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Cittern View Interactive Version ]

The cittern, or English guitar, was a popular drawing-room instrument in the second half of the eighteenth century. Although it has straight sides and a generally flat back like instruments in the guitar family, it is more closely related to the lute, and its metal strings are plucked with the fingertips in the same manner.1 Until about 1825 the term "guitar" referred almost exclusively to the English guitar, while the Spanish guitar was identified as "Spanish." The English guitar was not, however, a specifically English product. They were also made in other countries and were especially popular in France as well as in Virginia.2

As early as 1776, Jefferson recorded the purchase of guitar strings in Philadelphia, suggesting perhaps that his wife played the instrument.3 When his younger daughter Maria joined him in Paris in 1787, he paid eighty-four livres for a guitar and regularly recorded payments to the "Guitar master for Polly."4 Maria Jefferson's guitar came to America with the rest of the family's baggage, but this cittern appears to have been purchased by Jefferson in Virginia in 1816.5 His granddaughter, Virginia Randolph Trist, recalled in 1839:

I had for a long time a great desire to have a guitar. A lady of our neighborhood was going to the West, and wished to part with her guitar, but she asked so high a price that I never in my dreams aspired to its possession. One morning, on going down to breakfast, I saw the guitar. It been sent up by Mrs. for us to look at, and grandpapa told me that if I would promise to learn to play on it I should have it. I never shall forget my ecstacies. I was but fourteen years old, and the first wish of my heart was unexpectedly gratified.6

In 1824 Virginia Randolph received another guitar, possibly the guitar from Paris that Jefferson had given to his daughter Maria. In a letter to Nicholas Trist, her future husband, Virginia wrote that her father had come from Richmond and brought "a spanish Guitar," a gift from a cousin named Wayles Baker. She explained:

It belonged formerly to Aunt Maria Eppes, and she gave it to Mrs. Baker. It appears to be a very sweet toned instrument, and looks all spanish. I have practised but little on it as yet, because I have not much time for music this month. Did you ever hear a Spanish Guitar, and do you think it agreable? Perhaps it will support my voice, which is, you know, very weak, and somewhat cracked.7

The Spanish guitar is unlocated, but the cittern descended in the family of Virginia Trist. The maple and pine instrument with wood inlay has watch-key tuning invented in the 1760s by John N. Preston of London.8

Artist/Maker Unknown
Object TypeMusical Instruments
Materialsmaple, pine, other woods, gilded metal rose
Dimensions30 1/2 in.


  1. Alan Kendall, The World of Musical Instruments, 27; Robert Spenser and Ian Harwood, "English Guitar, " in the The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, ed. Stanley Sadie (London: Macmillan Press, 1984), 706.
  2. John Fesperman, "English Guitar," in William Howard Adams, The Eye of Thomas Jefferson, 20; Kendall Musical Instruments, 27.
  3. 31 August 1776,James A. Bear, Jr., Jefferson's Memorandum Books.
  4. 5 September 1788 and 6 April 1789,James A. Bear, Jr., Jefferson's Memorandum Books.
  5. 4 March 1816, James A. Bear, Jr., Jefferson's Memorandum Books.
  6. Virginia Randolph Trist to Henry S. Randall, 26 May 1839, Sarah N. Randolph, The Domestic Life of Thomas Jefferson, Compiled from Family Letters and Reminiscences by His Great-Granddaughter, 348.
  7. Virginia Jefferson Randolph to Nicholas P. Trist, 9 January 1824, Nicholas P. Trist Papers (2104), University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
  8. Nicholas P. Trist Papers, 706.

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