Having started an interest in
19th century flutes in the mid 1970's, I probably picked up a lot of
flute terms from that period. As a newbie, I hope I can be
forgiven for not being very discerning about all of them. Would it
really matter if these were not the terms they used back in the period
these flutes were made? All things being equal, probably not.
But what if these new terms were misleading, perhaps inviting
us to view and even do things in ways the makers had not intended and would not
approve? Hmmm, not so good. Is it too late to find out?
And if we do find out we've been misled, is it all water under the
bridge, or can we still set the clock back?
The item that prompts this
muse is the humble flute pad - the kind of pad used in the early 19th
century in the keys that we call salt spoons. I learned to call
them purse pads, and to believe that they were made in the manner of a
soft leather purse, filled with wool and the strings tightened.
But over the years, it's increasingly bothered me that the only
references to this seem modern, and the few references I've been able to
find to these pads in the old writings made no mention of this name.
What do we understand by a
This is my mental image, and
you can immediately see my problem with this mental image. Stuff
that bag firmly with wool, and pull the string tight, and you don't have
a ball - you have a pear. Try to set that into a hemispherical cup
and you'll have a lot of spare material getting in your way.
(Image from http://www.flights-of-fab-fashion-fancy.com/)
So who called them Purse pads
Philip Bate, The Flute, 1969,
seems to have set the tone:
They consisted of small
circles of thin kid, drawn up by a running thread round the edge,
like an old-fashioned purse, and stuffed with a ball of fine wool -
indeed they were often called 'purse-pads'. Of course these
could not easily be attached to flat cover-plates, and the natural
corollary to their appearance was the cupped key. At first,
such 'salt-spoon' keys were produced by casting in one piece ...
A slightly earlier book, by
Anthony Baines, Woodwind Instruments, 1957, doesn't seem to use the name
purse pad, but does describe a purse-like construction in a section on
maintaining old flutes.
A quick look at other sources
seems to turn up no other mentions (but if you know of something, make
sure to get in touch!).
And who called them anything
The earliest reference (not
surprisingly) seems to be the inventor of the devices, and I'm much
obliged to MarkP from the Chiff & Fipple forum for this information.
Mark quotes Kroll (The Clarinet, 1965). Kroll is talking about
Ivan Muller (more accurately
who, around 1810, invented this style of pad in order to make the
clarinet fully chromatic:
His pads were made of gut
or leather stuffed with wool, as generally used today. Earlier pads
consisted of slices of soft leather or felt, stuck with glue or
sealing wax to the underside of the flap. Muller wrote in this
connection: 'In regard to the keys, I have invented a kind of
elastic "ball" and, having used it for several years, I am
convinced of its efficacy. There ¡s no risk with these pads that
either a moist or a dry atmosphere will make the keys unworkable;
they close the holes effectively under all conditions and make no
Aha! Elastic "ball",
eh? But no mention of purses!
An advertisement by Clementi & Co in the Fourteenth Edition
of Wragg's Improved Flute Preceptor, Op. 6, 1818 for Nicholson's Improved Flutes
mentions Elastic Plugs.
1828, uses the expression "Elastic Ball" in the article twice,
and also makes two references to "Elastic Plug Keys". The
only references to "purse" in that article are mine, in side comments.
Nicholson, the great flute
player and teacher, writing in 1836,
The elastic plugs
to all (except the lower C keys), and double springs, are great
As late as 1851, the
Exhibition Catalog mentions flutes
by Kohler with 8 Elastic Plug keys
Rockstro, much later, in The
Flute, 1889, describes them as "pads, or cushions, of spherical form".
"Of spherical form?!". After reading all the other accounts, one
is inclined to respond: "Balls, Rockstro, balls!"
So it seems "elastic balls"
or "elastic plug keys" were the common expressions of the time, and so
far we've found absolutely no reference to "purse pads" or a description
of construction that would prompt the use of such a name. Curiouser and curiouser.
Now why "elastic"?
"Balls" we can understand -
it describes the shape. But what's the obsession with "elastic"
all about? To find that out, we have to consider what the
alternatives were at the time. Coming out of the previous baroque
era, we had the leather flap key - just some thin leather stuck to a
flat flap, sealing over a flattened section of wood with the hole in it.
Fine for a 1-key flute, but increasingly unreliable as you added more
and more keys. You can see why Muller was in trouble with his
But in 1785, Richard Potter
patented his "Potter's German Flute" with a new system of metal
"valves", which today we call Pewter Plugs. (Hmmm, I wonder when
that name got going?) So there were two unique features of
Muller's invention - they were balls and they were soft. Indeed,
can we hear him making reference to Potter's pewter plugs in that quote
There ¡s no risk with
these pads that either a moist or a dry atmosphere will make the
keys unworkable; they close the holes effectively under all
conditions and make no noise'
Pewter plugs, being
non-elastic, can give trouble when the weather is very dry or moist, and
the metal-lined hole is made oval by wood movement. And of course,
being metal closing on metal, they were noisy.
1828, agrees with Muller:
OF THE VARIOUS
DESCRIPTIONS OF KEYS, used by different makers, he [the writer -
Lindsay] gives a very decided preference to those with the
Elastic Plugs or padded Keys, not only because he considers them
best adapted for stopping, but also for the powerful recommendation
which they carry with them, - that of being used without noise from
the reaction of the key, and the additional fact that they are less
liable to get out of order than either the flat-leathered keys, or
those with Metal Plugs, so truly disagreeable for their noise and
These days of course we are
used to pads being soft, stuffed and therefore elastic. So the
unique feature for us comes down to their shape.
Rubbing salt into the
Notice that expression
"Elastic Plug Key" - which we now understand was their name for the kind
of key that uses "Elastic Balls". But, hang on, we call those
salt-spoon keys! A search shows that they didn't - "salt spoons"
is probably another 20th centuryism! We might leave that one to
deal with later, other than to note the quote from Bate (above) where he
called them salt spoons. Hmmm, was Philip a serial misleader?
(Aside. Philip was
actually a broadcaster, a field I shared with him. One of the
challenges a broadcaster faces daily is finding ways to get an image
over to the listener without benefit of video. Perhaps we're
seeing the broadcasters' mind at work?)
What's so special about
Are we really worried about
what these pads were called and how they were made? Surely if we
wanted to pad one of these flutes these days, we'd just use a regular
Unfortunately, it's not quite
that simple. Sometimes you can get away with a regular flute pad
with these old flutes, but not always. These pads were unique.
The cup was a hemisphere, as was the depression in the wood into which
the pad had to close. Put two hemispheres together, and you've got
a sphere, as Rockstro told us. And nobody makes spherical pads
these days. Modern pads are fat discs, with flat tops and bottoms.
Apart from shape, what is
critical about these pads is the size. Too big and it won't go in
the cup or the hole. Too small and it will compress, allowing the
rim of the keycup to clack against the wood on closing. Perhaps
not on the day you install them, but a few months later! Grrrr!
But it does have to be said
that, when they were good, they were very, very good. Silent,
airtight, and more gentle on the air-flow than our modern pads.
How long were these pads in
As we've seen, essentially
the same period as we find saltspoon (um, sorry, elastic plug) keys.
And that is a surprisingly long period. Since Müller invented them
around 1810, we can safely take that as the start of the period.
The end is harder to pick.
We know Boehm introduced card-backed pads for his conical open-keyed
flute in 1832. (Elastic balls could only work on flutes with
normally closed holes, as they soon lose their shape if the key was left
open. That's why the low C and C# keys on 8-key flutes continued
to use pewter plugs.) After a while, card-backed pads started to
make inroads into the 8-key style flute too, and you could tell those
flutes that were designed to use them. Typically, their cups are
lower and flatter, typically with the end of the shaft pointed and extending to the
centre of the cup, rather than terminating on the side of the cup.
Further, the seats (the hole in the wood into which the pad closed)
changed. Instead of the hemispherical hole, it became typically
volcano shaped, providing a clear sharp edge for a flat pad to close
Not everyone went over to the
pointed cups with the card-backed pads and the volcano seats. We
find flutes that have saltspoon-style keys at least as late as this
Rudall Carte in 1898:
Rudall Carte 7120, Cocus and nickel
silver, McGee Research Collection
But I'm not so sure this flute did use "elastic balls".
The keys are broadly salt-spoon-shaped, but the cups, while still rounded, are
rather flatter than the hemisphere on the earlier ones. And the
holes are more flat bottomed than hemispherical or volcanic.
Further, the holes through to the bore from the base of the seat are
much bigger than could have supported an elastic ball. It would
have flowed right in. I think this flute was made to use modern
card-backed pads (which had been around for well over 50 years by then),
but designed to resemble a flute with the elastic plug keys.
So I guess the hunt is on for the end of the elastic
ball period. Such a flute will have these characteristics:
a truly hemispherical cup (not a flattened
hemisphere or a pointed cup)
a truly hemispherical seat in the wood (not a
flat-bottom ledge or a volcano)
a relatively small hole through to the bore (smaller
than the nearby finger holes).
What's interesting here is that we have to look at cup,
seat and hole to make the judgement. In the past, I think
people have made assumptions without consideration of all three.
So how were these elastic balls made?
Unfortunately, the only
references to making these pads I've been able to find so far are the
20th century ones, from
Bate and Baines.
(These gentlemen knew each other, incidentally, and I was fortunate to
meet them both. Anthony Baines was the curator of the Bate
collection at Oxford when I went there in 1974, having met Philip Bate
while hanging out with flute dealer Paul Davis.)
So, in the absence of any
contemporary report, we're going to have to rely on forensic evidence -
dissecting some pads in the hope of finding clues to their construction.
Fortunately, I have a few such pads taken from original flutes.
Hopefully I have enough! Just in case, I've put out the word -
don't chuck out those old pads just yet!
Of course we have to guard
against the possibility that the methods of construction changed over
the 40 or more years that these pads were in use. So there might
be more than one form of construction. We may have to consider
this investigation as ongoing, until we are satisfied that we have the
full story. I'd want to apply McGee's Razor:
Let me apologise in advance
if I've inadvertently snitched someone else's razor. I'll happily
put it back if you can find me a name!
It does remind me of the old
one log can't burn
two logs won't burn
three logs might burn
four logs will burn, but
five logs a fire makes.
I took an Eb pad from a flute
by Weekes of Plymouth, circa 1844, and submersed it in alcohol.
The hope was that it would dissolve the shellac on the back of the pad,
enabling me to see how it has been made. There was some risk that it
would completely disassociate the pad, but maybe that wouldn't be a bad thing.
I chose the Eb key, as it is big, and should be easier to dissect and
observe. If alcohol proved too mild, I was going to move on to acetone.
Next day and immediate success! But
immediate confusion too. What I had assumed was a red shellac used
to set the key in the cup now appears to be something separate under
the shellac layer. (And I don't remember the shellac in the key
being bright red when I replaced the pads). The alcohol dissolved the
shellac overnight, as I had hoped, but it didn't dissolve the red goup,
just dissociated it somewhat. Perhaps one of the red goup's constituents
was alcohol soluble or alcohol affected. Looking at the other pads
in the set, all have the red goup, covered to varying degrees by the
dark but relatively colourless shellac.
The other interesting thing
about the red goup is that it appears to be concentrated on a section
in the middle of the back of the pad where there is no leather.
Aha! Could it be a sealer perhaps to keep the finished pad safe
until it gets installed in a key? (Safe from what? Coming
apart, or insect attack perhaps - one of the pads did have signs of
insect infestation.) Or moisture? Or is it intended to prevent the hot
melted shellac from soaking into the wool inside the pad, perhaps
rendering the pad hard, or perhaps robbing adhesion to the inside of the
cup? More and more interesting!
Now, what's red and was used
in the 19th century to seal things. Um, how about "sealing wax"?
Wax probably wouldn't dissolve in alcohol, so that works.
Now, wait a minute! Did
I just say "a section in the middle of the back of the pad where there
is no leather"? I sure did, and sure enough there is such a
section. But aren't these pads supposed to be drawn tight?
Indeed, tight, but that doesn't necessarily mean closed. Aha, so
there's a possible solution to the bunching up problem I outlined above
- cut the disc of leather too small to meet around the back, and then
fill the remaining hole with something that won't soak into the wool,
but that will prevent shellac from doing so. So what is bunching
up the leather?
The microscope image reveals
all. We can make out all
the leather increasingly
bunched up as it comes around to the back of the pad.
a much larger "hole" at
the back of the pad than the descriptor "purse" might suggest
a running stitch around
the edge of the leather, pulled tight and knotted, just like Philip
Bate said (that lump on the
right is the knot)
the red goup at the
bottom, and remnants of the red goup in the valleys between the
ridges of leather (particularly noticeable at the right)
strands of wool (yellow)
sticking out through the red goup.
Ah, so it's official.
They were sewn, broadly like purses, but with some important differences:
the big hole at the back,
to avoid the bunch-up of leather that would make it impossible to
fit nicely in a hemispherical cup. A partially closed
purse with no neck.
the mystery red goup,
presumably used to seal the back of the pad.
So how far in does this red
goup go? I cut through the middle of another of the pads with a scalpel:
The back of the pad, the part that
fits in the key cup, is at the top. We can see:
at the top, in lemon
yellow, the leather bunched up on both sides
the leather continuing around
the rest of the pad, in orange, with dark outlining.
the compressed wool in the
the thread, seen here in circular
cross section, resembling two eyes, in the middle of the two lumps of
bunched up leather at right and left top
The hole in the middle of the
back of the pad, filled
with red goup
Red goup spilling over the top, and
soaking into gaps between the wool in the centre.
The importance of the point about
leather bunching up is made clear in this image. See how the relatively
thin leather (the orange layer around the sides and bottom) becomes about three
times thicker in the areas at the top around the thread. You just couldn't
allow that purse to close fully. Indeed, interesting to see that this
smaller Bb ball is more closed than the larger Eb pad we see further up.
Could be variability in manufacture, or maybe the bigger the pad, the less you
can afford to close the gap.
Now, pinch yourself and remind
yourself you are looking at a ball! Um, not very round, is it? You
can see that it would have been much bigger when new - follow the curve at the top to get
some impression. Assuming the circa 1844 date for Weekes, this pad has
been in that flute under spring pressure for 163 years. Some of the pads
leaked, but a few of them were still airtight, even in the view of the
Magnahelic Flute Leakage Detector, which can measure the airflow through
the sworls of my fingerprints. Not bad, eh?
You can see a broad nipple at
the bottom where the ball has also pressed into the hole at the bottom
of the keyhole. You can also see here that Weekes was moving
towards flat-bottomed holes which seems to have preceded volcano seats.
The area surrounding the nipple is closer to flat than hemispherical.
That shape still works fine with "elastic balls", but this flute was one
I was able to use standard modern pads for without difficulty and to the
entire satisfaction of the fussy Magnahelic.
The stuffing, incidentally,
is probably wool, but about 150% coarser than the only raw wool I had to
compare it with. But we grow fine wools in Australia, more suited
to soft jumpers than hard-wearing carpets, so that probably accounts for
the difference I'm seeing.
A better metaphor?
If we're looking for a better
metaphor in the fabric arts for how these pads are made, perhaps it
would be the Suffolk Puff, called the Yo-Yo in US quilting circles.
As you can see, the method is the same, but the fabric doesn't continue
beyond the stitching any further than needed to prevent the stitching
Suffolk Puff under construction. Fill that with wool
and it will become a ball, not a pear! Click on the link
above to see how it's made.
So what should we call them
Well, as you can probably
gather, I'm not completely
happy with "purse pads". That for me conjures up
quite the wrong
mental image, and invites us therefore to go quite down the wrong path, with
the result that it all ends up going pear-shaped, as they say in the
classics. You don't "purse" your lips with your mouth open!
And the important thing isn't how the pad is made, but that it's
spherical. It's one thing to have a name that isn't original,
but quite another to have one that is both unoriginal and misleading.
Elastic ball? Hmmm,
accurate certainly, but not that attractive, is it? I'm inclined to leave the subject
of balls to
Amnesty International, where it's done so much good around the
Elastic plug? Not
inspiring either. It does make the distinction between plugs
and pads - plugs fill a hole, while pads cover holes over. But
the word plug is not familiar to us in this context, and might prove
a barrier to acceptance.
Pads? Naah, all
pads are pads, and these are special pads.
Again, all pads are stuffed, so it doesn't help.
That's possible, even if I made fun of Rockstro above. (Hey,
he deserves it!) They are spherical, and they do look like pads
(even if they allegedly act like plugs). Nothing misleading. The
name differentiates them clearly from the later card-backed pads
which is the distinction that needs to be made.
Could we learn to live with "Spherical Pads"?
Or "ball pads"?
Sewn pads, perhaps,
illustrating the method of manufacture, but not bringing in a
confusion about bunched-up leather.
Or "Puff pads", drawing
on the Suffolk Puff metaphor we discussed above? Probably too
specialised a term to make a broadly useful metaphor?
Other, please specify.
If you have suggestions, claim your place in history!
I'm attracted to spherical,
because that is the important thing about these pads. But I don't know whether we can
learn to live with that name. We'd have a lot of unlearning to do -
at the time of writing I've lived with "purse pads" for over 35 years.
But on the face of the evidence before us, it's only part of the story
and rather misleading. We could do better, and I'm plumbing for
"spherical pads" until someone comes up with something equally
meaningful but maybe more euphonious!
And the keys?
I'm not so offended by the
name salt-spoon key, even if it was not what they called it at the time.
It's descriptive (at least for those who have actually seen a saltspoon,
and that might be a decreasing number in these days of sea-salt grinders
and plastic iodised salt dispensers!). That lack of familiarity might
prove to be the problem for
continuing meaningful use of the term! How many of us have a
salt-spoon in the cruet set on our dining table today? (I would be
confident, having sat at Philip Bate's kitchen table, that, had I
thought to look, Mrs Bate would have had!)
The period term "elastic plug
keys" would only make sense if we used the term "elastic plugs" for the
pads. There could be an argument for calling them "spherical pad
keys", or "hemisphere keys", to fit in with spherical pads?
I'd be happy with "hemisphere
keys" and "spherical pads". But, more importantly, would you?
It's not over yet, folks!
Did I mention above that this
might have to be an ongoing investigation, because these pads were
probably made by a lot of people over a few decades? Even as I
write these terminal words, the prophecy seems to have come true.
Californian repairer Jon Cornia sliced up some pads from a newly arrived
Nicholson's Improved and reports that, similar to our findings, the pads
are sewn, with a running stitch around the edge of the leather, and
pulled tight, but with a gap remaining, as we have found. His pads do not seem to
have had the sealing wax treatment however. Perhaps that was a
regional specialty, or perhaps mine were replacement pads, that could
expect many years rolling around free before being secured in a key.
And Weekes being in Plymouth, those years might even have involved a
life on the rolling wave!
What remains to be done?
It would be good if we could
recover (or if necessary, reinvent) the formula for sizing these balls,
to make making replacement ones a bit easier. I imagine that we
should be able to relate cup diameter with the size of the disc of
leather needed, plus establish how far in from the edge the stitches
run, and the distance between stitches. We'll probably need to
take measurements from a wide range of cup sizes to establish the system
Hopefully others will now
carefully dissect their old pads, and advise us what they find. It
would be good to know:
the maker of the
the flute's age or
age range (if known)
sewn in the same
manner as above?
the shape of the
cup (if not hemispherical)
the shape of the
seat (hemisphere, flat-bottomed, volcano, other?)
the size of the cup
the size of the
hole at the bottom of the seat
any sign of goup
filling the hole at the back of the pad?
how big a hole is
left at the back of the pad?
the diameter of the
disc of leather used to make it
how far in from the
edge the running stitch runs
how long are the
stitches (and are they the same inside and out?)
We may strike a shrinkage or
compression issue in regard to the size of the leather disc, and may
need to carry out some experiments to confirm how much leather is needed
for a certain sized cup. But let's exhaust the forensic
Well, that turned out to have
a few surprises, didn't it. They were clearly called elastic balls
or plugs, not purse pads as we have confidently called them since the
1960's. And the keys were called elastic plug keys, not saltspoons.
The pads were constructed more like Suffolk Puffs than purses, and some
(at least) incorporated sealing wax as part of the process.
And we saw that not all "saltspoon"
key flutes actually were intended to use elastic ball pads - you have to
take into account the cup, the seat and the hole to make a formal
And we now have the right and
responsibility to decide what to call them in future. I look
forward to some spirited discussions!