Sales of flutes in the 19th Century



It would be wonderfully interesting if we had sales figures for all the different types and makes of flutes from the heyday of the flute in the 19th century.  Unfortunately we don't - only some makers records have survived, usually incompletely, and many makers didn't even use serial numbers, so we can never know how many they made.

We do have some data though, and it's the purpose of this page to present what we have, and provide a place where we can plug in any new data.  All help is encouraged and will be acknowledged.

The Data Sources

Our data comes in various ways from various sources.  Most data is limited in scope and reliability.  We'll attempt to cover these points below:

Nicholson's Improved

Where better to start than with the flute that started it all - C. Nicholson's Improved.  But immediately we are in trouble with lack of information.  We do know that Prowse made these flutes for sale by Clementi, and that Clementi retired in 1831.  So it seems reasonable to assume that flutes marked Clementi were made before that, and flutes marked T. Prowse afterwards.  The serial numbers start low and appear well distributed, and the rate of manufacture and sale plausible.  

Rudall's Simple System

This curve derives from this author's Rudall Rose or Carte Models Study.  I'll use the expression "Rudalls" to include all the variants of the company from its inception as Rudall & Rose to its final state as Rudall Carte & Co.

The data is based on serial numbers tracked against the many changes of address and name of the company, plus dates on two late conical flutes kindly supplied by London based researcher Robert Bigio.  We can regard the combined data as broadly reliable.

But before we accept that pretty curve there is an interesting issue to be addressed - where are the first 400 or so flutes?  So far, no-one seems to have come up with a Rudall & Rose with a serial number below 437.  Big deal you say - that was a long time ago and you have to expect a lot of flutes to have gone missing.  But when we examine the distribution curve of extant flutes, we find we have an extraordinary coverage of the rest of the period, but draw a complete blank before #437.

To illustrate that dramatically, I've drawn, with his kind permission, on David Migoya's Rudall & Rose Catalogue.  Interestingly it doesn't change the facts considerably (one more flute at each end than my own data), but the larger number of data points between the extremes does make the point more compelling.  

The green dots are the serial numbers of the 190 flutes in David's catalogue at the time of writing - you can see that they form a pretty straight line, attesting to the relative fullness of the data.  The minimum gap is 1 (ie there is no gap), the maximum 276, and the average 36.7.  The 12 orange dots at the start of the curve illustrate flutes that we should have found by now, going on this average find rate.  Instead, nothing!

So what are the options?  Perhaps Rudall & Rose:

  • started at serial number 400?

  • included the flutes Rudall had made with Willis?

  • included the flutes Rose had made in Edinburgh?

  • did both of these things?

  • didn't serial stamp the first 400 or so?

  • didn't label or fully label the first 400 or so?

  • your suggestion - please submit!

I'm a bit disinclined to the "start at 400" suggestion, if only because the curve below makes considerably more sense if we assume the 400 existed than if we remove them.  But if there are 400 unmarked or partially marked Rudalls out there, we may want to look more closely at the next nice but unmarked English flute we see!  

Indeed, it might behove us to reconsider some of the flutes marked Rudall & Rose but that carry no address or serial number.  While some of these are patently frauds and betray this with sub-standard workmanship and carefully misspelled names (see An Imposition against the Public), perhaps some are from the "Missing 400".

The Rudall 8-key curve appears on the Estimated Sales chart in navy.

Rudall's Later Systems

The dashed brown Rudall curve shows what happens if we look at the total output of the Rudall companies - i.e. we add the output of modern system flutes to the output of conical flutes we've already looked at.  As usual we have some good data and some areas of speculation.  

Until better data comes along, we are assuming that Rudall & Rose started making Boehm conicals in 1843 and had perhaps made about 250 by the middle of the century when they took up the manufacture of Boehm and other modern-style flutes.

For a figure later in the century, we asked Robert Bigio.  He advises:

Please understand that these are approximate figures. The full picture is complicated, but this is the position in 1895:

  • Modern flutes (Boehm, 1851, 1867, Radcliff, "Old System" and a few specials): 4000. 
    [This is complicated by the fact that silver and gold flutes had been in a different sequence with letters instead of numbers, but the sequences were merged in the 1880s.]

  • Concert flutes (simple-system): 7152 [in 1869: 6485]

  • Piccolos (modern): 2350

This does not include band flutes and piccolos in Eb, Bb and F or simple-system piccolos in D. The numbering for these is complicated, but you may take it that there were many thousands. In addition to flutes, they made clarinets and oboes plus a full range of brass instruments.  For about twenty years they sold pianos, too, and then there was the publishing business. This was a big outfit.

Robert will no doubt be able to give a fuller account in his forthcoming book, but these figures will suffice to give us the broad picture.

Clinton & Co

We don't have much to go on here and the information we have is confusing.  The company worked only from one address and at this point we have no other data than the company's start and end dates, and the highest serial number reported so far.  This results in a simple straight line that is not the least likely.  It is more probable that sales would take a little while to get going and would taper off towards the end, in the manner of the Rudall simple-system flutes curve.

Secondly, the figures seem high given the time the company had and the number of extant flutes found so far.  Note though that the post-4513 Boosey curve rises approximately as steeply, so the rate of manufacture is not completely out of the question.  It equates to making about 7 flutes per working week.  

But a close look at the distribution curve for extant Clinton flutes, we find an fascinating if not immediately understandable pattern:

For a list of Clintons known extent flutes, and to see how we derive and interpret the data ...

Extrapolating from the number of extent Clinton flutes found so far, we come up with a significantly smaller figure which may prove to be too conservative at just over 1 flute per week.  Both curves are given in the graph below.  The real picture probably lies between them.

Siccama flutes

The same lack of information applies to Siccama, but at least in context sales of his flutes seem modest and therefore eminently plausible at about 1.5 flutes per week.  Perhaps what's different about Siccama is that he appears, at least at the moment, to have offered only one kind of flute, his 10-key Diatonic, while other makers offered at least several and some a bewildering range.

For a list of Siccama's known extent flutes...


John Hudson worked for Siccama then left in 1853 to form his own business.  He started making RS Pratten's Perfected flutes; the highest serial number so far recorded for a Hudson's Prattens being 641, which might suggest a productivity of about 3 flutes per week taken over the period.  In 1856 or 57, he and the Pratten's design were bought out by Boosey & Co.  

Boosey & Co flutes

The data which allows us to estimate Boosey's rate of manufacture comes from Appendix E : Extant Boosey & Co Woodwinds, to Kelly White's Mmus thesis: Woodwind Instruments of Boosey & Company, University of Edinburgh, 2002.  The data is taken from the Boosey factory records from 1857 (flute no 4513) onwards and includes all manner of flutes - Pratten's Perfected's, Boehm, military flutes and fifes, etc.  

The company is said to have started making woodwinds in 1851 and to have started making flutes in 1856.  That would seem like a lot of flutes (about 4500) to make in one year.  It seems more likely that either:

  • they started making flutes in 1851 when they are said to have started making woodwinds, or 

  • they were having flutes made externally but giving them their own serial numbers, or not giving them serial numbers but keeping count

  • they started at a serial number around 4500 either to look better in the market place or for some other reason we can't yet determine.

  • they started at serial number around 4500 because they were using the same serial number series for all their instruments, and they had made about 4500 other instruments in the 5 years before they started making flutes.

We may be able to reach some conclusion about this by examining extent Boosey flutes with serial numbers that predate the current stock books.  At this time however, I am unaware of any extent flutes marked Boosey & Co with serial numbers below 4500.  Until this can be clarified, I'm inclined to the "start in 1857 after making 4500 other instruments" theory.  

Even if we assume the 1851 date, it sets a cracking pace for a company that is just starting - indeed it is a higher rate of productivity than they achieved for the rest of their history.  The 1856 start date seems totally incredible - it would mean knocking out 17 flutes per working day (around 85 per week) in their first year!  Looking at the next 4500 flutes, a productivity of around 7 per week looks more likely.

Now the next thing to say about Boosey's is that their flute output was in general about 75% military band flutes and fifes, and about 25% for civilian use.  Given that the figures for the other makers are predominately for concert flutes, it would be useful to be able to compare like with like.  The light blue dotted curve shows Boosey total output, while the dark blue curve subtracts the questionable 4513 and shows only the proportion aimed at non-military use.  This reinterpretation helps explain why so few Pratten's style instruments show up compared to the surprising numbers of Rudall flutes still in existence.


The chart below puts all this information into context:

So what does it all tell us?  Perhaps:

  • how little we yet know!

  • of the impact of Nicholson in his lifetime (the fast rise of the orange curve and its subsequent flattening out)

  • how the bat then passed to Rudall & Rose, perhaps because that company was more capable of changing with the times

  • how relatively insignificant were the sales of Boehm's 1832 instrument in England

  • that Rudalls made the right decision in shifting their attention to modern flutes in mid century (their old-style flutes selling fairly slowly by then)

  • that Siccama, Hudson and Clinton were "boutique makers" relative to the big guys, but achieved sales rates better than the leading "Improved" age 8-key flutemakers were doing in the post-cylinder period.  Players were looking for better flutes.

  • that we have work to do yet to understand Clinton's numbering system

  • The relative rarity of extant Boosey instruments is perhaps explained by the seemingly non-existant first 4500, and the heavy concentration on military instruments.

  • Booseys remain quite an enigma - where are flutes 1 to 4500?

  • Ditto, Rudall's 1 to 400?


This I believe is the first time that an exercise of this kind has been attempted and, for all the reasons outlined above, it has to be regarded as interim.  It certainly sets us some tasks to refine and interpret the data further.  If you have data that appears to contradict any of the above, let's have it and plug it in!

Back to McGee-Flutes Home Page

   Created: Dec 2003