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.

Jun 19, 2012

Piet Visser Nose Flute Collection - Part I is very glad to welcome an article written by Maikel Mei. Mr. Mei just visited the largest private whistle collection of the world, created, owned and maintained by Mr. Piet Visser, near Utrecht, Netherlands. [not to be confused with Mr. Bernard Visser, flute collector].

Maikel Mei wrote a long paper that will be presented in several parts in this blog. As an "editor", I have just added some footnotes for complements of info. I'll publish separately presentations of the nose flutes themselves. Photos by Maikel Mei.

Piet Visser Nose Flute Collection - Part I

The Whistle Collection

Piet Visser is the proud owner of over 3,200 different whistles, which he shares on the internet on his blog. Not only does his very extensive blog cover his life and career as a goldsmith, but it also offers many links to many great whistle collections all over the world! The reason to pay Mr Visser a visit was his batch of highly interesting nose flutes. Mr Visser started off collecting whistles some 30 years ago, as it gave him total freedom to collect an item that nobody really collected at the time. The difference between whistles and flutes is the number of notes that can be produced: a flute is a musical instrument, designed to play melodies, whilst a whistle usually produces a single tone, or a couple of notes at most. These whistles are ordinarily used as a means of signalling. The interesting thing is that the nose flute is a bit of a mix of the two: people generally regard it as a whistle, whilst it actually is a musical instrument. The difference between an ordinary flute and the nose flute is that the nose flute doesn't have any fingerholes and therefore completely depends on mouth-controlled pitch as well as 'perfect pitch'. The nose flute is a 'natural instrument', requiring intonation by applying a combination of blowing, whistling and voiceless singing.

Piet Visser amongst his very first, prized tin whistles

The very amiable Mr Visser is always very keen to show his collection to whoever is interested. He owns many interesting whistles, from ancient times through to modern times. His latest addition is the orange sportscap, made for European Football Cup supporters to the Dutch team. The shade actually contains a whistle: an interesting, far less penetrating `and functional take on the last World Cup's 'vuzuela'! Piet Visser showed me many of his prized possessions, of which some I will only mention the fact that they belong to the category of 'erotic whistles'... Mr Visser's most prized possession however is the 18th century porcelain Japanese whistle in the shape of a figure. He also owns an amazing ancient Maya clay whistle in the shape of a turkey, as well as a Chinese porcelain whistle in the shape of a shoe that dates back to 600 AD, making it the oldest whistle in his collection! These three priceless whistles are about the same size and, as tiny as they are, show remarkable detail, feel and craftmanship. Other prized possessions in the huge collection are the gigantic 'urn whistle', that actually could hold the ashes of the deceased, and the 'water whistle' in the shape of a vase, producing the most beautiful 'moving' tones imaginable. 

Piet Visser showing his rare urn whistle,
with the blow hole right at the top,
as in a chimney top.
Quite possibly the wind would make it sound, making this whistle an aerophone!
Piet Visser, together with his nose flute section, toasting a fine glass of ruby port to the nose flute blog!

Piet Visser's oldest and rarest whistles in his collection of 3,200 whistles : An ancient Mayan 'turkey' whistle in clay, the oldest in Piet Visser's collection and his favourite : the 7th century Chinese shoe whistle in porcelain and the Japanese 18th century figurine whistle in porcelain.

Piet Visser's latest additions: the Dutch team orange sportscap, with its whistle-peak, and the orange "Geluksvogel"

The Nose Flute Collection

Mr Visser states that the nose flute is one of his all-time favourites flutes `or whistles. On his blog he refers to this instrument probably being the oldest flute in the world, having been dated back to neolithic times, or the Stone Age as it is most commonly known. Some 6,000 years ago people already used the nose flute at key moments in their lives, at celebrations of life and death! The significance of the noseflute is explained by the meaning that was given to breath coming from the nose. Nasal breath represented a 'higher' kind of breath, belonging to and coming from the soul. For this reason nose flutes were put inside children's graves, for instance. Nose flutes are actually still being played at funerals in parts of Asia. This type of nose flute is the finger-played flute with key holes, originating from Asia and Oceania, though.

Piet Visser's nose flute collection

The type of nose flute Piet Visser owns several versions of, is quite another: it is the one that the blog is dedicated to, the instrument that uses breath coming both from the nose and the mouth simultaneously. It actually is this very unique combination of breathing and playing, combined with the free pitch and the very compact shape of the instrument that Mr Visser rightly likes so much about the nose flute. This 'compact' nose flute is said to have come from the South American Amazon region. It is the perfect 'bird call' for hunter-gatherers to take it everywhere they go, as it hangs around the neck on a string. In the Amazon rainforest the instrument would be used to lure and attract birds high up in the trees. Once they showed themselves, these birds were consequently shot by bow and arrow. The Indian tribes would not only feed on the bird meat but also adorn themselves with the colourful feathers. These jungle birds are still regarded as messengers to the gods and even spirits themselves. Using the feathers and the meat these birds have to offer --quite naturally-- represent a means of getting in touch with the spirit world. Both nose flutes therefore undoubtedly have a spiritual connection of old.

Metal nose flutes

Mr Visser owns a small, yet very interesting batch of 20th century nose flutes, which he either purchased at toy shops or at fairs where he himself exhibited his collection of whistles. His oldest modern nose flute is a metal German nose flute from 1925, painted dark brown. It already has the shape of the later plastic models that were made in Germany, with round edges and a pronounced air duct cover. Could this have been the very first European nose flute model? [check note 1] A few sources say that the American troops fighting in the Great War brought tin Humanatones with them, as each soldier supposedly was supplied with a 'gift kit' by the US army, containing a helmet --which is always handy--, a pornographic magazine, a re-usable condom --in this order!--, a packet of kinine tablets --against disease-- and a nose flute. There wasn't any cutlery provided to the troops, as this tin Humanatone would also serve as a a knife and a spoon! This might account for the old Humanatones being so rusty... The helmet would then also serve as a bowl,actually keeping the boys' heads rosy and warm after dinner... No matter how much this fantastic story would contribute to the history of the instrument, it really is far more likely that the American soldiers during WWII were given Humanatones, only after they had sent letters home in order to get some small, easy to carry and easy to play instruments sent to them. For more on this, please check this post. Couldn't it be that some traveller at some point brought an American nose flute along, after which it was recreated in another style? After all, we do see so many individuals take on nose flute design on this very blog! For instance, just have a look at the great nose flute movement in Japan, where each individual enthusiast has been able to create a totally unique nose flute design...!

A German and two US tin nose flutes from the 1925-30s period.
(These instruments will be detailed and studied in further posts)

The second oldest modern nose flute that Piet Visser owns, is a tin plate metal American nose flute from 1930. It is a bit of a mix between the 'European' style rounded type of nose flute, and the straight forward flatter 'American' type of nose flute. The most striking feature of this flute is the sharply curved edges on the side of the nose rest, that require a slender nose as well as gentle positioning...! Mr Visser repainted the flute in the original red colour, as the whole batch of ten that he bought was in a sorry, rusty state. These two flutes are both pre-war, before World War II, at a time when plastics still had to be invented [check note 2]. The kind of plastics that the nose flute as we know it is made of, non-brittle styrene, first appeared in around 1950. Therefore, the oldest plastic nose flute can be easily dated post 1950 [check note 3]. The main Olympic arena for the London Olympics of this year was actually built on the very site where the first non-brittle styrene plastic factory stood for some 60 years! 

                                                       Read Part II >


Footnotes by Mr. UkeHeidi, editor and contradictor :)

[1] - No, 1925 is already late, even for Europe. Whilst the French Ocariflute and the British Humanophone may have been contemporary (1925s), the Belgian Vociphone dates from 1912, and the French Cello-phone probably dates from the early 1910s.

[2] - Well, for sure plastic was already invented (1800s), and even the Polystyren (1839, by Eduard Simon, Germany) which was used to cast the plastic Humanatone by Gretsch in the 40s. But it was not totally ready to be used in industry much sooner than that. We needed to wait for WWII — and the metal requisition for weapon production – to see the plastics invade our world, from the kitchens to the garages.

[3] - Again, we do not agree : the polystyrene was industrialized in the early 1930 by I.G. Farben. Precisely from January 1947, twenty thousands of polystyrene ukuleles were produced by Mattel Inc. (the "Uke-a-Doodle") and sold to American children. I can date the first plastic Humanatone from a date between January 1940 and Autumn 1943 (check this post). But plastic nose flutes were existing from much earlier! A version of Humanaphones was made in plastic celluloid and appeared before 1930 :


Related links :

- The Piet Visser Collection - Part I
- The Piet Visser Collection - Part II
- The Piet Visser Collection - Part III

- Piet Visser's blog
- Marja Visser's quilt making



  1. I Nominate the Piet Visser Collection Part's 1, 2 and 3 for the PULITZER PRIZE of EXCELLENCE in Journalism. It is Well Written and Expertly Edited. The Photos are Outstanding. Piet's Collection is HISTORIC and telling us about his Story is a GIFT to the Nose Flute Community. THANK YOU!!!

  2. I totally agree, Maikel Mei has made a wonderful work, written this very clever article and made those beautiful pictures. It's very fine and generous from him. He deserve all our gratitude.


  3. Great to hear that it is of interest to you, Brian. My thanks go to the collector, as well as the nose flute heads out there. Many thanks to the editor and 'nose flute governor' for correcting what I believed to be facts for quite some time: sharing is the way to learn. This blog does just that!

  4. Thanks to you, Maikel! My footnotes weren't a provacation, just some complement to open a debate!