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Objects from the Cypress Street and Commercial Collections

The objects from both the Cypress Street and Commercial Collections are unique in their uses as functional objects - they have little to no ritual use, and were most likely not used for performance reasons. Can these still be called instruments?

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Conch shell

Cypress Street Collection

This conch shell may have once functioned as an instrument for making music, but it may have had other purposes as well. It was found at the old almshouse, but it is a King Helmut shell, a species native to the Caribbean. How did it end up in Pennsylvania? It could have been donated to the almshouse, by a wealthy patron. It may have been used to call inmates to meals.

The shell has had the top portion of the crown removed, and smoothed. This indicates that the instrument may have had a mouthpiece, like that shown in the painting 'The Breakfast Call' by Shepard Alonzo Mount, created in 1853 (shown to the right).


Both instruments in the Cypress Street collection were found in the privy of a Philadelphia Almshouse. The Conch shell was likely discarded because it was broken, and either the same is true of the mouth harp (see below) or it was accidentally dropped in.

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Mouth harp

Cypress Street Collection

This mouth harp is an instrument that was likely brought to the Almshouse by an inmate, who may have played it on the grounds. It probably functioned more as a form of personal entertainment, or to be played with other instruments. It is not complete, as it would have had a thin strip of metal that ran down the center of it, which vibrated to create sound. This piece is called the “reed,” or the “tongue.”

Toy guitar

Philadelphia Commercial Museum Collection

This is a toy guitar, modelled after a Japanese instrument. It is very small, and not made for the purpose of playing music. Can it still be considered an instrument?

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What is this instrument’s purpose, if not to create music? It could have been used to entertain a child, or it could simply be a small novelty. It shows an appreciation for music and the instruments that produce it, beyond just their functionality, but in how they are culturally symbolic.

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