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.

Nov 9, 2017

Much more about William Carter - Part III

In 2012, we published all what was available to us about the nose flute inventor William Carter's life from his arrival in Lockport (NY) at the age of 5, to his death in Rochester (NY) in 1919 (here, there and there). We also made a replica of his « Nasalette » (see here, there and there).

We have nothing to retract from those pages, except one mistake: Carter's settling year in Albion (NY). Deceived by a homonym in a census sheet, we stated that William Carter made a step in Lewinston (NY) and settled in Albion around 1880. Wrong! We have discovered that Carter went to Albion as soon as 1871 or 1872. But we also have discovered much, much, much more about him.

Indeed, on one hand we found a new source of newspapers – the impressive Jim Fulton's archives – and notably the copies of
The Orleans Republican, daily newspaper published in Albion, in which many details were found. On the other one, we had the great luck to received the generous and enthousiastic help of Mr. Matthew Ballard, Historian of the Orleans County Department of History. All our warmest gratitude and kind regards go to him.


Much more about William Carter

Part III: William Carter, inventor

As we saw it earlier, whether the 1870's were the years for William Carter to settle in Albion, the 1880's were the time for comforting his position in the Albion society. But, besides his commitment in the Fire company, in the Odd Fellows lodge and also lightly in politics (Democrats), William Carter remains a modest tinsmith, employed at George Waterman store. On the other hand, William's brother – James – who started as simple tinsmith too, has reached success and fortune with his patents. There is no doubt that William tried to follow his brother's model...

1. - Patent for a nose flute

How did William Carter get the idea of a nose flute ? This is a mystery, but we know that he was musician. Also, we discovered a news from the Musical World journal in 1890, about an alleged nose flute - the 'Nasi-flauto' – that was diffused all over the world, including in (at least 2) newspapers of the NY state. Actually, it was a kind of trumpet blown with the nose, but it is possible that Carter got aware of that and worked at the design of a 'real' nose flute.

The other question was "how a simple tinsmith managed to file a patent". Bill Carter may have asked advices to his brother, or totally acted by himself. Indeed, I found many (really a lot) of advertisements for agencies proposing their help to file patents. Here are some ads for Munn & Co., the company that William Carter hired for the Nasalette patent. The first (left) one dates of November 1888 and was published in The Progressive Youth:

William Carter filed his patent on November 19, 1891 (it was registered June 14, 1892), and some of the names appearing on the document are familiar in Albion:

J.A. Bergstom was a journalist of the Scientific American magazine, and H. Munn was the attorney owner of the agency. I'm not sure about C. Sedwick, who might have been a NY judge.

But George. B. Church and W. Crawford Ramsdale were prominent figures of Albion. Hon. Geo. B. Church served the state as superintendent of its Insurance Dept, then (in 1890) Deputy State Treasurer. W. Crawford Ramsdale was Albion attorney. According to Mr. Ballard, on this picture in the Orleans Republican office, the man standing in the center of the room is probably Sanford T. Church (Geo. B.'s son) and the man seated is W. Crawford Ramsdale.

Orleans Republican office. By courtesy of the Orleans County Department of History


At the time of the patent, and according to Mr. Matt. Ballard, Bill Carter was living Park Street.
« One of the directories I have shows William living at 28 W. Park Street, I presume before he married Lizzie. » This address should concur with the district numbered D4-P-3:

This address – which is the other place where Carter may have invented the nose flute, besides the Waterman store where he worked – is interesting. Indeed, it was located at the current place of St Joseph (catholic) church and parish. The church was built in 1896, but before that, in 1890, it was the private property of Mrs. Clara Stafford. Mr. Ballard wrote an article which retraces the history of this parcel, and in which we can read that it was including « [a] brick dwelling house, [a] brick barn, and [a]brick tenant house». This last "tenant house" is certainly where Carter was living.

The plot in 1875 (the Baptist church is there, not the Catholic one), and the St Joseph church after 1896:

So, did William Carter design the Nasalette at home or at work? Probably both. Drawings at home, maybe also some tests (he had been "tinsmisth at home" so he should still have had some tools with him. But also likely at Waterman store, at his workshop, after the work or during some free time. Anyway, both buildings do not exist anymore.


The patent is registered on June 14, 1892, and several newspapers mention it.

The Buffalo Express, Jun. 15, 1892:

William Carter sold his patent (we'll get the evidence later, in 1901, at the occasion of the Pan-Am exposition – see below). When was that and who bought it ? On the last question, there is no certainty, but it should be Garrett John Couchois, the wealthy piano dealer, music composer and publisher. And since a nose flute called "Humanatone" was present at 1893 Columbus World's fair, the patent should have been sold in second half of 1892, or at maximum very early 1893 (the time to be registered, but also the time to get nose flutes manufactured for the Fair).
The amount of the deal is not excatly known. It was "a good sum, but not $2,000" (see below, point 3.)

2. - Married man

2,000 US dollars of 1892 are more or less equivalent to $50,000 of today. And even if Carter sold the patent for less (let's say 1,000 or 1,500), he got enough to consider getting married. And that's what he did, in September 1894, with Miss Lizzie O'Brien.

Democrat and Chronicle, Sep. 27, 1894:

The Buffalo Evening News, Sep. 27, 1894:

Elizabeth was born around 1862 (she's 16 years younger than William) [check here], and she's milliner. In 1890 she bought her first millinery shop, in association with Ms. Krank.

Democrat and Chronicle, Aug. 11, 1890:

The shop is located East Bank st., upstairs, "over the old post office". It will remain there until August 1899.

In 1895, the Carters had a son, James Adelbert, born on 4th of July!:

In 1898, William and Elizabeth have a second child, Mary Louise, born on 21st of July, and in 1900, another daughter, Mabel Elizabeth, born on the 1st of June.

In 1899 Lizzie installed her workshop at 53-55 North Main street, in the Day Block, over Landauer & Strouse store, and it is likely that this building was also the Carter's home (we are at least sure, thanks to the census sheet, that they live in North Main street (check here)). The building is almost facing Geo. Waterman's store, on the other side of the street.

Landauer & Strouse, N. Main st. By courtesy of the Orleans County Department of History

We don't know when this photo was taken... but there is a child at the 2nd floor window. Could it be a young Carter?:


1901 is the year of a huge firemen convention in Albion, gathering 10,000 men in uniform. For sure, the Albion Hook and Ladder company took part in the event.

The Parade, seen from Bank st. The photographer should have been in between the Orleans Hotel and the Village Hall:

3. - The Pan Am exposition

While the "Humanatone" (the rebranded Carter's Nasalette) was launched in Chicago World's fair in 1893, it seems it made a big hit at 1901 Buffalo Pan Am exposition. Was Couchois the patent holder who had a booth at the Pan Am expo ? Anyway, the nose flute was sold by thousands! As we saw earlier, Carter might have sold his patent for about $2,000.

The Orleans Republican, Oct. 30, 1901:

Notice that the instrument is called a "flute whistle". And a week later:

The Medina Tribune, Nov. 7, 1901:

40,000! That's a great success for a new small instrument towards which some people still stay reluctant nowadays. Also, it is very surprising that 9 years after Carter sold his patent, the newspapers still argue about the amount (FYI, the "Lance" was The Albion Free Lance, another newspaper)

The Pan Am Fair was the place of assassination of the president McKinley, on the 6th of September. But besides this drama, a small incident happened in November, at the Fair closing day. A crowd rushed down in the Midway alley and made some damages:

The Illustrated Buffalo Express, Nov. 3, 1901:

So, the nose flute booth was adjacent to a Lithia seller, outside "Alt Nürnberg" wall. As any american world's fairs, the Buffalo exposition had a "Midway" alley, with very popular shops and attractions, besides the official majestuous palaces, halls and buildings.

Bird's eye view: the Midway is in the top-left corner:

Midway and Alt Nürnberg:

Lithia were mineral water, supposed to cure many diseases and troubles. There were many brands, notably the Buffalo Lithia Water.

Alt Nürnberg

Here is a picture of Alt Nürnberg entrance door. On the right side, we can see two wooden booths. One is covered with advertisement posters and is undoubtedly the lithia booth. So, the other one, touching the Nürnberg wall, is the nose flute stand!

Unfortunately, there are many people in front of it, and the picture definition does not offer to distinguish more details...

4. - Time for another patent!

In 1903, William Carter has filed another patent. He would not earn more money with the Nasalette/Humanatone, and still following his brother's track, worked on a 'more serious and useful' device, a heater to be attached to stove pipes. I didn't find the patent record, and it is probable that it never got registered by the Patent office. However Carter had the radiators built by the Bromley Foundry Co. (Albion) and sold them during many years. We also learn that the radiator was endorsed by the clergy!

Orleans Republican, Sep. 30, 1903:

Orleans Republican, Oct. 21, 1903:

Orleans Republican, Oct. 23, 1907:

Orleans Republican, Oct. 23, 1907:

The 1906 paper clip teaches us that the radiators are sold by William Carter at the 55 Main st., over Landauer & Strouse store, on the same floor as Lizzie millinery. Indeed, william does not work for Geo. Waterman anymore, and is back a "tinsmith at home", as the 1905 census noted:

Lizzie is reported as a milliner "at home", but contrarywise to William who has the status "O.A." ('own activity'), she is noted as an employee ('Emp'). This is a bit bit weird. In 1903, Lizzie was looking for an apprentice. There is also a verse of a poem – The Brownie's visit to Albion – dedicated to her shop.

Orleans Republican, Sep. 9, 1903:

Orleans Republican, Nov. 4, 1903:

In fact, in 1906, Lizzie Carter sold part of her interests to Ms. Kirby (a friend of her at St Joseph parish, where Lizzie is 1st Vice-president of LCBA). Lizzie is probably preparing the Carters move from Albion to Rochester (in 1909), and is now the employee of her future successor. Indeed, the new worshop is named Kirby and Carter (not the inverse).

Orleans Republican, Aug. 29, 1906:

5. - Last days in Albion

An newspaper article is published in 1906, remembering the "old days" of the Hook and Ladder company, in which William is mentioned. He is 60 years old now, and had given his 1st assistant place to younger firemen. But he's still member of the YAH&L Co., and is elected fire warden in 1907. The same year, he's recalled at a banquet, for his evolutions on the ladders!

Orleans Republican, Feb. 7, 1906:

Orleans Republican, Mar. 13 and 27, 1907:

Less than a week after the banquet, his brother James passed away:

In August, an interesting series of concerts is given in Albion and neighbourhood, by the Sunny South Minstrels, among which William's son Adelbert (12 y.o.) played/sung a little scene called "School Days", then concluded the show with ... a flute solo! Was this a nose flute solo ?

Orleans Republican, Aug. 28, 1907:


The Carters left Albion for Rochester in 1909 (their story there has been published here).

However, William and Lizzie came back regularly to Albion, visiting (Lizzie's) relatives, friends or the annual county fair:

Orleans Republican, Mar. 30, 1910:

Orleans Republican, Jan. 24, 1912:

Orleans Republican, Sep. 18, 1912:

Orleans Republican, Sep. 16, 1914:

Albion county fair, around 1910. By courtesy of the Orleans County Department of History



On the same topic :

- Much more about William Carter - Part I
- Much more about William Carter - Part II
- Much more about William Carter - Part III

- Nose Flute Pioneers: William G. Carter - Part I
- Nose Flute Pioneers: William G. Carter - Part II
- Nose Flute Pioneers: William G. Carter - Part III

- Historic Nose Flutes - The Nasalette: Template
- Historic Nose Flutes - The Nasalette: Building
- Historic Nose Flutes - The Nasalette: Review


Nov 6, 2017

The Idler No.57 is available! With nose flute!

Our article, written in a pleasant collaboration with the uke master and nose flute enthusiast Will Grove-White, has just been published in the londonian prestigious dandy magazine The Idler, by Tom Hodgkinson. Our paper is a 11 pages presentation and history of the nose flute, with full pages pictures.

Obviously, I can't publish scans of the full paper. Anyway, you can order the Idler issue here (the 1st impression is out of stock, but copies will be back in one week).

However, by courtesy of Will Grove-White, here is the content in plain text (better for automatic translation):

Honkin' with your hoooter

The nose flute is not an instrument to be sniffed at, say Will Grove-White and Antoine Carolus

Over the years, many strange musical instruments have come and gone, discarded at the altar of long-established instruments like violins, pianos and trumpets. How quickly we look down our noses at newer, ‘novelty’ instruments and write them off as low-brow. But it would do us all good to reach beyond our comfort zones and embrace the unusual, the unsightly, the unpluckable. As the quote attributed to Henry Ford reminds us, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got.”

So perhaps it is time to reconsider one of the most popular and yet most despised instruments of all time – the nose flute.

When it was launched into Western music at the turn of the 20th century, nose flute fever swept across America, Europe and the Far East. In 1920s America the instrument was heralded as “the most wonderful musical instrument ever invented” by the New York Times and went on to be championed by jazz musicians and vaudeville performers. To its shame Britain has never really embraced the nose flute in the way that other countries have – even today, most music shops in Germany still carry a good stock of nose flutes. It’s estimated that over 100 million instruments have so far been manufactured worldwide.

After the initial nose flute craze, the instrument’s mainstream popularity waned but more recently there’s been a huge resurgence in sales. In music shops from Japan to America nose flutes have been once again on the march, spreading like a heavy head cold into our lives. Nose flute ensembles and orchestras have cropped up all over the world, notably in Germany (Der Grindchor: Das Original Oberkreuzberger Nasenflötenorchester) and across Japan, where there are even ‘official’ and regional nose flute organisations. The largest of these is the Hanshin Hanabue Association who annually perform a massed nose flute rendition of Beethoven’s 9th.

The nose flute is an ingenious little instrument that is played with, of course, the nose. But it’s not a flute that you blow through your nostril (that’s a different type of instrument played mostly in the South-Pacific). Rather, it is a simple device, usually made from plastic but sometimes from metal, wood, clay or even cardboard which covers the nostrils and mouth to produce a delightful flute-like sound. Any tune in the world can be played on a nose flute, and it can be mastered in a matter of minutes. The player simply exhales through his nose and produces the notes by changing the shape of his open mouth (rather like whistling). The instrument can be either held in the hand against the face, or, if one is accompanying oneself on a guitar or ukulele, fastened with elastic around the head. A skilled player with a good nose flute can get a range of almost three octaves and it is certainly a joyful instrument: it makes people happy when you play a nose flute, and if it doesn’t, it makes them happy when you stop playing it. You can’t lose with a nose flute.

But if nose flutes are the easiest instruments in the world to learn to play, why don’t we see them everywhere? This is a difficult question to answer, given the massive success of the kazoo. Some cold-hearted people have declared that the instrument is unhygienic (in fact our noses are cleaner than our mouths) and that it makes the player look like an idiot Hannibal Lecter (hard to argue with this one), so perhaps it does have something of an image problem. But given time, and an army of bizarre-looking disciples, perhaps one day it will be held in the same high esteem as the ukulele and the Swanee whistle.

The unconventional look of the nose flute should not deter the novice player. He is in excellent company. Over the years, artists, musicians and poets have thrilled to its timbre and proved that the nose flute is not an instrument to be sniffed at.

The Godfather of the nose flute was probably the amazing Lloyd Buford Threlkeld (aka ‘Whistler’), a guitarist and singer in the early 1900s from Kentucky. Threlkeld’s big break came once he played the nose flute with Whistler and His Jug Band, the first pre-war jug band ever to be recorded on film. A master of the instrument, he proves that in the right hands the nose flute can sound as beautiful as a nightingale. You can listen to his mesmeric blowing on YouTube (Low Down Blues and Jug Band Special, both from 1927).

Across the Pacific, the nose flute would make an altogether different debut: in an opera. In 1923, Ezra Pound opened his one-act opera Le Testament de Villon with the nose flute. Perhaps unfortunately for the audience, Pound was tone deaf - the poet William Carlos Williams wrote “he knows nothing of music...”, following this with the curious statement, “That’s what makes him a musician.” After seeing the opera, composer Virgil Thomson wrote: “The music was not quite a musician's music, though it may well be the finest poet's music since Thomas Campion... Its sound has remained in my memory.” Not exactly a rave review but nevertheless Pound's Le Testament is the first and only known opera to include a nose flute.

In the right nostrils, the nose flute can sound as beautiful as a nightingale

Artists, too, have warmly embraced the honker hooter. The legendary painter, sculptor and Pataphysician Jean Dubuffet was an avid nose flautist. The inventor of Art Brut (Raw Art), he recorded a series of albums of experimental music (or ‘bald music’, as he referred to it) using the nose flute and other unusual instruments, which suited his surrealist sensibilities down to the ground.

But of course it was musicians who fought hardest to keep the nose flute torch burning. It is rumoured among Elvis Presley aficionados that the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll had plastic surgery on his nose in 1956, and this may go some way to explaining the mysterious appearance of a nose flute tootling away during his song Barefoot Ballad which he performed in one of his less memorable movies, Kissin’ Cousins. Sadly Presley didn’t get to blow the nose flute on the track; Elvis historians conclude it was played by legendary saxophonist Boots Randolph, the man who wrote and played the Benny Hill TV theme tune, Yakety Sax.

A more likely candidate for a star player was Leonard Cohen who used the nose flute on his second album, Songs From a Room, on the track Tonight Will Be Fine. It certainly is a ‘loose’ performance, very probably by Cohen himself - a lifetime outsider thumbing his nose at musical conventions by playing an unfairly marginalised instrument.

It’s also worth noting that the nose flute has become a popular shepherding tool among some farmers. Recently in Ireland, sheepdog trials champion Tim Flood used a nose flute in place of traditional whistling. He appeared on One Man and His Dog singing the praises of the nose flute and performed a short Irish reel for the audience.

So where did it all begin? Who are we to credit with the invention of this ugly/charming (delete as appropriate) instrument?

Like so many instruments, the nose flute’s precise origins are unclear. The first nose flutes were probably produced in South America; in Paraguay by the native Guarani people and in Brazil by the Pataxós. After returning from Brazil in 1817, Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied wrote in his book, Reise Nach Brasilien, that “frequently, these savages [the Pataxós] imitated the voices of owls, capoeira and other birds” and ethnomusicologists like Randy Raine-Reusch confirm that this mimicry was achieved using nose flutes: when the conquistadors arrived in the Americas in the 16th century they would have found the natives using their wooden nose flutes to imitate birds and modern videos show the Pataxós still do so to this day.

But in the West, the nose flute was quite separately invented and patented by a poor Irish immigrant to America, tinsmith William Carter, who settled in Albion, New York. Whether he had encountered a South American flute is unknown, but it seems unlikely. He christened his invention “The Nasalette”. Carter patented his nose flute in 1891 but he soon sold the rights to a shady New York piano salesman and inventor called Garrett J. Couchois, a wheeler-dealer who would eventually end up in jail for infringement of copyright and blackmail.

It’s hard to determine, but it seems Couchois had become so obsessed with Carter’s nose flute that he had bought the patent for a good deal of money. Couchois would go on to launch the first commercial nose flute at a world fair - The World’s Columbian Exposition, in Chicago in 1893. He named it the “Humanatone”. Couchois enjoyed great success with this device, selling 40,000 at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition alone. He went on to design new versions including a spaceship-style nose flute and another called “The Magic Flute”.

In 1903, sensing the business potential of the instrument, a family of novelty-makers, the Stivers, bought the rights to both Carter’s and Couchois' patents, and registered the trademark “Humanatone”. It was, they promised, “The Wonder of the Musical World” and under the shrewd direction of George Stivers and his sons the nose flute enjoyed an incredible surge in popularity, most notably between about 1925 and 1935. Jazz musicians and jug bands gleefully embraced the new instrument and it became a highlight with vaudeville stars and comic song shows of the era. One of these was Syd Shipman and his Humanatone Orchestra, who toured America and Europe and regularly got rave reviews in Billboard Magazine: “To say they did big would be superfluous - just say it was one of Syd's regular successes, and you've got it... Say, boys, they can whistle!”

Its popularity in America meant that versions of the Humanatone rapidly spread across the globe - to the UK (as the Humanaphone), Germany (Wunderflöte), France (Ocariflute), Austria (Austopfon) and Belgium (Vociphone). From Holland it was exported to Bali and the Dutch colonies, as well as to Australia and New Zealand, where it was sold by Albert & Son as The Magic Flute. Regrettably the advent of World War Two forced the Stivers to stop production of tin nose flutes because of metal shortages but fortunately for us, polystyrene plastics arrived just in time to save the nose flute.

In 1943, the hard-nosed businessman Fred Gretsch (of the Gretsch guitar company) bought the Humanatone brand from the Stivers, and relaunched the nose flute in a plastic-injected design by Illinoian Ernest Davis. They were lighter and, crucially, cheap. The plastic nose flutes enjoyed a new popular revival partly because soldiers were able to take one with them to war (along with their ocarinas and mouth-harps). Gretsch even made a special edition of the plastic Humanatone in a box with a printed area in which to write the soldier’s address.

After World War Two the nose flute continued its ascendancy. In 1955, the German instrument manufacturers Weidlich & Lohse launched a plastic model which is still produced to this day in China, where it’s manufactured in its millions. The plastic Humanatone has also been massively copied (also in China as no-name spin-off models) and a variety of other plastic models were produced in the USA, Germany, Sweden and the Basque country.

Millions of these plastic Humanatones are still sold around the world but more recently a growing number of independent companies and artisans have begun to make different types of nose flute from wood, clay, cardboard, bamboo and even chocolate. With modern nose flutes now also being produced in such unlikely places as South Africa, Vietnam, Israel, Hungary, Thailand and Brazil they have become a global phenomenon.

So perhaps it’s time to get your hands on one yourself and become part of the olfactory musical revolution. In a time of too much puffed-up self importance the nose flute is guaranteed to stop you taking yourself too seriously and bring you down to earth – the more people who are willing to toot a jolly tune whilst looking like Jason from Friday the 13th the better for all of us. And it is also unexpectedly good for you– studies show that breathing though your nose leads to a longer life and a healthier body.

An excellent modern brand of nose flute is the Bocarina nose flute (available online) although there are many different varieties to experiment with. The only thing left is to consider which tunes to play. Colonel Bogey might be worth a try, or perhaps God Only Nose by the Beach Boys - just make sure you have a box of tissues ready if you ever attempt The Weather Girls’ 1982 hit, It’s Raining Phlegm.

                                                                                                             W.G.-W. & A. C.