This blog is dedicated to the sublime instruments called nose flutes and which produce the most divine sound ever. We have chosen to discard all the native models from S. Pacific and Asia, for they need fingering to be played. We'll concentrate on "buccal cavity driven" nose flutes : the well patented and trademarked metal or plastic ones, plus, by a condemnable indulgence, some wooden craft or home-made productions.

Oct 20, 2012

Nose Flute Pioneers: The Stivers - Part V

With the "Nose Flute Pioneers" series, enters a little cycle of research. I hope it won't be too arid for a blog, but I really think that the facts I found have to be published. The sources : Google patents, US Census and an access to newspaper archives. But also, depending on the topic, correspondence by e-mail with descendants. Let's better say : internet searching tools available for a Frenchie not able to access US real paper archives.


Nose Flute Pioneers: The Stivers - Part V

The Stivers: Glorious Posterity

[sequel of Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV]

In January 1923, James J. is coming back from Cuba, aboard the SS Cartago. No reason for the visit was noted on the passengers list. Was he in the Havana to watch his brother racing? If so, the winter season would give a preference for horse racing, according to the Oriental Park racetrack usage. Or was he in Cuba to spread the Humanatone fame? I don't know.

In 1925, at the age of 44 and still bachelor, James J. finally left his parents' home, and resides at 441 W56th. His father George W. (and Frances) move to Broadway Central Hotel. And the shop is installed on Broadway, #407. It's a quite elegant store, in a strategic place.

Yes, 1925 was an important years for the Stivers, but also for another reason. Indeed, in July, George Washington Stivers, the founder of G.W. Stivers & Co, passed away at the age of 71.

Is Frances, George W. I's wife still alive? I don't know. What did her children Ellen (51 in 1925), Frances II (45), May (39), Kathryn (25) become? I don't know. Nor for May, George II's daughter (?) (she's 28).

George Walter is still in jail, either Sing Sing or already in Dannemora.

After their father's death, the two brothers continued to develop the Humanatone Market. The trade-Mark "Humanatone", [No 208,915], filed May 13, is renewed Feb. 9, 1926, with a new and condensed typo. No more lion.

It is probably from that year that the "new" box was issued, using the new typo and with its user manual:

It seems that James Stivers decided then to launch a serious attack on the West Coast. Indeed, in 1930, George W. II is still in New York, having in charge the Broadway store (he bought a house to 8558 Fleet St.)...

... but James J. has moved to California. He lives in Los Angeles (521 San Julian st.) and is "proprietor" of a "Novelty store". Where was it located?

James J.'s home, in San Julian st.:

What happened then? We know that the Humanatone nose flute fame went growing and growing, despite its competitors threat. Was the Magic Nose Flute appearing in any novelties and toys catalog a re-branded Humanatone? I'm incline to think so, the "Humanatone" brand reserved to music instruments lists, and the Magic Nose Flute in toys ones. I already discussed that matter, with pieces of evidence, in this post.

Popular Mechanics, Nov. 1928. During this Humanatone "golden age", if a competitor had used the name "Humanatone" in a novelty catalog, there would have been, at least, a complaint. But this ad was identically republished in the Oct. 1929 and Nov. 1930 issues (many other evidences here)

The well-known plastic Humanatone was launched by Gretsch in 1942-43, and the brand Humanatone was certainly bought from the Stivers in 1942 (however, the renewal of the brand by Gretsch happened only on the legal renewal date (after 20 years), on Feb. 9, 1946).

What happened exactly?

« After his father retired in 1942, Fred Jr. managed the company briefly then left the company to serve with distinction as a commander in the Navy during World War II. He returned to the family business after the war and became president in 1948 when his brother Bill died at the age of 41. » [source]

So, it is very likely that Fred Jr., very cleverly:
- Bought the June 1941 Ernest W. Davis nose flute patent
- Associated it with the most famous brand, Humanatone, bought from the Stivers.

But that's another story...

Fred Gretsch Jr.:

After the Stivers sold the brand to the Fred Gretsch mfg Co., it seems they continued to produce their metallic nose flutes. Indeed, the Magic Nose Flute was still available in the novelties catalogs, and this, at least until 1950.

Here, in the Johnson Smith catalog, 1950:

In 1950, George W. II was 74, James J., 69, and it is probable they retired soon. The brand Humanatone began to live a new life of fame, and the last metallic flutes disappeared. The Davis' plastic Gretsch and, in 1955 the Weidlich & Lohse Swan, replaced them.


Here the genealogy of the Stivers family as I was able to trace it, showing the "George(s) W. Stivers" strain"


On the same topic :

- Nose Flute Pioneers: William G. Carter - Part I
- Nose Flute Pioneers: William G. Carter - Part II
- Nose Flute Pioneers: William G. Carter - Part III
- Nose Flute Pioneers: Ernest W. Davis - Part I
- Nose Flute Pioneers: Ernest W. Davis - Part II
- Nose Flute Pioneers: Nelson Ronsheim
- Nose Flute Pioneers: Garrett J. Couchois
- Nose Flute Pioneers: The Stivers - Part I
- Nose Flute Pioneers: The Stivers - Part II
- Nose Flute Pioneers: The Stivers - Part III
- Nose Flute Pioneers: The Stivers - Part IV
- Nose Flute Pioneers: The Stivers - Part V


About metal Humanatones, check :

- Humanatone - part I : the metallic era
- New Humanatone ads
- The Two metal Humanatones
- Another metal Humanatone
- Humanatone boxes
- Another Humanatone box
- Humanatone: A very early user manual
- The Magic (Nose) Flute: only questions... .
- A Humanatone and clones chronology
- A Humanatone in 1892 ?
- Humanatone: Early promotional demos
- Another Humanatone archive
- Huma... something
- Rectification: Humanatone appearance date
- Great paper from 1903
- Nose Flute Pioneers: The Stivers - Part I
- Nose Flute Pioneers: The Stivers - Part II
- Nose Flute Pioneers: The Stivers - Part III
- Nose Flute Pioneers: The Stivers - Part IV
- Nose Flute Pioneers: The Stivers - Part V
- A Humanatone as a scientific tool
- Two other Humanatone Ads

And on later Humanatones :

- Humanatone - Part II : the Gretsch plastic era
- Humanatone - Part III : the Gretsch metal era



  1. I think you are spot on about the Humanatone-Magic Nose Flute-Gretsch.

  2. Thank you Maikel. Yep, I think the facts and dates are clear and right on that point.

  3. Merci, Sherlock! I find it very interesting how some businessmen by their decisions gave the directions for the development and the spreading of the noseflute and that it ended off being a stupid and cheap little toy (especially the plastic humanatone). Who knows how many interesting, maybe much better instruments and patents there were that are lost forever because nobody was interested and the market was hard to compete. So thank you,, for this interesting research!

  4. Thank you dear Diva! Well, a nose flute is only stupid when a stupid guy stupidly plays stupidities with it. And this happens when the nose is disregarded. The Japanese people are very clever to celebrate this body organ each year!

  5. Congratulations on the 50,000+ views and the latest sequel in the superb 'Pioneers' series!

    I find it very interesting that the Gretsch company ended up monopolizing the nose flute, because Gretsch is such a strong brand in the music business, having produced highly sought-after guitars. If only they had produced a semi-acoustic White Falcon Humanatone...

    Gretsch probably left the nose flute for what it was after the electric guitar became really popular in the 1950s. They have become famous for their guitars in the first place! Correct me if I'm wrong, but I feel that from that period onwards the nose flute loses momentum and even no longer is regarded as an instrument. I wouldn't know how people regarded plastic at the time: it certainly was quite a modern material, but I can imagine that people expected instruments to be made of 'proper' materials such as wood or brass..

    I remember that John Coltrane once was paid money to play and promote a plastic saxophone, yet that it somehow didn't catch on. It probably wasn't good enough to the players... and therefore didn't make it. The aluminium-turned-plastic Gretsch design also stopped evolving from then onwards.

    I guess the Simmy and the W&L stepped in with their individual designs right then, trying to take over the market. I doubt that they paid a licence fee to Gretsch? Both the Simmy and the W&L were produced in Europe: the European market may have been still open to novelty products at the time. Europe was playing catch up with the USA anyway, copying what had originated there. I think the success of the W&L in the 1960s could be explained that way.


  6. Hahaha! a White Falcon Haumanatone! :) with a bigsby vibrato!

    I'm not sure about the plastic in general: as you may know, I used to work on Plastic Ukuleles history, which were launched as a toy in 1947, and as an instrument in 1950. And they made a big "boom"! 20 millions of them were sold in 20 years.

    Regarding the nose flute, I think it became to be looked at as a toy when it entered the novelties catalogs (Johnson Smith for instance: 1928 or earlier), non-music-related magazines (Popular Science in 1928 or before) or the last pages of comics.

    At the same time it still had a great success as an instrument (Ray C. Clarke and the American Humanatone Company, ...)

    So I think the nose flute became to be looked as a toy, already when it still was metallic, but parallely as an instrument (and I think it's the reason for the 2 brands : Humanatone and Magic Nose Flute).
    In fact, I think it became a toy WHEN the manufacturers (in that case, the Stivers) DECIDED to intriduce it as a toy, in order to open a new market.

    Then, indoubtedly, with the war monopolizing the metals and the so modern polystyren invading the world, Gretsch had the terrible idea to produce a nose flute in plastic, while keeping the famous brand Humanatone. The first Humanatones were made in a far better plastic that the one we can find now. But they were plastic: breakable. After the war, they were only "toys", except for rare jazz/blues musicians (late jug bands, etc.

    What I mean is that, the nose flute was regarded, roughly :

    - 1900-1930 : as an instrument
    - 1930-1945 : both as a toy and as an instrument
    - 1945-1970 : as a toy
    - 1970-now : mostly as a toys, but used as instrument by a few.

    Regarding Simmy and W&L: they had not to pay a patent to Gretsch because the Davis' patent was applied only for America. More, the W&L is certainly a "descendant" of what I think was the only metal nose flute, the Wunderflöte, a copy of the Humanatone. The Wunderflöte, if it was patented, dates of 1913-1914, so, in 1954, its patent protection was dead for long! The Simmy: I have no clue if it was german, dutch, mexican or papuan... I neither don't know when it dates of. Probably the early 50s, but with no evidences... yes, the W&L look like a "modernisation" of the Simmy, but in fact, the W&L looks exactly like a Wunderflöte (or a Humanatone if you prefer). But I agree that some plastic details of the Swan are very near some Simmy's one. Lohse probably had a Simmy in his hands (that doesn't mean Simmy was german, nor that Simmy was made by Lohse too).

    I don't think we can describe the 1955 Swan launching as a success. Else, why would have W&L closed the door few years after (I have the evidences, now, that they closed in 1959).

    No, the Swan "success" is modern. It comes from huge distributors like Gewa or Stölzel. In the 1980s ? (and betwen Göttingen and China, there was another maker. Who and where was he?)

  7. I want to know all about the closure of the W&L factory in 1959! All I know is that it was hugely popular for a short while in the late 1970s and early 1980s. People from an earlier generation tell me that the plastic 'Swan' was quite the thing when they were young, in the 1960s most notably... Who on earth had taken over production between 1959 and the 1980s-1990s?!

    I couldn't agree more on your reasoning: it absolutely makes sense that the nose flute was 'made' into a toy, in order to try and open up a new market by the patent holders! Particularly plastics would be and still are used to produce toys... I do believe that the material matters in this case: an actual and 'official' instrument is made from 'real' materials such as wood or metal. Most preferably it should be made of a 'noble' type of material, such as exotic wood, silver or even gold....

    I see how the shortage of metal in WWII must have contributed to the image of the nose flute. Would it have made a difference, if the producers had launched the plastic version under a different name? I somehow feel that Gretsch was pre-occupied with producing guitars, especially with the rock 'n roll-country era in full swing! They couldn't have ruined the nose flute as an instrument any better...!

    I am also very interested in the Wunderflote! By the way, the W&L nose flute is really similar to the Magic Nose Flute from the ad in this article, including the upper lip rest! Can you confirm that this is the first appearance of the lip rest?

  8. I wonder what made Gretsch decide to come up with the flat design of the tin and plastic Humanatone in the 1950s. Was it simply because it took less material and could be produced in one piece?

  9. Well yes, I think that an easy and very low cost production, plus a patent dedicated to a nose flute made in plastic was the key. Plastic is the answer (remember that the metallic flutes had to be riveted and soldered).

  10. Maikel, you'll know soon about the W&L. I just need to complete the research with the new info I got.

    regarding the Magic Nose Flute and the lip rest, as far as I know, the Magic Flute, visible in the 1903 Howe catalog is the first to show a rest. However, it's the first representation of a nose flute I know. As discussed earlier, I don't know if the Magic Flute was the ancestor of the Stivers Humanatone or not, but it is reasonable to think so. The Magic Nose Flute arrives much later.

  11. 'Funny' to see how the image of the nose flute has changed, most notably through the Gretsch cheap plastic design. People think this is the original one, whilst it probably is the only design of its kind and actually an inferior spin-off. I am so intrigued by the old, proper designs, reflected in the later plastic Simmy, W&L and Froby!

    Again, we see so many similar names, making it ever so hard to make a distinction between the various types!