What’s With All the Unicorns?

Many British, French, and German instrument makers stamped their instruments not only with their names but also with trademarks or crests associated with their workshops. Especially in some of the German cities, where commerce was highly regulated by professional guilds, the practice of stamping instruments in this way not only advertised the firm but also served as a kind of quality control: a master maker’s stamp constituted a guarantee that an instrument was well-made. Some makers chose marks that punned on their names. For example, Johann Wilhelm Haas and his intrafamilial successors engraved the emblem of a hare (German “Hase”) on their musical instruments, while Johann Heinrich Eichentopf chose the image of a pot (German “Topf”). Others selected stamps that evoked symbolically the environs in which they worked: a fleur-de-lis for Paris makers, a lion for Lyon makers, and so forth. According to Herbert Heyde, the prevalence of unicorn’s head stamps on woodwind instruments in early nineteenth-century London can be attributed to the latter rationale (Heyde 1991, xvi): the unicorn had a long history of association with Scotland and had been a part of the British royal coat of arms since the reign of the Scottish-born King James I (r. 1603–25). In addition to evoking their locale (London), these makers may have sought to enhance the status of their instruments by adopting such an illustrious mark.

Investigation of the London makers who used the unicorn also reveals possible networks of transmission of this stamp. We have already noted that Gerock worked with the widow of Astor in a business partnership and subsequently adopted Astor’s unicorn trademark for himself. Later, Robert Wolf, an employee of Gerock’s, took over both the firm and the unicorn insignia in a similar manner. These three makers’ use of the unicorn, therefore, can be viewed as a lineage traceable from Astor’s deployment of that symbol. Closer examination demonstrates that Bilton’s use of the unicorn stamp is related to this same lineage. Prior to setting up an independent shop in 1826, Bilton had apprenticed with another London flute maker named John Cramer who also used a unicorn mark. Cramer, in turn, had succeeded one George Miller as the owner of a workshop at 3 Dacre St., London. Miller, too, used unicorn-head stamps on many of his instruments. Presumably, Cramer adopted this practice from Miller much as Gerock would later adopt it from Astor. Miller and Astor appear to be connected as well: the Astor brothers had worked with Miller immediately after immigrating to London from Germany. Some instruments with Miller’s mark also bear the addresses “26 Wych St.,” where Astor opened a new workshop in 1778, and “79 Cornhill,” where Astor moved in 1784. Thus, the use of unicorns’ heads by Miller, Astor, Cramer, Bilton, Gerock, and Wolf, and the association of these makers with three addresses, reflect a network, or a lineage, among them. (See the map and “lineage” below.)