intended).

So, you may be wondering why this information is important for vintage instruments? Take note of the date ranges for each category. They overlap a great deal and many different systems were in production and in use throughout the timeline. Simple-system piccolos were produced until the early twentieth century and are still available from a limited number of professional makers. Many of the instruments that are frequently seen on sites like eBay, or found in your grandparents’ attic, were made around 1900 and sold for around $2.00 through companies like Sears & Roebuck as instruments for hobbyists. Higher quality instruments are quite rare but they are out there. Many require restorations that may be costly. Frequently, money must be spent to get the instrument into playing condition before you may even know if the instrument is worth restoring.  It is a gamble! For the collector, this is part of the fun and a labor of love.  We know what we are looking for and what is may cost us and we are willing to take the risk. The process can be very rewarding and addictive!

  1. Jean Albrecht

    I purchased in Poland a ZALUD piccolo with what appears to be the word TOMIZIN below Zalud. It is a wooden open hole piccolo. It is difficult to get a consistent sound from it, but that could be because I haven’t played for 50 years! It doesn’t appear to be cracked, and I was told the wood was not cracked. Do you have any information on this piccolo?

    • Hello Jean! Thank you for your comment. Would you be able to email a photo? I am researching the instrument for you but need to see the instrument and the stencil/engraving. Email me at Keith@thefluteexaminer.com Looking forward to hearing from you!

      • Jean Albrecht

        My e-mail to you (with pictures) failed to go through. Could you please e-mail me, and I will then respond with pictures regarding my 100+ wooden Polish Zalud piccolo.

        • Hi Keith
          My uncle gifted me a piccolo 6 key German flute , the flute belongs to my grandfather ‘S father kept in his backyard for decades , it has a crack on it and rest is in fine condition. Also one fabric bag cover is with it. So I want to know the details like manufacturing year and it’s rareity etc

          Please contact me through mail-

    • Frances Tice

      I I have a silver, open hole piccolo with the following engraving on the head joint of the instrument:
      Universelle exposon De Paris 1900 Hors concours Membre du Jury couesnon & cie 94 Rue D’Angouleme Paris 4546.
      The piccolo needs restoration ( pads, pins, adjustment,, alignment, and general cleaning) I would appreciate your recommendation as to the advisability of whether its value after restoration would justify the cost of so doing.

  2. Richard McMahon

    I enjoyed your article on early piccolos!
    I currently own a German made 6 key silver and ebony piccolo that has a mouthpiece identical to your anonymous German Reform in the Schwedler style. However, the key system is identical to the Tulou of Paris. Do you have any info concerning it’s origin or value?

  3. Jane Grubbs

    I have a old wooden piccolo with ivory around the holes. I am trying to find a price for it, but can’t find any with the ivory

  4. Frances Tice

    I have a Qouesnon open hole silver piccolo with the following information printed on it: universelle exposition paris,1900hors concours,member du jury couesnon &cle ,94 rue d”angoulme, paris 4546 .Needs pads, pins, adjustment, and general cleaning and restoration. It has what appears to be the original case in fair condition.
    My guestion is: does this instrument have value that would justify the cost of restoration? Thank You.

  5. Valerie B. Preletz

    Looking to find value and identify 2 E-Riley either piccolo flute fife. One has imprint
    E-Riley N-York with brass piece near mouth piece with ivory dividers
    The Other one is a darker wood w/ E-Riley 29 Chatham St N- York brass piece missing with ivory dividers

  6. Ed Salerno

    Hi, I have a 4-key picolo without a makers mark. I know nothing about it.
    I’d like to send you a picture of it.

    • Ed,
      Thanks for your comment. Please feel free to send a photo. I would be more than happy to give it a look!

      • Keith,

        Can you please send me your email address,

        • Hi Keith I have an old wooden brass flute marked PENTUM London do you have any idea what it may be worth many thanks Vicky

  7. John Browne

    I have a vintage 6 hole 6 key 3 piece piccolo made of dark wood that was my great grandfather’s born 1850’s. Really be appreciative of any knowledge valuation or sound tracks featuring this type of instrument.

  8. Shanna Williams

    I recently purchased a wooden open hole piccolo. It is most similar to the Anonymous English six-key, E flat, military piccolo pictured above.
    May I send a photo or two and if so could you possibly give me any idea of it’s age or origin?
    I purchased it because I thought it beautiful and it is my intention to get it repaired and learn to play it.
    I would like to know something about it but that would simply be bonus..

  9. Bettyann Yule

    Can you tell me about this instrument and any value to it at all?

  10. Steve Gudernatch

    Keith, I have an old German piccolo I was looking for some info about. Tried your email
    The flute examiner but was not successful, could you help?

  11. Esmeraldo Nigoza

    I have one piccolo one key can you tell me if there is a value in this kind of instrument

  12. Sheila Hayward

    Hi Keith. I have a piccolo which is marked as Parker Maker London. B 5 (I think) with a 6 underneath. Markings are very faint and difficult to see. I think it is around 1800. It is very plain, dark wood with brass rings. Can you shed any light on this as to time period and value please.

  13. Can you provide any information about a 4 key, wood Piccolo. My grandmother (1898-1993) had a 4 key wood ?piccolo? that was handed down to her from her father (1854-1943). Unknown if it was his or his father’s (1818-1903). I don’t seem to be able to include a picture. I have found little with an internet search.

  14. Bill Linthwaite

    Hi, I have what I thought was an old fife that’s been in my family for three generations and my possession for 60 years. It looks nearly identical to the photo here of “an anonymous one-keyed piccolo”. The tenon joints (it’s two pieces) were originally wrapped with red thread which was replaced with cork during green 1980s. Been trying for years to identify what it is and possibly where it might have come from or who may have made it. Can you help with any info? Happy to send photos.

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