Friederich Menzenhauer

This man was the father of the guitar-zither in the United States. He was granted the first patent, whose date is shown on instruments made by various manufacturers. It was that patent which got me started researching him, and though I haven't found as much information as I'd like, it's been an interesting search.

Friederich (Frederick) Menzenhauer was born in Magdeburg Germany on January 3, 1858. He traveled to the US on the ship Hohenstauffern from Bremen, arriving in New York on May 8, 1882. By 1887 he was living in Jersey City, NJ, and was known as a maker of musical instruments. His first patent, in fact, was issued this year, and was for a "Tremolo Attachment for Cornets." This was a rather startling wind-up device which oscillated a valve in the tube of the horn. His next patent was issued soon after; it has a similar title, but was a bit more like a "whammy bar" in execution.

In 1892 he married Wilhelmina Geibel, who was born in New York in 1860.

Then came the period of zither development. The widely-cited first guitar-zither patent was issued on May 29, 1894. In September, 1895, he received a patent for a "Metallophone Zither", which had chord groups for accompaniment, but played the melody on xylophone bars! At the end of 1896, the Menzenhauer Guitar Zither Co. leased a two-story tin-roofed building in Jersey City. In January 1897, he received a patent for a "Harp Cithern," an odd combination of harp and guitar-zither.

Their only child, Theodore, was born in June, 1897.

In October of 1897, he and Oscar Schmidt were doing business as the U.S. Guitar-Zither Co., which may have been a distributing arm of their organization.

By 1898, he was also doing business as the Menzenhauer Guitar-Zither Co., and the operation was located on Ferry Street in Jersey City, the site of Oscar Schmidt International until 1972. Much of this factory building was in place in 1895, but it is unclear exactly when Menzenhauer obtained this property. Early on, the location was known as 34-41 Ferry Street, the numbers of the lots on the survey of land by the Holland Co. By 1902 the location had received the street addresses 87-101, which the townhouses on those lots still hold today.

In September 1899, he received the first two patents describing what became known as the mandolin-guitar-zither. The next patent, dated June 1900, for an attachment to this instrument, was assigned to Menzenhauer & Schmidt, which was the name of the business around 1900-1901.

At this point, there appears to have been some problem between the partners. On May 7, 1900, Menzenhauer transferred the Ferry Street property to Oscar Schmidt for $1. And then he disappeared from the Jersey City directory until 1904.

In 1904, he had moved into the house at 22 Sherman Place, where he spent the rest of his life. He was still tinkering with musical instruments, and he started receiving patents again. In 1910, the patent was for a modification of the Mandolin-guitar-zither which used a small key mechanism. In 1911 he patented a playing action which used keys similar in appearance to piano keys. In 1914 he received a patent for a melody-playing action that was eerily reminiscent of the Celestaphone, but with the hammers reversed. His final patent was issued in 1917, for a chord-playing mechanism that allowed separation between the bass string and the remaining three strings of the chord.

Menzenhauer was apparently more of an engineer than a businessman. His penchant for tinkering continued. In 1918 he was involved with the ice company, and he developed a scheme to remove impurities from the center of ice blocks.

Frederick Menzenhauer passed away on March 1, 1937, leaving a widow, son, and grandson.

I was fortunate enough to visit with his grandson, who is also named Frederick, and Frederick's son Bob, in October 1997. Frederick remembers Frederick well, although from a time after the involvement with zithers. He recalls visiting the house on Sherman Place. He even remembers the family toting around a piano-zither and lots of parts, until finally Theodore got tired of it all and burned the lot. Although he knew of the zithers, he didn't have any and had never heard one played. I was delighted to have the opportunity to give him one from my collection, with the name Menzenhauer on it, and play it for him before I left.

It's really been a pleasure for me to gather together information on the unknown man who had such influence on the guitar-zither in the United States.

And one more teaser - in with a German guitar-zither that was graciously given to me by Roy Zimmerman of Strasburg, PA, I found some sheet music for the instrument, dated 1927, from a company named Menzenhauer! That was well after Frederick of Jersey City was settled here and finished making instruments. There must be some family connectionů

 Here's a gallery of some Menzenhauer and early Menzenhauer-Schmidt instruments.


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This page banged out with Word 97, 14 Oct 98.