For centuries, gut strings, especially the highest and thinnest string, E, plagued violinists. They broke frequently, went out of tune easily, and whistled unpredictably. Starting in the 1870s, an alternative offered a solution—the steel E string. But steel strings were variously condemned as “an abomination,” “dangerous,” and “evil,” and most violinists continued to use gut. Then a remarkable change occurred. Within a mere three years—1918 to 1921—there was a large-scale shift in the reception and use of steel strings in Europe and the United States. As The Etude magazine reported in 1921, “practically all the famous concert violinists, and literally all the symphony orchestra violinists [are] using the wire E string.” The driving force behind this change was World War I. The conflict shut down the export of gut strings from Germany, the world’s largest producer, and vast quantities of sheep intestines—necessary for gut strings—were desperately needed for sutures. By war’s end, the steel string came be seen as an acceptable, even desirable alternative. The shift to steel affected the violin’s construction, sound, and performance practice, marking one of the most significant changes in the history of the instrument. Broader forces are also implicated in the story of the little violin string—global trade, nationalism, surgery, meatpacking, and modernity. This article presents the first detailed account of the causes and effects of the widespread adoption of the steel violin E string, a seemingly small change whose consequences continue to resound.

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