|Other Late 19th Century Guitar Makers|
Sears, Roebuck and Company was the largest retailer of guitars at the turn of the twentieth century. Harmony made the lower end of the Sears’ guitar line from nearly the earliest days that the mail order house carried musical instruments. Several other companies made the more expensive instruments over the years. Philadelphia’s Stewart & Bauer built the top-of-the line Sears guitars until shortly after the turn of the century. The company was formed in 1898 from the merger of S.S. Stewart’s banjo company with George Bauer’s guitar and mandolin company. Bauer had been in business since about 1894. S.S. Stewart died shortly after the merger, but the partnership continued between Bauer and Stewart’s sons until 1901 when the Stewart brothers broke away to create a new line of banjos. Bauer continued to produce Stewart & Bauer (S&B) instruments, and apparently fulfilled the contract with Sears for both guitars and banjos, but went out of business in 1911.
Bauer was a master luthier, and his best guitars are among the most finely crafted of the era. The instruments built for Sears, the Acme Professional line, are not the very best to come out of his shop, but are remarkable for mail order catalog guitars. While they are simple, ladder-braced instruments, the tops of made of Eastern spruce, and the backs and sides are of fine Brazilian rosewood. Pearl inlays surround the sound hole and ring the top. The fingerboards had striking, exotic star and crescent inlays – very similar to the inlays on some high-end Stewart & Bauer banjos.
The John C. Haynes Company was formed in Boston in 1865 as one of the musical instrument manufacturing and distribution subsidiaries of the vast Oliver Ditson & Company music publishing empire. Haynes sold guitars under the Bay State, Ditson and Haynes Excelsior brands. The company was absorbed by the parent around 1900, which would go on to make guitar history when it introduced Martin’s first Dreadnought in 1916. Some of Haynes’ instruments featured William B. Tilton’s “Improvements.”
Haynes Excelsior guitars and Haynes’ line of Tilton instruments were built by Pehr A. Anderberg, a Sweedish-born luthier who had immigrated to the U.S. in the 1860s. Anderberg initially settled in New York, where he worked for musical instrument wholesaler C.F. Bruno until about 1870, when he moved to Mt. Vernon, New York and went into business for himself. He moved to Somerville, Massachusetts in about 1880, and began to build instruments under contract to Haynes. Haynes eventually bought out his shop, and made Anderberg the foreman of the guitar works – a position he held until about 1892, when he left to once again go out on his own. He also made guitars and mandolins for Pollman & Sons of New York.
Another Ditson-related guitar manufacturer and distributor was the John Church Company. Ditson’s Cincinnati branch, launched in 1860, was sold to its founder, John Church, in 1871 and renamed. Church’s small instrument manufacturing arm built guitars that were sold under the Imperial brand. In 1891, Church introduced a new model of Imperial guitar incorporating a bridge and tailpiece combination intended for steel strings, patented by one Charles F. Geiger, which may be the first guitar to be advertised as built specifically for steel strings.
The Wolfram Guitar Company, which was formed in Columbus, Ohio around 1891, made instruments marketed under the Triumph brand. The company is best known today among guitar collectors and historians for introducing the aluminum fretboard, which Theodore Wolfram patented in 1893. Aluminum was a novel material at the time. It was discovered in 1808, but it took until 1886 to develop a commercially viable process for producing the metal. It was an interesting experiment, but hardly a huge commercial success. According to guitar historian Michael Holmes, the company announced the making of their 10,000th instrument in February 1901, but was declared insolvent before the end of the year. Apparently, Theodore Wolfram continued in business operating as the Wolfram Guitar & Mandolin Company until 1910.
Theodore Wolfram made guitars with aluminum necks, but Neil Merrill went a step further. Merrill began experimenting with building musical instruments from aluminum in about 1886. Between 1894 and 1898 Merrill's Aluminum Musical Instrument Company sold, under the Merrill brand, guitars, mandolins, fiddles, banjos and zithers with bodies made of aluminum with wooden tops and necks.
In an era where mass production ruled, independent Washington luthier Chris Knutsen was an anachronism. Though he had distribution agreements with small wholesalers from time to time (including, apparently, Larson Brothers distributor W. J. Dyer & Bro. for a brief time around the turn of the century ), for much of his career, he built his instruments in his home and sold directly to guitarists.
Knutsen was born in Norway in 1862, and immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1865. He was building instruments in Port Townsend, Washington by the mid-1890s, and was awarded his first patent in 1896 for a guitar with a body whose upper bout extends in a graceful arc all the way up to the peghead, forming a second sound chamber with its own sound hole. The following year he filed for a patent for a harp guitar with a similar shape. Knutsen referred to his design as a “One-Arm Guitar,” and built six-string, nine-string and eleven-string versions of the instrument.
Knutsen’s harp guitars are desirable collectors items today, and the Dyer Symphony Harp Guitar manufactured by the Larson Brothers for W. J. Dyer & Bro. in St. Paul, Minnesota under Knutsen’s patent is among the most sought-after instruments by guitar collectors. But it was his Hawaiian guitars that sealed his place in guitar history. Hawaiian music, and its characteristic steel guitar – played laying on the performers lap using a steel bar to stop the strings – had been slowing gaining popularity in the U.S. since Hawaiian performers had begun touring the mainland around the beginning of the new century. The music experienced a surge of interest after 3.7 million people heard it at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exhibition in Seattle in 1909. Knutsen was ahead of the curve, and was already building Hawaiian steel guitars before the AYP Exposition, perhaps as early as 1907. In 1914 Knutsen moved to Los Angeles to concentrate on the soon-to-explode Hawaiian steel guitar market.
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Copyright 2009, David K. Bradford