[Image above] Pop megastar and classically trained flutist Lizzo plays President James Madison’s 1813 crystal flute in the flute vault at the Library of Congress on Sept. 26, 2022. Credit: Shawn Miller/Library of Congress, Flickr (CC0 1.0)
Containing approximately 164 million items, the collections at the Library of Congress do a considerable job fulfilling the Library’s mission to sustain and preserve a “universal” collection of knowledge and creativity.
However, with such vast collections, it can be difficult for Library staff to showcase all the wonderful items in storage and educate the public on their importance. Last week, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden realized the perfect opportunity to highlight one very special item when pop megastar Lizzo came to town for a concert.
At the Library is the Dayton C. Miller Collection, the world’s largest flute collection. It contains nearly 1,700 flutes and other wind instruments, statuary, iconography, books, music, trade catalogs, tutors, patents, and other materials mostly related to the flute.
Dayton C. Miller, an American physicist, acoustician, and astronomer, donated the collection to the Library in 1941. Contained in the donation were 18 rare glass flutes, 17 of which were manufactured in Paris by Claude Laurent and one by his apprentice, J. D. Breton.
Laurent was a Parisian watchmaker and mechanic who, in the early 19th century, invented a method for producing glass flutes. His patent did not claim any special qualities of sonority but rather a greater ability than wood or ivory to resist problems caused by changes in humidity and temperature.
While initially it was believed that all Laurent flutes were made of high-leaded glass, noninvasive analysis of the flutes’ composition using X-ray fluorescence showed most are actually made of potash glass. Only two are true “crystal” flutes, including one gifted to U.S. president James Madison in 1813.
Last week, Librarian of Congress Hayden saw Lizzo’s D.C. concert on September 27 as a chance to raise awareness of this fascinating history. Lizzo is a classically trained flutist, so Hayden tweeted her an invitation to explore the flute collection and play some of the instruments. Lizzo responded enthusiastically to the invitation and stopped by a day before her concert for the tour.
Following her tour, Lizzo and the Library’s collection, preservation, and security teams coordinated to transport Madison’s flute to the Capitol One Arena, where Lizzo’s concert took place. She then played the flute briefly onstage before it was safely returned to the Library.
In a Library of Congress blog post, Library director of communications April Slayton notes that “For your friendly national library, this was a perfect moment to show a new generation how we preserve the country’s rich cultural heritage. The Library’s vision is that all Americans are connected to our holdings. We want people to see them.”
NOTE: While many news outlets reported that Dolley Madison rescued the glass flute as she fled the burning of Washington by British troops in 1814, the Library of Congress clarifies that “unless or until more documentation about the precious flute’s history is unearthed, we will have no way to know for certain whether the flute escaped the White House with Dolley Madison in 1814.”