This rare musical instrument combines features of a piano and a harp.
"The new instrument which he has invented is a wonderful addition to the musical instrument family. Although it has a key board like that of the piano and organ, it is not an imitation of either, but is an entirely new instrument."—Promotional brochure
Peter Bissing wasn't yet a year old when his family left Russia to immigrate to Kansas. The Bissings were one of a group of Volga German families who settled in Ellis and Rush counties in the 1870s. Peter's father, Justus Sr., was one of the three founding citizens of Catharine, a village northeast of Hays.
Talent at a Young Age
During his childhood, Peter began to display musical skill. Justus Sr. was an organ maker in Russia, and four-year-old Peter learned to play instruments his father crafted. Peter took up the violin at the age of eight. At twenty, he was the director of the Hays Mitchell Cornet Band. His musical prowess wasn't limited to performance. Peter also composed music for the violin, piano, and orchestra, and wrote a treatise on music and the origin of orchestras. The residents of Hays were impressed by his abilities. They held a benefit concert to raise the money to send the musician to Prague to study under one of Europe's greatest violinists.
After returning from Europe, Peter settled in Topeka where he opened a music conservatory. He also began developing new musical instruments. While Peter formulated plans for three keyboard instruments, only one was actually manufactured. It was called the dolcette. Measuring six feet in height and nearly four feet in width, the dolcette resembled a piano with a harp on the top. By simply pressing a key or depressing one of the foot pedals, the musician could cause the instrument to sound like a mandolin, the Italian harp, or chimes.
Once the dolcette's design was complete, Peter focused on manufacturing and selling his invention. He employed his brother, Justus Jr., to craft the instrument. Justus was a skilled cabinet and pattern maker and owned a planing mill in Hays. In 1909, Justus bought the machinery to make the fifty dolcettes his brother ordered. He also constructed a new building to house the operation. Four years later, Peter formed the Dolcette Syndicate, the company that would sell the dolcettes. It was comprised of a board of directors and twenty men and women from Topeka and Hays.
With one or two sample instruments manufactured, Peter began pedaling his invention. He took the dolcette into the homes of prospective buyers where his assistant gave demonstrations. Local musicians and the businessmen who invested in the company gave the dolcette positive reviews. J.B. Marshall, the director of the Topeka Marshall's Band, stated, "The Dolcette is a great acquisition to the family of musical instruments. It is unique in design, pleasing in it various qualities, and is substantially constructed. It will soon become a favorite of all lovers of music."
Marshall couldn't have been more wrong. The dolcette never became popular. Without the funds of a large company backing the endeavor, production and manufacture remained small-scale. Peter served as the only salesman. Moreover, consumers were reluctant to pay the dolcette's $125 price tag.
Ultimately, the Dolcette Syndicate sold only a few of the instruments it produced. The remaining dolcettes went into storage. Peter moved to Chicago to start a new conservatory in 1914 and lost interest in his creation. In 1916, the owners of a storage space in downtown Topeka filed a lawsuit against the company to recover rent owed on one of their rooms. It contained forty dolcettes, which they argued were not worth the $775 owed on the space. They requested a sheriff's auction to sell the dolcettes and a cash settlement totaling the difference between the rent owed and the earnings from the auction. The judge awarded them $385.
Only five dolcettes have been found in museums and private collections. The Kansas Museum of History acquired the one shown here for its collection in 1925.
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: April 2006
Date Modified: December 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.