The Robinson Library
The Robinson Library >> Music >> Musical Instruments >> Piano, Clavichord, Harpsichord, Etc.

a dulcimer-like instrument that is played like a piano but is capable of sounding like stringed instuments

Dolcette (front view) Dolcette (side view)

This unique-looking instrument was invented by Peter Bissing, a Volga German who immigrated with his family to Hays, Kansas, in the 1870's. The son of an organ maker, Bissing displayed musical skill at a very early age. When he was four, he learned to play instruments his father crafted. He took up the violin at the age of eight, and by the time he was twenty he was the director of the Hays Mitchell Cornet Band. He also composed music for the violin, piano, and orchestra, and wrote a treatise on music and the origin of orchestras.

In the early 1900's, Bissing settled in Topeka, where he opened a music conservatory. He also began developing new musical instruments, one of which was the dolcette. Measuring six feet in height and almost four feet in width, the dolcette resembled a piano with a harp on the top. By pressing a key or depressing one of the foot pedals, the musician could make the instrument sound like a mandolin, an Italian harp, or chimes.

Once he had completed the design, Peter employed his brother, Justus Jr., a skilled cabinet and pattern maker, to craft the instrument. In 1913, Peter formed the Dolcette Syndicate, the company that would ultimately sell the dolcettes. With one or two sample instruments, Peter began pedaling his invention by taking a dolcette into the homes of prospective buyers and having an assistant give demonstrations. Local musicians gave the dolcette positive reviews, praising it as "unique in design, pleasing in its various qualities" and "substantially constructed."

Praises, however, were not enough to make the dolcette popular. Lack of sufficient funding forced production and manufacture to remain small-scale. The company could only afford one salesman -- Peter. And, many potential customers were turned off by the dolcette's $125 price tag. Ultimately, the Dolcette Syndicate sold but ten of the original fifty instruments produced. Peter Bissing moved to Chicago in 1914, ending his participation in the Syndicate. In 1916, the owners of a storage space in Topeka filed a lawsuit against the company to recover $775 in rent owed on the room in which the remaining dolcettes had been stored, and the dolcettes were ultimately sold at a sheriff's auction.

The dolcette shown on this page is on display at the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka. It is one of only five known to still exist.

Kansas State Historical Society


Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> Music >> Musical Instruments >> Piano, Clavichord, Harpsichord, Etc.

This page was last updated on 09/24/2017.