[Ads-l] Crab shell: a musican instrument of some sort (1798)

George Thompson george.thompson at NYU.EDU
Fri May 6 18:50:03 UTC 2016

             I got ready by 11, and we seated ourselves in the Boston Mail
Stage -- The sleighing was very good and we glided as far as Marreners at
Rye by 5 in the after-noon -- This was to be our resting place 'till
morning, and a consultation was held to determine a method for spending the
long evening. -- I went with part of the company to the Church and heard
part of the Service -- when we return'd Marenner inform'd us that the *Crab*
*shell* was come -- it was strung left-handed so that none of us could
handle it, but the owner, and we were obliged to hear the old negro murder
some tunes in cold blood, -- In order that they might not be heard in cold
blood a dance was propos'd . . .
           Alexander Anderson's New York City Diary, vol. 2, p. 586, entry
for December 24, 1798

As I was reading this, I at first supposed that the "*Crab* *shell*" was
the name of a stage coach stopping at the inn; but, "it was strung
left-handed so that none of us could handle it" -- hmm.
The writer frequently entertained his family and friends by playing his
violin, so does that mean that the Crab shell was a instrument to be played
with a bow, so that he might have played it, had it been strung properly?
Jane R. Pomeroy, the editor, asks in a note "a crab shell used as a musical
instrument?"  I'd suppose that it isn't necessarily an instrument made from
a crab shell, literally, but one that sort of looks as if. . . .
But why would the inn-keeper say "the *Crab* *shell* was come" if he meant
that someone had showed up carrying a stringed instrument?   Surely "the
guy with the *Crab* *shell* was come" would be more likely.  Their
consultation had maybe led to a plan to invite a local musician -- one who
used the nick-name Crab Shell?

Of course, the young fellow who wrote this diary didn't suppose that people
would be puzzling over it 218 years later.  If he had, he would no doubt
have taken more pains to be clear.

I've looked in DARE, the OED and Mathews' Dictionary of Americanisms
without enlightenment.  America's Historic Newspapers (formerly Early
American Newspapers) shows nothing useful.  Early American Imprints (Evans)
is misbehaving again, so I can't check it.


George A. Thompson
The Guy Who Still Looks Stuff Up in Books.
Author of A Documentary History of "The African Theatre", Northwestern
Univ. Pr., 1998..

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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