Fretted Zithers from Europe 
The instrument in the Met’s display case was a member of a family of northern and eastern European fretted zithers. Under various names and in numerous shapes and forms, they had existed and thrived in the folk cultures of many countries as far back as the Renaissance and, probably, the later Middle Ages. In German-speaking areas, the instrument was called the scheitholt; in the Low Countries, the hummel or Nordische balk; in northeastern France, the epinette des Vosges; in Norway, the langeleik; in Sweden, the humle; and in Finland, the jouhi kantele. A one-string instrument with a raised and centered fretboard, called a psalmodikon, also developed in Norway and Sweden. Fretted zithers were made and played in Hungary and Romania as well, and the instrument even migrated to Iceland, where it was called the langspil.
The earliest dated specimen so far found is from 1608. It is illustrated in a publication entitled De Hommel in de Lage Landen (The Hummel in the Low Countries) by Hubert Boone, issued by the Brussels Museum of Musical Instruments in 1975. The instrument, which is in the Community Museum at The Hague, is thin and narrow and had either one or two strings (it currently has one peg, and the photograph is unclear).
Fretted zithers were folk instruments, and they endured a long history of disdain by mainstream musicologists. In Boone’s publication, he cites the opinion of an 18th-century Friesian musical authority, John Wilhelm Lustig. In the introduction to his book Inleiding tot de Muziekkunde , Lustig states that he will have nothing to do with such instruments as the noorsche balk, which, he says, are played at fairs and by soldiers.
Whoever may have played them, at least one American scholar, Charles Seeger, regarded such instruments as prime suspects in the search for the dulcimer’s origins. In an article entitled “The Appalachian dulcimer,” which appeared in the Journal of American Folklore  Seeger stated his opinion that the dulcimer is a full-fledged member of this European group.
“The dulcimer, Seeger wrote, is a fretted zither (Griffbrettzither) belonging to a well-defined subclass upon which the melody is played on one string (or several in unison or even parallel thirds) while others sound as drones. The subclass is well represented in European organography especially in the northern region (…) The European provenience of our instrument [the dulcimer] is clearly established in all but minor detail”
Seeger doesn’t specify what he meant by “minor detail,” but he may have had in mind one noticeable difference between most European fretted zithers and the Appalachian dulcimer. With only a few atypical exceptions, the series of frets on European fretted zithers is applied directly to the instrument’s top, along the edge that faces the player. With the dulcimer, the series of frets is placed on a raised fretboard that runs down the center of the top. Freed from the necessity of having a straight side facing the player, the body of the dulcimer usually has various broader shapes, with the most common type being a single or double curve.
In 1619, a German scholar whose Latinized name was Michael Pretorius published a descriptive catalogue of musical instruments, entitled Syntagma Musicum. The book was illustrated with woodcuts, like the following, identified as “Scheidtholtt”:
This instrument has been accurately observed by the artist, and its fret pattern can be made out. It is fretted to play two octaves of the major (Ionian) scale, starting at the open string.
The book provides a description of the scheitholt, in old block letter printing and in Renaissance German (here after translation of Christa Fannon):
“Although this instrument should rightly be listed among low-class instruments: So I have nevertheless / since it is known to few / wanted to briefly describe it here. And it is not quite unlike a log [scheit] / or piece of wood / since it is nearly like a small monochord rather poorly put together out of three or four small thin boards / at the top with a small neck / in which stick three or four pegs / strung with three or four brass strings: Of which three are strung in unison / but one of them is forced down in the middle with a small hook / so that it has to resonate one fifth higher: And if desired / one can add a fourth string one octave higher. But one strums continuously across all these strings with the right thumb below at the bridge: and one moves with a small smooth stick in the left hand back and forth on the closest string / whereby the melody of the song is accomplished over the fret-board / if embossed with brass wire .”
Although the tuning information is not entirely clear, it would seem that the tuning, with the added octave string, would produce a 1-5-8 (do-sol-high do) chord, with the first note of the scale at the open melody string. The strumming technique speaks for itself.
THE SCHEITHOLT/ZITTER IN AMERICA
The scheitholt came to America with early German settlers. Or at least, a clear memory of it came, since it seems likely that an instrument that a skilled German craftsman could easily make would rarely have been carried in the crowded conditions of the crossing. The instrument was soon being made and played in the German settlements in Pennsylvania. However, the name did not come to America with the instrument, and thereby hangs one of the many naming problems in our tale. I know of no record of the term scheitholt being applied to the American version of the German instrument prior to the post–World War II folk revival.
In the early years of the 20th century, an amateur historian named Henry Mercer, who lived in Bucks County, an area of heavy traditional German settlement north of Philadelphia, gathered together a collection of thousands of old artifacts that he found in eastern Pennsylvania. Many of them were things that people had discarded or that he purchased by the basketful in country auctions for small sums. Mercer was a man of family means and was able to devote his life to his great project, which he called, “Tools of the Nation Maker.” In 1914, he erected a large building to house his collection and donated building and contents to the Bucks County Historical Society. It is now called the Mercer Museum.
Mercer was far ahead of his time in his vision of the importance of collecting and preserving the artifacts of traditional everyday life. The collection includes 14 musical instruments that Mercer called “Pennsylvania German zithers.” The instruments came from Mennonite owners and/or communities and were made in the second half of the 19th century. The owners and players called them “zitters.” Photos of these instruments can be seen in Smith’s Catalogue of Pre-Revival Appalachian Dulcimers .
William Penn founded Pennsylvania in 1682 on Quaker principles that included peace, political freedom, and religious liberty. These founding ideals of the new colony attracted German members of dissident Protestant sects, especially from the area of Germany called the Palatinate. The sects included the Anabaptists, Mennonites, Moravians, and Amish. The Palatinate had been ravaged by religious wars and repression, and many members of these sects, when they learned of Pennsylvania, were more than ready to go. Groups of members of the sects, often led by ministers or church elders, began to arrive almost immediately after the colony was founded. They settled in areas that included the rich farmland in Lancaster County, to the west of Philadelphia, and in several counties north of Philadelphia. Educated, hardworking, thrifty, orderly, literate, and with many skilled artisans among them, the Germans prospered in their new world.
In 2007, a scholar of early Moravian history called Katherine Carte Engel posted on the website/forum Everything Dulcimer the earliest mentions known of the scheitholt/zitter in America. Two of the entries are from the diary of a Christianized Native American named Gemeine, who lived in a residence provided by the Moravians for converted Native Americans, called the Barracks, in Philadelphia. In addition to their interest for the history of the scheitholt/zitter, they provide moving witness to the ravages of disease and the loss of children in early America.
The first entry is dated June 25, 1764:
During the early service, Rahel, Renatus’s youngest sister, fourteen years old, went to the Savior from the pox. She had a sensitive heart and often came to Srs. Grube and Schmick and spoke about her heart. She said: I am a poor child and feel my misery, but the Savior lets me feel his love, I want to become and remain completely His. In the last band (Gesellschaft), she expressed particularly that she would like to go to the Savior. When Br. Grube visited her during her illness, he asked her if she was well and easy in her heart. She answered, yes, I have nothing that prevents me from going to the Savior, only I would like to see brother Renatus one more time. She became weak soon thereafter and asked if someone could sing her a little verse and play on the Zitter. This last Elias did, and she received therewith the last blessing. She recovered further and passed eight more days, then she blessedly left. Her sisters Anna Johanna and Christine from Bethlehem were her nurses and now had to keep their quarantine.
The other entry from Gemeine is dated July 18, 1764:
Our dear Elias, Andreas’s son, went to the Savior from the pox. He was very pleased in his sickness and spoke of nothing but the Savior and that he would soon go to Him. A few days before his end, he had the Brothers asked that when his wife should give birth, the child would be baptized, which was promised him and for which he was thankful and said: my dear hour is near, and so the Good Shepherd took him in His arms. He could play prettily on the Zitter, as well as on the Spinet, and passed most of his time here with that. We are very comforted about that.
The third diary mention of the scheitholt/zitter is from the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Single Sisters Diary, from entries of December 1776:
[Undated] Br. Ettwein soon brought General Sulivan with his nearer Officers to us in the House, at first he appeared very grand, but finally however was very modest. Our sisters had to sing to him, and play on the zitter. Our guard rotated every three hours, and after each time they were relieved, they ate in Sister Liesel’s room. At night an English sister always watched, so that she could give them their warm wine or coffee at the window, along with something to eat. They were so faithful for three days and two nights, and behaved themselves so silently and orderly, that we could not thank the Savior enough for them. 18th: From early until late in the evening there were continuous visits from officers, which we counted at 300, and thanked the Savior that everything happened in an orderly fashion. The many hundreds of fires that circled Bethlehem made a very wonderful and magnificently beautiful view, and also much concern, because they all burned the fences. 19th: Early in the morning, General Sulivan and his men marched away.
The references here are to American general John Sullivan. On the day after he and his men left, they were ferried across to New Jersey, in preparation for the Battle of Trenton.
THE OLDEST DATED AMERICAN SCHEITHOLT
The oldest dated scheitholt yet found in America is dated 1781 behind its peg head. It was acquired by Ralph Lee Smith from Elizabeth Matlat, a Chester County, Pennsylvania, antiques dealer, in the 1970s. She had purchased it at the estate sale of a New Jersey collector of antiques, but the instrument almost certainly came from Pennsylvania.
This instrument’s body style does not resemble that of any of the 14 instruments in the Mercer Museum’s collection. Instead, its thin, narrow body is similar to that of both the 1608 instrument in the Community Museum at The Hague and the scheitholt illustrated in Pretorius’s 1619 book, Syntagma Musicum.
Unlike both instruments, however, it was fitted with two hand-forged, vertical iron tuning pins rather than horizontal wooden tuning pegs. The use of hand-forged iron tuning pins is usual for most American scheitholts that I have seen, as well as some of the oldest dulcimers. Perhaps it reflects the fact that it is easier to have a blacksmith fashion some simple pins for a penny or two than it is to make wooden pegs by hand that will fit and hold.
 Most of this post is based on Ralph Lee Smith´s book “Appalachian Dulcimer traditions” (2001). Scarecrow Press. ISBN 9780810841352, which you can buy here
 Lustig, Jacob Wilhelm. Inleiding tot de Muziekkunde; tweede Druk, etc (Unknown Binding, 1771)
 The Appalachian Dulcimer(pp. 40-51) . If you have access to Jstor you can read the full article here, you can also buy it there for 10 USD.
 Smith’s note on the book: Pretorius probably meant “which is fretted with brass wire.”
 The Mercer Museum´s catalogue can be browsed online here
 Smith, L. Allen. A Catalogue of Pre-Revival Appalachian Dulcimers (Barking Dog Books and Art LLC, 1983). Ohio, USA. ISBN: 0826203760. You can buy the book here