Site hosted by Build your free website today!

Copyright © 2000, 2001 by Richard I. Schwartz

(internal links at bottom of page)




Distin & Sons

(London 1846-1850)


This company was started by John Distin (b Plympton/Devon 1798; d 1863) and was the beginning of what was to be known as one of the most important manufacturing companies for the cornet in the nineteenth century. As a young man, he was a slide trumpeter with the South Devon Militia, and at the age of sixteen, he was solo keyed bugle with the Grenadier Guards. Later, he was a trumpeter and Bandmaster to the Marquis of Breadalbane. In 1833, he and his four sons formed a brass quintet (Robert E. Eliason and Lloyd Farrar, "Distin," in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians). In 1837, they performed in their well-known brass quintet at the Adelphi Theatre, Edinburgh (Newsome 1998, 27). The quintet originally consisted of a slide trumpet, three hand horns and a trombone. Instruments were played by John himself, and his four sons, George, Henry, William Alfred, and Theodore. For a period of time, the instrumentation also was a slide trumpet, a cornet, two hand horns, and a slide trombone. After visiting Sax’s workshop in 1844 the quintet changed from PACE instruments (Waterhouse 1993, 90) to a matched set of Saxhorns. Sax also provided monetary assistance to help built the quality of the group (Newsome 1998, 27). In 1846, Meyerbeer heard the quintet and was quite impressed with the quality of their performance. "The purity of tone, accuracy of intonation, and effective ensemble produced by the quintet, made it very popular" (Rose [1995], 210). George Distin died in 1848, so that when the group came to the United States they only brought a quartet. By the 1850’s, the group had already given over 10,000 concerts!

In 1845, John sold woodwind instruments (Waterhouse 1993, 90) and music (Robert E. Eliason and Lloyd Farrar, "Distin," in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians). He actually patented a saxhorn in the same year (GB # 345). By 1846, he and his son Henry, known as "Distin & Sons," opened up a depot for Saxhorns. In 1849, they sold saxophones and by 1850, Henry became sole owner of the company, manufacturing brass instruments under his own name. In 1855, William Alfred Distin independently patented (GB# 2688) a crank added to the piston rod to give a rotary action to the piston, which returned by means of a spring (Woodcroft 1984, 231).

Main references for the above were The New Langwill Index (Waterhouse 1993) and

Robert E. Eliason and Lloyd Farrar, "Distin," in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Other references are listed throughout the entry.


Company markings on brass instruments include: (Waterhouse 1993, 90)

            Adolphe Sax et Cie.

                    à Paris

        for DISTIN & Sons

        31 Cranbourn St.



Henry (John) Distin

(London 1850-1868; New York 1877-1882; Philadelphia 1882-1890; Williamsport, PA 1886-1909)


Originally a depot for Sax, the company became a manufactory of instruments under the leadership of Henry (John) Distin (b London 22 July 1819; d Philadelphia 9 [11?] Oct 1903) in 1850. In 1851, the "Henry Distin" company was "Instrument Maker to Her Majesty’s Army and Navy" (Waterhouse 1993, 1990), and as a result, in 1853, Sax and Distin parted company. Sax then began a franchise with Rudall Rose Carte & Co. In 1854, Distin patented an "Artiste’s Cornet à Pistons" (GB #3577) and another new model of the "Distin Cornet" (GB #19173). By 1854, Henry was involved also in publishing brass and reed band music for up to twenty-four parts (Newsome 1998, 94-5). A new cornet was patented in 1856 (GB #2790) and in 1864 they developed and patented a cornet with "light piston valves" (GB #1896). These valves were met with great success. They had only one layer of metal rather than the usual two, and the cross-tubes, or "coquilles," were silver soldered into place. In the same patent (GB #1896), the spring was attached to the piston in such a manner that it made almost no noise. A flange was added to keep the valve springs from touching the valve casing, and a reservoir was added at the bottom of the valves to keep water from landing on performer’s concert attire (Woodcroft 1984, 432). The reservoir was unique, as it had a small button to move the reservoir up or down to accommodate more or less water. It could be also removed, if so desired. The reservoir was held in place with a set screw, and one or more holes appeared above the screw to allow excess water to escape. A most interesting patent of 1856 ( GB #2729) consisted of a key located in the "swell" of the instrument [where the bell begins to flare out?] that could be opened or closed as needed (Woodcroft 1984, 249). It could be manufactured on cornets, trumpets, and other wind musical instruments, and be varied in size and position depending on the size of the bell and the type of instrument.

In 1861, Henry had applied for a patent for a "combination bugle/trumpet" (GB #2591). The idea was utilized by Ferdinand Coeuille (c1835-1916) in c1895 to manufacture a "convertible field trumpet" for Ellis Pugh of the First Troop of the Philadelphia City Cavalry. The trumpet has the mouthpiece/bell section and two other sections which can be separately attached, one which makes the instrument a trumpet with three valves, and another section which converts the instrument into a bugle. Henry also applied for a "telescope cornet" in 1882 (GB #308655). This idea was used by Coeuille again for his own "telescope cornet" in the 1890’s, certainly with Henry’s approval. It also provided manufacturing details for Henry Distin’s "Clear Bore Model Cornet." Other manufacturers, including COURTOIS, J. W. PEPPER, York and Seltman, utilized the "telescope" idea for their own instruments. The tubes between the valves are slanted at an angle from the first valve casing downward to the third. The air therefore proceeds directly through the instrument avoiding any undue resistance points. The air enters in its usual manner, but finally curves through the long loop of the third valve slide. These are very unique elements in the "telescope" cornets ( Farrar 1988, 40-45). The instrument may be called "telescope," in the opinion of this author, because it gives the appearance of being slightly slanted or "telescoped" to the front, due to the diagonal angle of the tubes between the valve casings.

In 1883, the company patented tools that formed brass tubing (US #286398). Windways were improved in cornet valves in 1882, and in 1884, windway improvements were patented (US #308655). A new construction of brass mouthpieces was patented in 1889 (US #417413) and again in 1890 (US #419424).

William Hillyard worked for Distin during the time of the London firm. Hillyard apprenticed with his uncle, John McNeill in Dublin, worked for J. HIGHAM in 1852, and later was a manager for J. W. PEPPER. He owned his own company from 1862 to 1894 in London, and from 1896 to 1897 in Philadelphia.

By 1862, the Henry Distin company had grown to fifty workers and in 1868, it was sold to BOOSEY. BOOSEY used Distin’s name for their new acquisition and first called their company "Distin & Co." and then the "Distin Military Musical Instrument Manufactory," publishing their own journal, Distin’s Brass Band Journal. Henry was not allowed to make instruments with his name on them within 100 miles of London!

In 1876, Henry emigrated to the United States "to help plan and superintend MARTIN’s ‘monster musical instrument factory’" (Farrar 1993). Two years later he was professionally associated with F. W. Busch. SLATER was making Distin instruments, under Henry’s supervision beginning in 1881. In 1882, Henry moved to Philadelphia and was employed with his son, William Henry Distin, by J. W. PEPPER in building a new plant for them. From 1884-1886 Henry sold brass instruments. Sheet music was sold under the partnership of "Distin & Pincus." In 1886, he was an American citizen and started again manufacturing his own instruments in Williamsport, Pennsylvania under the name of the "Henry Distin Mfg. Co." Henry had applied for a total of nineteen instrument manufacture patents in his lifetime. Six of them were in the United States, three of which were also sought in England (Robert E. Eliason and Lloyd Farrar, "Distin," in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians).

Henry retired in 1890, leaving the leadership of the company to Brua Cameron Keefer who in 1909 became its owner. The firm continued to manufacture instruments under the Keefer name until 1940. Distin instruments were represented at the London Exposition in 1862, the Paris Exposition in 1867, and the New York Exposition in 1881 with SLATER (Waterhouse 1993, 90).

There is still a great debate over the difference in quality between Henry Distin’s European and American made instruments. Generally, London instruments bearing just his name are quite collectible, while those associated with the Boosey name are not as collectible. New York or Philadelphia Distins are quite collectible, but not for the performer. Williamsport instruments are quite playable, but not as interesting from a collectors viewpoint, but some of the finest instruments in the U. S. were made during Keefer’s ownership. Valuing these instruments requires an expert (Adams 1998, 50).

Main references for the above were The New Langwill Index (Waterhouse 1993); Robert E. Eliason and Lloyd Farrar, "Distin," in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians; and Patents for Inventions: Abridgments of Specifications Relating to Music and Musical Instruments A.D. 1694-1866 (Woodcroft 1984). Other references are listed throughout the entry.


Company markings on brass instruments include: (Waterhouse 1993, 90)

            HENRY DISTIN




Beginning in 1877, a trademark of an eagle with outstretched wings holding a valved trumpet appeared.

Markings also include: (Adams 1998, 53)





Henry Distin Serial Numbers: (Numbers in parentheses are on second valve casing)


(see for a more detailed list)


London (Distin & Sons)


391                            1850

3509                        1857

4276                    c1865 (Myers and Parks 1994, 48)

6280                        1867

Instruments after 1868 were made by Boosey & Co. after his sale to the company in that year. The name on instruments was Distin & Co.

10428 (10215)    1868

20722 (10688)    1869

21287 (22054)    1870

25021 (14226)    1872 (Myers and Parks 2000, 56)

25678 (14795)    1872 (Myers and Parks 2000, 57)

29394 (29733)    1874

31451  1885-86 (Myers and Parks 1998, 42) Note: These later instruments were still made by Boosey & Co. and used the name Distin & Co. even long after Henry left London in 1876.


New York (Henry Distin)


266                              1879

568                         1882


Philadelphia (Henry Distin)


1462                          1883

5085  (5964)        1889

6285                      1890


Williamsport (Henry Distin Manufacturing Company)


8124                          1891

9119 (9021)         1893

9901 (9701)        1893 (Scott 1988, 198)

11089                  1894

15233 (17496)    1897

15828                  1899

16586                  1900

17948                  1903

22054                  1909


(Worcester, MA 1842-1887)

Business began in 1842, but less than two years later it expanded to a larger location. A cornetist himself, Isaac Fiske (b Holden, MA 23 Dec 1820; d Worcester, MA 17 Sept 1894) was on a judging committee for musical instruments at the First Exhibition of the Worcester County Mechanic’s Association in September, 1848. In 1849, three of his cornets won a Silver Medal for their excellent tone and ease of valve action. His improvements include a more efficient arrangement of the rods and internal springs for Vienna valves. In 1851, Fiske entered two cornets and an Eb alto horn in the Second Exhibition of the Worcester County Mechanic’s Association. They won a Diploma for their superior tone, ability to play legato passages easily, and for the rapid and elastic action of the valves ( Eliason 1981, 39). This action may well have been made possible by a string linkage, since there is an extant example of a string linkage rotary valved bugle in Eb constructed by him in 1850 ( Eliason 1981, 37).

He was also responsible for manufacturing instruments which had both keys and valves on them, but discontinued such instruments in favor of the valved ones. There is an interesting valved bugle in Eb by Fiske, which has only one key on it. Apparently the key was utilized to play the high c3, since it was placed about at the same place as the same note on a twelve-key bugle. Another interesting instrument is a five valve bell-up rotary valve cornet constructed by the company in c1860 (Eliason 1981, 40).

Fiske’s instruments were endorsed by Matthew Arbuckle and Harvey Dodworth of the famous Dodworth Band of New York City. Dodworth claimed Fiske’s instruments to be one of the finest makers of cornets in the United States (Robert E. Eliason, "Fiske, Isaac," in The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments).

In 1854, his plant at 84 Merrifields Buildings burnt to the ground, but apparently he was financially stable enough to buy property on Piedmont Street. In 1857, he purchased more property and was able to obtain the services of Arbuckle to be solo cornet with his own Fiske’s Cornet Band, an organization which exclusively used his own instruments. He may have been the first instrument maker to promote his own instruments by using them in his own band (Hazen and Hazen 1987, 134). In 1860, his band broke up and his instruments were sold to the board of a new organization called the National Band. In 1866, Fiske received his first patent for a unique rotary valve, piston action valve system (US #74331). The finger pads of the pistons were connected to rods which proceeded downward through what looks like an ordinary piston valve casing. The rods operate three rotary valves. Perhaps the casings supplied extra directional support for the rods and maintained the structural integrity and longevity of the valve itself. An elastic material was placed between the leadpipe and the bell to dampen vibrations of the bell. Similar valve arrangements were already patented by J. HIGHAM in England in 1857 (GB #123), and also used by Robinson, Bussell & Co. in Dublin on a cornet in c1850 (Eliason 1981, 44). Fiske did utilize the string linkage on some of his rotary instruments, but discontinued its manufacture due to the added cost and weight of the mechanism (Eliason 1981, 44).

In 1867, Fiske patented a process (US #70824) that cut a one-piece pattern for a curved piece of tubing out of a flat sheet of brass, shaping it into the final curved piece. It is difficult to see if this process was actually used, since the later instruments were silver plated brass, covering up the process. The instruments that were not plated do not show this process either.

In 1866, Fiske entered a cornet into the Fifth Mechanics’ Association Exhibition of Worcester County and won the highest diploma for its even tone in all valve combinations. The reason was probably because all the valves and tubes were of equal diameter and the airstream was entirely free from any sharp angles ( Eliason 1981, 45). These windways of uniform diameter were later patented in 1869 by Fiske (US #74331). Fiske was more than a decade behind the Europeans in his patent since J. P. Oates in Litchfield, England made similar windways in what he called "equitrilateral valves" in 1851, and BESSON had patented a similar windway design in 1855.

He was a great experimenter with the production process. This encouraged his competitors to experiment, as well. His influence in brass manufacturing went far beyond his relatively small workforce of 10 employees in 1870, or even his smaller workforce of only seven in the early 1870’s. The manufacturing firms of Heald; Leland; and McFadden & Beaumont were created by former employees (Waterhouse 1993, 118). Apparently, Beaumont had produced rotary valve instruments which violated Fiske’s 1866 patent and a heated battle began. There are no records of a battle in court, but McFadden & Beaumont closed their doors in 1875 ( Eliason 1981, 49).

In 1873, Fiske had two patents for improvements in obtaining valves that had smoother air passages. In 1887, Fiske sold his plant and business to C. G. CONN and retired. He later extolled the praises of the CONN "Wonder Cornet" as being "the only perfect cornet in the world" (Banks 1994, 28).

In 1873, Fiske also began to publish catalogues of his musical instruments. The earliest extant "Illustrated Catalogue of Musical Instruments" is from July 1881 ( Eliason 1981, 46-49). A Fiske Eb cornet (Instrument No. 367184) is in the Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan (Dullat 1989, 190). It was manufactured in c1880 and has follows his 1866 valve patent of three rotary valves which are operated by vertical rods, each inside what appears to be a valve casing.

The main references for the above were Early American Brass Makers (Eliason 1981) and The New Langwill Index (Waterhouse 1993). Other references are listed throughout the entry.

The catalogue of July 1881 offers the following cornet models:

(Eliason 1981, 46-49)

1) Eb Périnet valved cornets Brass $45.00

(Water key and music holder) Silver Plated $57.00

Gold inside of bell for an extra $5.00

Velvet Lined Black Walnut case for $10.00

2) Eb side action rotary valve cornets Same prices as above

3) Rotary valve, piston action Eb cornet (original 1866 patent) with water key and music holder. Same prices for brass or silver plated instruments, but an extra $20.00 for gold inside of the bell. No case listed.

4) Improved (original 1866 patent) Eb rotary valve, piston action cornet with shorter

movement of the rod (no prices listed) with water key and music holder

5) Improved Bb cornet with Périnet valves and double water key and music holder

Brass $55.00

Silver plated $67.00

Silver plated with gold gilt $75.00

Velvet lined black walnut case $10.00


6) Rotary valve, piston action Bb cornet (original patent 1866) with water key

and music holder

Same prices as above, but no case listed

7) Improved rotary valve, piston action Bb cornet (original patent 1866) with double

water key and music holder

Same prices as above


Graves & Co.

(West Fairlee, VT 1824-1830)

(Winchester, NH 1830-1850)

(Boston 1850-1869)

Although Samuel Graves was famous for his production of Eb and Bb keyed bugles, eight-key flutes, and twelve-(and thirteen) key clarinets, the company is included here because it had an important influence on the future company of the BOSTON MUSICAL INSTRUMENT MANUFACTORY, discussed above .

Samuel Graves, Jr. (b New Boston, NH 1 July 1794; d Wells River, VT 18 Nov 1878) was the creator of this company. He was apparently inspired by the fine craftsmanship of George Catlin (b Weathersfield, CT 1778; d Camden NJ 1 May 1852), who was primarily known for his woodwind instruments (Hazen and Hazen 1987, 132). The firm moved from West Fairlee, Vermont to Winchester, New Hampshire because the new location had a dam on the Ashuelot river for water power. This factory was the largest in the United States for many years. His partners in Winchester were Cyrus Graves, Charles Alexander, and Henry P. Anderson. Their building was jointly owned by Graves & Co. and Nathaniel Herrick, a clothier (Robert E. Eliason, "Graves, Samuel," in The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments). In 1831, the company was owned by Samuel Graves and Charles Alexander, and was known as "Graves & Alexander." Between 1832 and 1845, Samuel W. Richardson was a partner in the company, and after 1833, it still was called "Graves & Co.," in spite of the fact that in 1833, Alexander sold his portion of the business.

Between 1837 and 1842, James Keat (b London 7 May 1813; d Winchester, NH 17 March 1845) worked for "Graves & Co." on the second floor of Graves’ building. "J. Keat for Graves & Co. Winchester NH" was the marking on Keat’s instruments.

Before 1845, instruments were primarily woodwind instruments. Due to Keat’s earlier influence, production after 1845 was exclusively brass instruments, the earliest ones of which had Vienna valves (Waterhouse 1993, 144).

In 1850, the company was having financial problems due to a fire in 1848. In 1851, the shop was sold and George M. Graves, Samuel’s son, built a plant in Boston. Samuel then came back to work for the company. At this point we see a complex series of various owners and name changes. In 1858, George Freemantle (b England April 1804; d Boston 25 August 1889) was a partner in the company. In 1862, the company was financially insolvent and Freemantle left. Between 1864 and 1865, Patrick Gilmore was a partner in the company known as "Gilmore, Graves & Co." The company was proud to advertise their instruments as having "purity of tone, perfection of tune, and elegance of finish…Improved tools and machinery have been prepared under the supervision of P. S. GILMORE, leader of Gilmore’s celebrated band" and Gilmore "personally examines and tests every instrument manufactured in our establishment" (Boston Directory 1864). The company warranted every instrument to give perfect satisfaction. After the Civil War, Samuel was again joined by his sons and continued to work for the company even with the list of different owners. In 1866 Gilmore bought out Graves, and the company was then known as Gilmore & Co. In 1867, Eldridge G. WRIGHT became Gilmore’s partner and the company was known as "Wright, Gilmore & Co." In 1868, Gilmore sold his portion of the company to WRIGHT which changed the name again into "E. G. Wright & Co."

In 1869, "E. G. Wright & Co.," "Henry Esbach," "Louis F. Hartman," and Samuel Graves (with his sons, George and William) merged finances to form the BOSTON MUSICAL INSTRUMENT MANUFACTORY. "Graves & Co." was represented at the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association Exhibition held in Boston in 1844 (Robert E. Eliason, "Graves, Samuel," in The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments) and also in Boston in 1847 (Waterhouse 1993, 144).

Main references for the above were The New Langwill Index (Waterhouse 1993) and

Robert E. Eliason, "Graves, Samuel," in The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments. Other references are listed throughout the entry.


Company markings on brass instruments include:

        GRAVES & ALEXANDER (Waterhouse 1993, 144)


                        N. H.



            GRAVES & CO. (Stewart 1980, 32)


                    N. H.

Back to Home Page: The Cornet Compendium- The History and Development of the Nineteenth-Century Cornet

On to next page: Manufacturers H-K

To Bibliography: Bibliography