Ahh, the slide whistle. From John Philip Sousa to Raymond Scott, from Peter Tchaikovsky to Spike Jones, the slide whistle has seen a rather ubiquitous and glorious history as the respectable novelty instrument. Whereas the kazoo seems more suited for the kindergarten, and the triangle relegated to the percussion pit, the slide whistle's distinctive pitch-bending hilarity is perfect for the whimsical orchestral arrangement.
The slide whistle is, essentially, a flute without holes. Instead, the pressure inside the tube that generates the frequency is determined by a plunger which moves up or down within the tube to lower or raise the pitch, respectively. There are no additional manipulations available, and it is essentially a one-trick pony. This is very similar to a trombone, the venerable p_i informs me.
| <---- handle to control plunger
| | |
| | |
|-----| <---- plunger
| <---- exit hole
Variations on the slide whistle have existed for centuries, but the common design as pictured above started in 19th century Germany as orchestral music rose in popularity. It was used marginally in songs by Haydn (in his Toy Symphony), Brahms (Hungarian Dance No. 2), and Richard Strauss. Tchaivovsky and other adventuresome Russians also began using the instrument as a subtle yet effective way of distracting the audience while changing key within their compositions. American bandleader John Philip Sousa added one to his famous marching band, and often used it to start off the show.
As silent pictures began becoming more popular, the slide whistle's versatility became even more widespread: it's up and down grace gave the pratfalls of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Fatty Arbuckle a refreshingly funny light. Later, as sound effects were set aside in favor of subtler soundtracks as talkies became popular, a new medium arrived to save the slide whistle from obscurity: cartoons.
Perhaps the most famous cartoon musician of all time, Raymond Scott (who is also noted as one of the most ingenious electronic musicians of his day) utilized the slide whistle with a style and flair that appealed to the screwball antics of cartoonish imagery in a way that few others have rivaled. Later, Scott Bradley of Hanna-Barbera amd Carl Stalling (with help from Milt Franklyn) also allowed the slide whistle room to breathe (pun intended.). Novelty artists such as Spike Jones and Ernie Kovacs made the instrument an everyday item.
Today, slide whistles are primarily made of nickel or chrome, although there are plenty of manufacturers using a variety of materials, including wood, acrylic, and plastic for you cheap bastards. You can still hear the dynamic and delightful instrument in musical scores, cartoons, and symphonies throughout the world.