By John Watson
Mice adore keyboard instruments as much as people do. But for mice, the attraction of organs and pianos is that they offer a splendid place to set up housekeeping. Here they find cozy lodging safely out of reach from nosy cats and unwelcoming humans. All the whiskered critters need is a crevice or hole large enough to squeeze through (always easy-to-find) and the instrument becomes home sweet home. Inside are unlimited nooks and crannies perfect for nesting. Only the rarest of piano or organ experts would know how to get to them there.
The first rodent to seek shelter in Fanny Tucker’s new organized piano had already taken up residence less than three months after the instrument arrived in Williamsburg. Its daily skittering was immortalized in two surviving letters, both written on August 4, 1799.
St. George Tucker was traveling when son Nathaniel Beverley wrote to him on that date: “Notwithstanding Sister Fanny’s absence, her instrument is not silent for we are sometimes entertained with a tune by Mr. Mouse, & sometimes by Miss Barraud.” Ann “Nancy” Barraud, whose collection of printed music is preserved in the Foundation Library, was a close and musical friend. Her house still stands here in Williamsburg, just five minutes’ walk from the Tuckers’.
Fanny’s other brother Henry wrote to papa the same day: “We have not yet got the mouse out of the organ. Nancy Barraud has play’d one or two tunes on it since you left town.”
A few decades later, at least two communities of mice took up residence, probably after the instrument had retired from musical duties. Their snug nests were built deep in two well-protected cavities that must have gone more than a century before recently seeing the light of day.
Conservators consider mice as pests; one of the agents of decay for historic objects. They chew and burrow their way through historic materials and leave a variety of unwanted debris. The organized piano has a few telltale gnaw marks on its interior and numerous holes chewed into the lead pipes. It could have been mice that rendered the piano mechanism so damaged that the hammers and other mechanical piano parts were simply thrown away long ago.
But in their mischief, mice can also become unwitting preservationists.
Mouse nests are repositories of historical evidence. Fragments of yarn from upholstery, carpets, clothes and curtains, or bits of paper, leather and chair stuffing may be the only evidence that survives of some of the furnishings of a historic site.
One of the nests even included fragments that were probably from the very hands of Castle Hill’s famously talented Rives family. The mice had pulled into their nest the nib of an ink pen and some fragments of an ink drawing on paper. Perhaps they had belonged to Amelie Rives Troubetzkoy, a well-known artist, writer, socialite and lifelong resident of the house. (See more about her on the blog History page.)
St. George Tucker would be happy to know we’ve got the mouse out of the organ and before too long, some of Miss Nancy Barraud’s music will be heard again.
Conservation of the Tucker organized piano is made possible by a gift in memory of N. Beverley Tucker, Jr.