Germanic Post Horns
Signal horns are well known in many ancient cultures and are known to have been
used in Roman times to announce the arrival of the emperor's messengers.  The
European tradition of regular postal coaches was firmly established during and
after the 16th century.  By the late 18th century, the German Post horn was
standardized in this shape and pitched somewhere near modern Bb.  The calls
required just two or three tones but the desire to become more musical resulted in
a longer tube pitched in F or Eb, often with a transposing finger hole.  In the
mid-range, this raises the pitch by a fourth or to Bb (on the F instrument).  The
combination of the F and Bb harmonic series allows for a diatonic scale in that
octave, giving the postilion the ability to play many folk tunes along with the
simple calls.  My example pictured in the first three images to the left, pitched in F
with 4 1/2 turns in the tubing, is the form found commonly throughout the 19th
century.  Although no maker's mark is present, it is a deluxe instrument being
made of German silver with gold brass trim.  I believe that the mouthpiece is
original to this instrument and plays quite well.  The bell rim diameter is 4 9/16"
and maximum length from bell rim to mouthpiece receiver is 10".   I have been
told that a deluxe post horn such as this is probably from the 1860s and is called a
"Bavarian post horn of honour".  These were awarded to postilions for service or
playing abilities.  
An identical instrument was appraised on Bavarian television's
"Kunst und Krempel", a series very much like the British and American "Antiques
Roadshow".  That instrument had belonged to the postilion to Kaiser William I
before 1885.  I invite you to contact me if you have any additional
that you might be able to offer.

In the early 19th century, post horns were also made with as many as five keys or
with two or three valves as pictured in the fourth and fifth photos on the left.  The
example with double piston valves is on display at the
Boston Museum of Fine
Arts and still has no tuning slide since is was probably not intended to play in a
group of musicians.  The second of these is the form most commonly found today
and is tunable in order to play in bands and orchestras.  It is fingered with the right
hand, since the player would not be driving the coach while playing.  Most often
these are pitched in Bb, the same as a cornet, but this example and others that I
have seen are pitched in C.  I have not learned for sure, but my speculation is that
these are intended for use in the parlor or church, playing along with the piano,
organ, choir etc.  It is normally accepted  belief that the French cornet-a-pistons
and thus all modern cornets and trumpets grew from these origins.

The next three photos to the left are a Prussian post horn attributed to the maker
C.W. Moritz in Berlin about 1880, from the collection of Tom Meacham.  There
are several other examples of this model of post horn known, including
one in the
Boston Museum of Fine Arts.  This is a lucky thing, since this one was found with
the bell garland missing.  We know from the other examples that the garland was
always engraved with "Ehren Posthorn für den Postillon" followed by the name of
the original owner to whom it was presented.  When restored, the last line was left
blank, since we will never know that name.  The opposite side is engraved with
the Prussian eagle, indicating that it was sanctioned by the state for use in the
official duties of the postillon (German and French; in English we generally use
"postilion").  Herbert Heyde, the leading expert on European brass instruments,
reports that these post horns remained the property of the state and were on loan
to the postilion.  The engraving on this horn was reproduced very accurately by
master engraver
Geoffroy Gournet.  This instrument is pitched in high pitch Eb
and, like a natural trumpet, is played in the third and fourth octave of its natural
overtone series.  With only two (Berliner) valves (whole step and half step), it is
not fully chromatic, but was only expected to play traditional signals of the postal
system with the added ability to play folk tunes and simplified national airs.  There
is no provision for tuning either the open tones or the valve loops, since it was
never intended to play along with any other instruments.  As it is, it is remarkably
easy to play in tune with itself.  The mouthpiece pictured is not original and is
most likely from a "Fürst Pless horn" as described below.  

An instrument that is commonly confused with the Germanic post horn is the
German hunting horn or jagdhorn.  These are pitched in Bb, roughly the same
shape and modern examples are available with or without valves.  They are
traditionally wrapped in green leather and have a name plate with "Fürst Pless"
embossed.  This signifies the origins under the late 19th century Prussian rein of
Hans Heinrich XI, the Fürst von Pless or Prince of the duchy of Pless in Upper
Silesia, a region of Poland today.  The principal difference from the post horn is
that they have a faster/larger taper and flare, ending in a bell more like a flugelhorn
than a cornet.  Although not historically accurate, these are a common choice for
performing the post horn parts in the orchestra when called for by Mozart, Mahler
and others.  Another fun variation is the taschenjadghorn or pocket hunting horn,
still in Bb, it is coiled so tightly with a much smaller bore, it will fit in your jacket
or coat pocket.

Further confusion of the name "post horn" is also caused by the use in England
and the US to describe very different soprano brass instruments.  The more
common is the English post horn, similar to the modern English coach horn, but
shorter and higher pitched, usually in Ab.  Presumably, this was an outgrowth of
the traditional copper coach horn, pitched around E, that was used on English
postal coaches and then also used on coaches of the aristocracy for similar signal
purposes.  The modern English coach horn is longer yet, pitched in C or Bb and
often a "herald" trumpet is substituted at race tracks in order to play tunes for the
patrons for extra tips.  

Until very recently, another use of the term was forgotten to history.  In the US
starting in the early 1840s, when valved brass instruments were starting to become
popular, small German style trumpets were being imported and then made in the
US shops and were called post horns as well.  The earliest mention I found is in
the Boston Post, February 24, 1834 in Boston, being sold at a port auction
"...bugles, trumpets, trombones, hautboys, serpents, post horns...".  We have no
way of knowing if these are plain post horns, with keys or valves.  Another early
mention is an ad in the Boston Post, January 11, 1840 by Bates & (George)
Tolman.  Among the instruments available were "24 post horns with crooks and
keys".  These may actually be keyed post horns, but my guess is that they are
with valves similar to those known by US makers, as mentioned below.  It is not
known how this tradition started, but we can guess that it may have come from
confusion in the terms being imported from Europe and England along with
players and instruments.  When the bore size of these instruments was increased
in order to modernize the design, they were then called cornets, the name that we
still use today.  Some of these earlier instruments are featured elsewhere on this
site, including
Graves post horns and a very early Fiske cornet derived from the
earlier design.
Click on images for larger views.