Harmony The Parlor Years
By Micheal Wright
Today we take it for granted that when we want to start learning guitar, we’re going to pick up a shiny new axe made overseas, probably in Asia. American guitarmaking has evolved since the 1960s into pretty much a high-end proposition. It wasn’t always so. There was a long period of time (late 1800s to 1960s) that mass market guitars were primarily made in the U.S.A., the vast majority built in Chicago. And one of the most successful of those Chicago guitarmaking firms was the Harmony company, an outfit that by the mid 20th century would become the world’s largest producer of guitars.
With such a prominent place in guitar history, it’s amazing no one has studied Harmony guitars. Well, it’s time to make the first attempt at elucidating the vast output of this once-great Chicago guitarmaking kingpin. Let’s begin by tracking what we can of the early days up until the time Sears purchased the company, when its output seems to have consisted primarily of parlor guitars sold mainly through the Sears catalog, though undoubtedly other sources sold them, as well.
At the outset, let’s stipulate that this subject concerns guitars that span the lower to middle range of the market. While all of Harmony’s guitars – at least those made in America, as opposed to subsequent imports – were made of solid woods (never plywood), many, especially the little birch ones, are humble and there’s good reason few survived. That said, some have been advertised lately promoting their “blues sound,” proving that beauty is in the ear of the beholder and one should always keep an open mind. As you climb the ladder of Harmony quality, however, a distinctive voice emerges. In flat-tops, it’s hard to beat the crisp sound of a Sovereign, a balanced sonority like no other guitar. While the effect is fairly alien to modern tastes, Harmony’s higher-end archtops are quite resonant, with decent cutting power.
And speaking of “bluesy” sounds, for funk appeal, nothing surpasses the old DeArmond single-coil pickups gracing the solids and Rocket thinlines. Harmony was, especially in the early days, capable of turning out guitars with pretty good workmanship. But again, these were never positioned to compete with D’Angelicos, much less Gibson or Fender. The point is that there are more than nostalgic reasons to be interested in Harmony guitars.
Most of the known information about Harmony, especially the early days, comes from Tom Wheeler’s American Guitars, the great pioneering book about American guitar history. While jobber catalogs provide a good record of Harmony products beginning in the mid ’20s, and the company’s own catalogs document the post-War years, most of the information on early Harmonys comes from pouring through old Sears catalogs.
In The Beginning
The Harmony company was founded in Chicago in 1892 by a German immigrant from Hamburg named Wilhelm J.F. Schultz. Schultz, a mechanic, came to Chicago and got work with the Knapp Drum Company. Knapp was bought out by the reigning instrument manufacturing giant, Lyon & Healy, and Schultz became foreman of the drum operation. In 1892, Schultz left Lyon & Healy and, with four employees, started Harmony in a loft of the Edison Building located at Washington and Market Streets in Chicago, later the site of the Civic Opera House. Indeed, it is not entirely certain that the company was called Harmony throughout its history; as we shall see, it did not begin to use that name until the 1920s. However, there is an unbroken line of company management, so we know that whatever the name, the subject remains the same. According to Wheeler, Harmony’s first sale was two guitars to the Chicago Music Company.
No information is available about these earliest Harmony-made guitars, but it’s safe to assume they were intended for use with gut strings, and based on the remarkable consistency of later Harmony products, probably had slotted headstocks and glued-on bridges. Very likely they would also have had three dots at the fifth, seventh, and 10th frets.
The 10th Fret
Last month, we discussed the reasoning behind Harmony’s use of the position marker at the 10th fret. Basically, markers at the 10th fret, versus the ninth (found on a few guitars and banjos before the 1880s), was a strategy employed by guitar makers who intended to sell their instruments into the immensely popular mandolin orchestras at the time. Mandolins had position markers at the 10th fret. The guitar of the 1890s was either used primarily for vocal accompaniment or as a continuo instrument in mandolin and banjo orchestras of the time. The bowl-backed Neapolitan mandolin had been successfully introduced to America by European group the Spanish Students, in 1880, whereupon followed the rage for mandolin orchestras. The five-string banjo had begun its climb out of minstrelsy following the Civil War, following a path of “improvement” on which it aimed to get out of the saloon and into the refined middle-class parlor. The banjo was succeeding in this process when the mandolin hit, and the two instruments duked it out for popularity in amateur “orchestra” or club settings through the 1890s, with the mandolin emerging predominant by the turn of the century.
In any case, Harmony and its chief early competitor, Oscar Schmidt, of New Jersey, continued to favor use of the 10th fret long after most other major manufacturers settled on the ninth fret (some, like the Larson Brothers, also continued to use 10th-fret markers). Early Harmony guitars can be identified by dot markers at the fifth, seventh, and 10th frets, and by a pin-bridge design with either flat wings or a slightly raised square on the sides. Oscar Schmidt guitars generally featured dots at the fifth, seventh, 10th and 12th frets, although some lower-end Schmidts apparently were produced using only the five, seven and 10, most (if not all) with glued-on bridges. Several of these are seen in the 1899 Sears catalog and in the 1912 Montgomery Ward catalog, so there are Oscar Schmidt guitars like these. The Oscar Schmidt bridge, which is distinctly portrayed in catalog illustrations, and unmistakable when you see one in person, was a modified pyramid-pin bridge. Take the pyramids on a Martin of the time and scoop out an oval notch on the inside or saddle-side. These identifying characteristics can be seen into the 1930s (there were other fin de siecle guitarmakers who used dots at five, seven and 10, so reasonable caution should be applied before making an attribution).
As also mentioned in our other essay, there is some evidence to suggest that manufacturers who used the 10th fret for markers may have had an eye on the emerging steel-string market, but there’s no way to be absolutely sure about that.
Harmony and Oscar Schmidt guitars were mainstays of the Sears catalog during the early part of the 20th century. Oscar Schmidt also supplied Ward’s, but because reference materials are harder to come by for that purveyor, it’s hard to tell if Harmony did, too. The few older Ward’s catalogs I’ve seen do not contain obvious Harmony products, suggesting Harmony’s allegiance was to Sears from the beginning. This would seem logical, since the two were such fierce competitors. By the ’30s – when guitar brands are easier to identify – Sears continued to rely on its Harmony subsidiary, whereas Ward’s sold guitars primarily made by Harmony’s competitors, Kay and Regal.
The Harmony company clearly did well, because according to Wheeler by 1894 there were some 40 employees. Gay ’90s Chicago was a hotbed of industrial manufacturing. It had become a huge urban magnet, offering opportunity to European immigrants pouring into the country. It sat at the transportation crossroads of the nation, where transcontinental railroad lines passed the edge of what would become the breadbasket, sitting on the Great Lakes, and just over 100 or so miles from the mighty Mississippi River. With this envious location, Chicago became the supplier of goods that made their way west as the Heartland filled up with farms and towns.
And Chicago was the home of the mail-order merchandise business, which would play a major role in the dissemination of the guitar across America and were probably the real raison d’ętre for the rise of the guitar houses of the Windy City. Chicago’s Montgomery Ward & Co. had begun its catalog sales to Grange farmers in 1872, and by 1890, just two years before Harmony’s advent, had become the world’s largest retailer. Sears, Roebuck & Co., which had begun as a watch business in Minnesota in 1885, became a full merchandise mail-order catalog business in late 1893, offering its first catalog in 1894 and moving to Chicago in 1895. By 1900, Sears had surpassed Ward’s to become the world’s largest store. The subject of the rise of these great mail-order houses and their guitars will be dealt with in detail at another time, but Sears would play a major role in the story of Harmony guitars, and is the primary source of information about early Harmony instruments, so we’ll have to spend some time on Sears.
The first of the mail-order companies to offer guitars was Montgomery Ward. At this time, the date of their introduction is not certain, but it was some time after 1875 (no instruments in that catalog) and before 1894. According to Ward’s 1894 catalog copy, the company was abandoning the sale of imported guitars because they could not withstand the climatic changes they were subject to in the New World. We think these were probably of German origin. Ward’s pledged to sell only American-made guitars, which were of superior manufacture, made “scientifically,” and guaranteed not to warp or split...as long as you didn’t use steel strings.
Who made these guitars is uncertain, and they are not illustrated. However, certain clues in the text suggest that some of the low-end guitars, birch with fake wood grains, may have been made by Bohmann. They were selling Bohmann brand mandolins at the time. Other textual clues suggest that most of the other guitars were by Lyon & Healy, but this is by no means certain. However, Ward’s was selling Lyon & Healy-made Washburn guitars, so that tends to confirm this conclusion, and Ward’s did sell some L&H products into the early 20th century.
Sears, Roebuck & Co.
Sears enters the picture at just this moment and (if you can believe the catalog copy) was selling exactly the same guitars. We know this because the mandolin and guitar pages are ripped off from the Ward’s catalog, complete with the same illustrations and identical copy – verbatim! Since this is Sears’ first full merchandise, non-watch/jewelry catalog, we know they weren’t selling imported guitars previously! This copy – and guitar selections – remained in the Sears catalog through 1896, after which Ward’s, by the way, got increasingly PO’d and began to counterattack in its own catalog...but that’s another story!
The first new “original” guitars to show up in the Sears catalog were in 1897, and, if our detective work is at all trustworthy, by then Sears was doing business with the fledgling Harmony company. This would certainly support the reports of the rapid growth of Schultz’s operation during this period.
For this essay, we’re going to focus primarily on guitars. We know that later on, Harmony made both mandolins and banjos, but tracing the origins of early mandos and banjos in the Sears catalog must be left to someone more knowledgeable on this subject. When origins can be more clearly attributed, these instruments will be discussed.
The Parlor Guitar
Most popular guitars from this period – including Harmonys – are what we now call “parlor guitars,” mostly because we really don’t have a vocabulary to deal with them in a post-dreadnought world. “Parlor” has become a code word for any old, “small-bodied” guitar. Indeed, the parlor guitar nomination is only partially correct. Yes, these instruments did grace parlors. But they were also used as continuos in mandolin and banjo orchestras, not to mention as solo instruments, although certainly not to the extent that we enjoy them today.
In fact, from the earliest catalog days, different sized guitars were offered. Up until roughly 1900, the two most common sizes were standard and concert. Early Sears (or other) catalogs do not give the specifications of these designations, but they are outlined in later catalogs, and were probably pretty much standardized industry measurements by the 1890s. According to catalogs from 1910, a standard guitar had an 183/8" body, 121/2" lower bout, 9" upper bout, 33/4" deep at the bottom. A concert had an 183/4" body, 13" and 95/8" bouts, and 33/4" depth. By 1901 grand concerts had appeared. These were common offerings by 1905. A grand concert had a 19" body, 14" and 10" bouts, 4" depth. By World War I the grand concert had been upstaged by the even-larger auditorium size. An auditorium had a 191/2" body, 141/2" and 101/4" bouts, and 4" depth.
Making a positive ID based on an illustration in an early catalog will almost always be tentative because of the dodgy nature of the illustrations. In any case, based on dot analysis and subsequent evidence, the 1897 Sears catalog had at least three Harmonys. There quite likely may be more, but since they are not illustrated, it is pretty impossible to tell from the word descriptions. These are all characterized by waists that are slightly high, typical of so many Harmonys, and slotted headstocks intended for use with gut strings. This stated intention is a reference to the growing popularity of silk-and-steel strings, use of which negated Sears’ warranty, since the guitars were not built to carry the extra tension. Harmony headstocks, by the way, would remain the slotted variety with flat-tops until the ’20s. Until the ’30s, fingerboards had 18 frets, and necks joined the body at the 12th fret.
While no discussion is presented regarding internal construction, all American-made Harmony acoustic guitars seen up to 1975 had simple ladder bracing under the top, even in the dreadnought era.
Seen in the ’97 Sears catalog was the No. 7102 “Euterpe,” a standard-sized guitar with an orange top (wood unspecified) and a body of quartersawn oak. The top was bound with a light/dark block marquetry purfling, as was the soundhole. The neck material was also unspecified, but often these had cedro or “Spanish cedar” necks, a wood like mahogany. The Euterpe had an 18-fret ebonized fingerboard, and our telltale three dots at five, seven and 10. The pin bridge had little elevated squares on the wings, typical of some Harmony bridges. This cost? $5.75, with money-back guarantee!
The No. 7106 “Troubadour,” at $8.65, was another standard with an orange top, this time made of solid mahogany. Unlike the Euterpe, this had a “convex” or ovaled ebonized fingerboard (5/7/10 dots), and a colored ring rosette. The top was unbound. The bridge was the same as on the Euterpe. For $.30 more you could get the No. 7107 Troubadour, which added white celluloid binding to the top. The Euterpe and Troubadours were offered until 1899.
In 1899, Sears greatly expanded its line of guitars, including a bunch by Harmony, and new ones by Oscar Schmidt of Jersey City, New Jersey. Harmony anchored the lower end, Schmidt handled the upper. This would establish a pattern that would last for decades. If you consult Sears catalogs from this period and the next few years, you’ll find the company shifted back and forth between identifying guitars with either model names, including numbers, or just with model numbers. There may be some logic to this, but it’s not apparent at this point (and it probably doesn’t matter, in retrospect). The key model identification seems to be located in the last three digits, with the initial numbers and/or letters having something to do with the catalog selling the item. Various models can change the three-digit designation over time, sometimes without significant change to the guitar, but at the very least tied to the year of the catalog.
The interesting new feature about the Harmony guitars shown in the 1899 Sears catalog was the use of thin, moveable bridges and metal trapeze tailpieces. These guitars were specifically designed for use with silk-and-steel strings, and indeed, the catalog stated that each came with a set of steel strings. The fixed-bridge Oscar Schmidt guitars were designed for and came with gut strings.
Five basic Sears Harmony models were offered in 1899, all in standard size only and all with the new thin bridge and metal trapeze tail. All had slotted headstocks and American patent tuners. All came, by the way, with a free instruction book and “full set of superior steel strings.”
Note that by 1899, Sears switched to a five-digit numbering scheme, a pattern that would prevail, with variations, for some time. The first two numbers apparently had meaning for Sears; all models have the same two digits in any given catalog. For 1899 it was 22. The three digits signify the model and, when appropriate, size of the guitar. Sometimes the same model will also change three-digit numbers over time. At other times, the last three digits stay constant. In any case, although there is an obvious connection between the model designation in the catalog and the real guitar, the model number was a catalog phenomenon. You won’t find them on the guitars until much later. Some older guitars may have had labels, but none we’ve seen have any that have survived, at least from this era. Once you’ve identified an old guitar as a Harmony, you have to go by materials and size to figure out if you’ve got a 100-year-old Troubadour.
Still around was our old friend the Troubadour (No. 22326), but now in a humbler form. Instead of mahogany construction, it had a “mahogany finish so near like the genuine wood that most people readily believe it to be the real wood,” presumably on birch or another hardwood. No mention is made of top material, but the illustration suggests spruce. It looks to be bound with a thin strip of white celluloid, with a simple inlaid ring rosette. The fingerboard (probably ebonized hardwood) had 18 frets and the five, seven, and 10 dot inlays. Standard size only cost you $2.95.
Above the Troubadour was the Encore (No. 22328), in birch...“a wood that is susceptible of a very fine finish,” in this case, rosewood. The (spruce) top had a celluloid-bound edge and ring rose; the back had a decorative wood strip down the center seam. Otherwise, it was similar to the Troubadour. Cost was $3.60.
The Oakwood (No. 22330, $4.95) featured quartersawn oak sides and back, with fancier wood trim on the soundhole inlay. The top was finished off in a “popular orange” finish. The fingerboard was now rosewood.
The next higher model Harmony was the Columbian (No. 22332), named, no doubt, in honor of the Columbian Exposition, the world’s fair held in Chicago in 1893. It was at the Columbian Exposition that the Ferris Wheel first appeared, and white people got their first taste of ragtime music (heard from black musicians performing in whore houses surrounding the fair). The Columbian was featured in a large color lithograph, by the way, perhaps our first color representation of a Harmony guitar. The Columbian was similar to the Oakwood except the oak was much more highly figured, and the binding was black celluloid with multicolored purfling. The top was Eastern spruce, and the fingerboard rosewood. The neck was “Spanish cedar.” Just so you know, the $7.95 price tag would be roughly equivalent to around $162 today, still a bargain.
The best Harmony available in the ’99 Sears catalog was the Magnolia (No. 22334, $8.25). This little honey was promoted as the “handsomest guitar made,” with figured magnolia body, spruce top, and celluloid and colored purfling binding. The neck was “Spanish cedar,” the fingerboard rosewood with pearl dots at five, seven and 10. This model appears to have been offered for only one year or less, so it’s probably pretty rare.
Grouped with the Harmonys in the 1899 catalog was one other guitar, yet another grade higher – the Kenmore – in standard and concert sizes. This was a fancy solid rosewood with a fixed bridge. Even though it was shown with the Harmonys and doesn’t have an octave marker, the bridge design pretty much marks it as an Oscar Schmidt. What’s curious about this, though, is that Sears’ venerable appliance name was in use on guitars 100 years ago!
Turn of the Century
For some reason, in 1900, Sears dropped the use of guitar names in the catalog and referred to its guitars simply by numbers. Not only is it odd that the names weren’t used, but also the guitars all apparently had fixed bridges rather than the trapeze tails of ’99. Some of the guitars are only shown from the back, so we have to do a little creative guessing, but these were probably also fixed-bridge Harmonys. Six appear to be Harmonys, with one an Oscar Schmidt. All came in standard size with flat, slotted heads. Those shown from the front had the 18-fret fingerboards with 5/7/10 dots, and the glued-on pin bridge with little elevated squares on the wings, telltale Harmony features. Since these features appear on both cheaper and more expensive models, they probably also pertain to the in-between models, as well.
At the low end was the No. 72580, referred to as Sears’ Special guitar, though that’s not really a model name. This appears to have been of hardwood in a mahogany finish, with a natural top and a simple ring rosette. This was equivalent to the previous Troubadour model. It would set you back $2.95! The No. 72581 Splendid Solid Birch Guitar ($3.60) was comparable to the previous Encore model, with a birch body finished in either faux rosewood or mahogany. The No. 72582 High Grade Solid Oak Guitar ($4.95) was comparable either to the old Oakwood or Columbian. Given the price, probably the former. The No. 72586 Wonderful Bargain Solid Walnut Guitar ($6.75) featured a walnut body. This is seen only from the back, but recall that the previous year Sears had offered the exotic Magnolia model by Harmony, so this is probably another in that series. At the top end were two solid rosewood guitars, both with strips inlaid down the back. The No. 72584 had a bound top with colored wood strips, an ebonized fingerboard, and a more elaborate ring rosette, for $10.50. The No. 72585 was similar, but added a marquetry rosette and ebony fingerboard, for $15.
By late 1900, Sears’ brief offering without model names changed again and names returned in 1901 with the introduction of an even larger guitar line. The lower end of the line continued to be dominated almost exclusively by Harmonys, whereas the higher end got much fancier than anything offered previously. The fancy guitars are not Harmonys. Based on the elaborate banjo-style inlays, these higher-end guitars appear to have been made by Stewart’s Sons of Philadelphia, possibly in the old Bauer factory which S.S. Stewart had taken over years before. As far as is known, the S.S. Stewart factory itself only made banjos. However, with position markers at 10 and with the semi-pyramid bridges, it’s also possible that these fancy Sears models were actually made by Oscar Schmidt using Stewart-style inlays. Since Stewart wasn’t primarily a guitar maker, the orders could very well have been jobbed out. We do know that Schmidt did produce pretty fancy guitars during this era, so who knows?
The major change in the Harmony line seen in the 1901 Sears catalog was an expansion to offering some bigger models. Previously, all Harmonys had been available only in standard size. Five Sears Harmony models were offered in 1901, all back to the thin bridge and metal trapeze tail, all with flat slotted headstocks and American patent tuners. All came, by the way, with a free copy of a self-instruction book and Sears’ “...celebrated Magic Capo d’Astro,” which is what a capo was called in those days.
Note that from this point on, Sears model numbers switched to starting with a 12 and a letter, then a three-digit number. It seems that the 12 was a constant followed by a letter that could change and probably signified something, perhaps the issue of the catalog. As before, the final three digits signify the model and the size of the guitar.
Back was our old friend, the No. 12R602 Troubadour, now available only in a mahogany finish, presumably on birch or another hardwood. No mention is made of top material, but the illustration suggests spruce. It looks to be bound with a thin piece of white celluloid (though that could be an art illusion), with a simple inlaid ring rosette. The fingerboard (probably ebonized hardwood) had 18 frets and the five, seven, and 10 dot inlays. Standard size only cost you $2.45.
The Edgemere was next, available as the standard No. 12R604 natural-finished quartersawn oak or as the No. 12R606 with a rosewood finish (both $3.75). The top was probably spruce, with rope marquetry inlay around the top and soundhole, with additional celluloid binding on the top. The 18-fret fingerboard was genuine rosewood, with 5/7/10 dots.
The No. 12R610 Marlowe ($5.45) was solid mahogany, with a marquetry strip down the center of the back. This also had marquetry inlay (undescribed) and celluloid binding.
The No. 12R614 The Acme was “...our 20th Century Bargain” at $6.95 for standard size, $7.65 for concert. This had a quartersawn oak body with an Eastern spruce top and Spanish cedar neck, reminiscent of the earlier Columbian model. Marquetry inlay graced the top, soundhole and back strip, with celluloid binding. The 18-fret fingerboard was rosewood with 5/7/10 dots. The trapeze was a fancier version of nickel-plated brass.
These Harmony guitars graced the Sears catalog for three more years, through 1904.
New Digs and Off to College
Clearly things continued to go well for Harmony. In ’04, Schultz relocated his business to a new factory in Chicago at 1738-1754 N. Lawndale. By ’06, he’d added a new wing.
In ’05, Sears introduced a new line of upscale flat-tops with collegiate names such as the Cornell, Princeton, Yale and Harvard, these latter two with pearl trim. These could be Oscar Schmidt guitars, but the illustrations show more standard pyramid pin bridges, so it may be someone else. The choice of college names is easy to understand, by the way. Both the mandolin and banjo orchestras, with accompanying guitars, that sprang up in the late 1880s and ’90s were often related to college campus life. The image was of the young man (or woman) who went off to college, sang “Bula Bula,” got stewed, sowed his or her wild oats, then threw the mando, banjo, or guitar in the attic and got down to serious business after graduation. While the orchestra/club phenomenon became more of a community activity as time progressed, the association of stringed instruments with carefree undergraduate days persisted well into the 20th century. Thus it was logical for Sears to make the connection between guitars and the best colleges when it wanted to create an appealing image.
Three Harmonys remained anchors of Sears’ budget line in ’05. The Troubadour (No. 12C600) remained pretty much unchanged, with a simulated mahogany finish over hardwood, though the price had dropped to $2.25. Also remaining was the Edgemere (No. 12C603), basically the rope-trimmed version done up in imitation rosewood with a spruce top (606), down to $2.95 for the complete outfit. New was the Oakwood No. 12C601 with a hardwood body finished in imitation quartersawn oak, with a silver spruce top and colored round maple marquetry inlays, for $2.35. All still had metal trapezes, moveable thin bridges, slotted heads, and the 5/7/10 dot inlay pattern. These could be used with either gut or wire strings, but the clear implication of the trapeze tail is that steel strings were favored on these early Harmony guitars.
These humble Harmonys remained in the Sears catalog through 1909. Harmony was later renowned for selling guitars to many distributors and other marketers. It is highly likely that this was going on by the early 20th century, but there is no information available regarding these activities at this time. Certainly the evidence appears by the 1920s, but there were undoubtedly many more Harmony guitars than those seen in the Sears catalog.
The next major revamp of Sears’ guitar offerings occurred in the Spring 1910 catalog and, as we’ve come to expect, the lower end of the line remained Harmony guitars. By this time the collegiate theme continued to dominate the upper registers, with the addition of a new trend toward place names, including the Annapolis and the Illinois. Based on the inlay patterns and semi-pyramid pin bridge designs, all of these better Sears guitars were made by Oscar Schmidt.
The most significant new development was the active promotion of steel strings. Most of the better models made by Schmidt do not mention strings, so they were probably still meant for gut strings, however, the Annapolis was specifically supplied with steel strings. All of the Harmonys now came with the trapeze tailpieces, thin bridges, and genuine silvered-steel strings.
One other thing should be noted about Harmonys from this period. They apparently specialized in producing hardwood guitars with “faux finishes” using a special “patent process” that was promoted in the Sears catalog. This was nothing new or unique, of course. The late Victorian period had a huge taste for faux wood finishes applied with paint and special combs to everything from clock housings and furniture to bedstand appointments. Joseph Bohmann used this technique even on better instruments, and we saw this from the very beginning of Harmony. Oscar Schmidt was also adept at the technique, and it was employed (to a lessor degree) by Lyon & Healy. Nevertheless, Harmony seems particularly identified with these paint jobs, and this is interesting because applying fake wood grains continued to be a hallmark of less expensive Harmony guitars through the 1960s, as seen on the many fake flamed maple Stellas and Harmony Montereys from before the War and after. Harmony’s competitor Kay prided itself on its ability to work plywood. Harmony clearly was skilled in fake wood finishes and, later, related decalomania. Decalomania, as we shall see, was a common term used for printed decal designs applied prior to finishing.
Six new Harmony guitars were featured in the 1910 Sears catalog, all spiritually similar to Harmony guitars offered since 1897. All came in standard size only.
The Mozart (No. 12T607) was highlighted, with a hardwood body finished in faux rosewood. The top was natural Vermont spruce. The neck was “mahoganized.” The top and soundhole featured rope marquetry inlay, with another strip down the middle of the back, and the top and back were bound in white celluloid. Curiously enough, the 18-fret fingerboard was ebonized walnut! With the telltale 5/7/10 dots.
The Serenata (No. 12T602) featured a poplar body finished in faux quartersawn oak, with a spruce top, white celluloid binding and a strip of black purfling. The rosette was a matching ring. A downscale version (No. 12T590) could be had with fake mahogany finish and no binding.
The Toreador (No. 12T604) had a hardwood body finished in grained mahogany, with a spruce top, neck of “selected materials” (how you could make a neck of unselected materials is a mystery!), and an ebonized hardwood fingerboard. The top had white celluloid binding with a colored wood purfling. The back was also bound but with decalomania strip down the center.
The Juanita (No. 12T609) was “certainly a beauty” according to the copy, and offered actual quartersawn Northern oak for the body and probably a spruce top. The top was bound in white celluloid with a wood purfling design, echoed in the rose and a strip down the back. The neck was imitation mahogany and the position markers were real pearl.
Finally, the Verdi (No. 12T610) gave you a hardwood body finished in fake rosewood, Eastern spruce top, and mahogany-finished neck. The fingerboard was real rosewood, with real pearl dots. The top and back were bound with white celluloid, with pretty fancy-colored wood marquetry trim around the top, soundhole, and down the back. The Verdi added a little four-leafed pearl inlay to the front of the headstock.
These Harmony guitars continued to be offered by Sears essentially unchanged through the Spring of 1913. In the Fall of 1913, the Sears line began to shift again. Sears cut back on its higher-end collegiate models, still mostly made by Oscar Schmidt, though one or more models had crept in by another unknown manufacturer (Lyon & Healy?). Still offered were the Verdi, Serenata and Toreador, with the Juanita and Mozart replaced by three new Harmony models, still all in standard size only with slotted, flat heads, thin wood bridges, metal trapeze tailpieces, 18 frets and the required 5/7/10 fingerboard dots. For some reason, the fraction 1/4 was added to all model numbers.
The Figaro (No. 12N590 1/4, $1.89) basically replaced the cheap Serenata, with fake mahogany body, spruce top, ebonized fingerboard, pearl dots, and no trim.
Our old friend the Troubadour (No. 12N605 1/4, $4.75) was back, basically replacing the Juanita with quartersawn Northern oak, spruce top, “mahoganized” neck, white celluloid and colored wood trim. This added a rosewood face to the head, with a little pearl vine inlay.
New was the Rossini (No. 12N606 1/4, $3.95) with a hardwood body finished in faux rosewood, spruce top, imitation mahogany neck, rosewood face to the head (pearl inlay down the center), white celluloid and fancy pearletta inlay around the top and soundhole. Pearletta was an imitation pearl made of plastic and sandwiched between fine strips of colored wood.
Interestingly, several new hybrid instruments began to appear in the Sears catalog at this time (1913), the guitar-mandolin and the banjo-mandolin. Whether or not these were made by Harmony is unknown, but probably not. They’re interesting because it was, you’ll recall, beginning in 1910 that the tango banjo began to compete with the mandolin, eventually becoming the tenor banjo. These hybrids in the Sears book were also intended to woo the affections of mandolin players to new instruments.
The following Spring (1914), one new Harmony was added to the Sears line, signaling a change. This was the Gitana (No. 12R608 1/4, $4.95), which basically replaced the short-lived Troubadour. The Gitana was very similar to the Troubadour, with quartersawn oak and spruce, this time with natty colored marquetry herringbone trim.
The Adjustable Bridge
The principal difference, however, was the presence of a new ebony-finished adjustable metal bridge, which was first offered as an accessory at this time. This metal bridge was shaped just like the Harmony bridge, with little elevated-square wings that held screws that anchored the bridge to the top. Given the fact that it looked just like a Harmony bridge, that it appeared later on Harmony-brand guitars, and that Harmony became a major hardware manufacturer, these were almost certainly devised by Harmony. Their purpose was, of course, to provide a more solid connection to the top than provided by the trapeze and thin bridge arrangement and to provide a more sturdy attachment when using steel strings.
Not only did this new bridge offer better connections, it was adjustable – perhaps the first adjustable bridge ever. Certainly the first on a mass-market guitar. The bridge essentially consisted of two pieces – the main housing, which screwed to the top, and a separate piece holding the saddle. This saddle section was attached to the main housing by three set screws feeding into three oval slots (not round holes). By loosening the strings, then loosening the screws, you could slide the saddle piece up or down to adjust height and horizontal angle, allowing you to both set the action and compensate for string gauge. This metal bridge was offered on Harmony guitars for most of the next decade.
This new metal adjustable bridge did, however, also appear on a more upscale guitar called the New Illinois, a model that had previously been made by Oscar Schmidt. Since this was solid mahogany and had markers at 5/7/10/12, it probably was still a Schmidt product. For the next year or so all of Sears’ higher-end guitars, probably still made by Oscar Schmidt, sported the new Harmony adjustable bridge.
The Harmony guitars offered in the 1914 Sears catalog continued unchanged through the Spring of the following year. At that time, only one guitar is listed as coming with strings of imported gut. Shortly thereafter, all mention of gut strings would disappear, both a triumph of player taste and, more to the point, the result of World War I. Europeans were too busy lobbing canisters of mustard gas at each other to be making gut strings for the American guitar player.
The appearance of the new adjustable bridge presaged the next big development at Sears, which occurred in the Fall of ’14. Sears adopted the brand name it had previously applied to record players and records, Supertone, for its musical instruments. While the actual instrument offerings and suppliers remained the same, Sears’ first big brand name had been born. Whether the advent of this brand name was pre-emptive or reactionary is unknown. What is known is that almost simultaneous with the introduction of the Supertone moniker, Sears’ crosstown rival Montgomery Ward introduced its Concertone brand. And this was used on an almost identical series of guitars!
Events were conspiring to change the world in ’14, and these are reflected in the Fall 1914 Sears catalog. Up until 1914, the U.S. had been pretty well isolated, politically speaking, from its European ancestors. It was kind of an article of faith that the only good high culture came from Europe, but otherwise we didn’t meddle with them, and expected them to reciprocate. In ’13 a scholarly intellectual from New Jersey was elected President – Woodrow Wilson. In ’14, Germany and France went to war. The U.S. remained staunchly isolationist despite the awful devastation of trench warfare on the European continent. On May 7, 1915, a German U-boat torpedoed and sank the Lusitania, causing great loss of life. Wilson sent warnings, but the U.S. remained out of the war until February of 1917, when it entered with a vengeance, helping to bring the conflagration to a conclusion in 1918.
Prior to World War I, the primary source of violins was Germany and Northern Italy. The War disrupted supplies, and it was at this time Harmony began to manufacture violins.
Even though Americans were firmly against involvement in Europe’s war, our growing fascination with world culture and increasing participation were illustrated by the new “Page of Artistic Supertone Instruments” in the Fall ’14 Sears catalog. Offered were exotic stringed instruments with strong European or other influences. Shown were a Portuguese guitar (12-string), a “Lute (Modern)”, an Italian Guitar (10-string Chitarra Battente), two mando-violinos with either flat or arched tops and strange double cutaways, a “new-style mandolin” that was actually Regal’s odd scroll mando, plus a banjo-guitar, a harp guitar, and a pair of Hawaiian ukuleles. Most of these were not Harmony products, however, the banjo-guitar looks suspiciously like it could be a Harmony product, but that’s unknown. The harp guitar and ukes were from Harmony.
End of an Era
Although they probably weren’t aware of it at the time, the advent of the Supertone name essentially marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. In ’15, the Supertone brand headed in a new direction. Still basically “parlor guitars,” but with an entirely new, more modern look and feel. And in very real terms, the relationship between Harmony and Sears was about to change, because in ’16 Sears acquires its long-term guitar partner and usher in a new period of prosperity for both companies. We’ll leave the telling of that tale for a future installment.
Many people have helped in the assembly of this history, including Michael Newton, Michael Lee Allen, Larry Goldstein, Lois and John Portman, and many others.
How Much Did They Cost?
When possible we’ve included original prices of these guitars, but obviously it’s difficult to relate paying $2.95 for a guitar in 1900 to what it might represent today. That’s a cheap cup of coffee at Starbucks. However, thanks to the internet, it’s pretty easy to find the means to convert old dollar values to present-day terms. The following conversions were done using tables developed by Robert C. Sahr of the Political Science Department at Oregon State University, Corvallis, using revised 19th century data provided by John J. McCusker. We’re only showing selected conversions. Keep in mind that dollar values remained remarkably stable for many years at a time. Fluctuations in inflation and deflation were relatively small for most of the 19th century, and periods of hyperinflation such as were seen in the 1970s and early ’80s, which have made current economists so fearful, are not that common. For example, the conversion factor from 1875 to ’88 is 0.06; the factor from 1889 to 1911 is 0.05, and remains in that range until 1916.
Thus, the dollar hardly changed value for nearly 40 years, and in fact stayed close to the value of the 1800 dollar ($.07 change). Also, keep in mind that what might seem to be insignificant differences now amounted to much greater differences at the time. You and I wouldn’t blink at the difference between paying $10.50 or $15 for a guitar now, but in 1900 that $4.50 difference was worth about $90 in modern dollars! None of us would pass up a 1941 Cremona archtop for $75, but in its day that was the equivalent of an $872 guitar!
Cost of Harmony guitars in
1900 (0.05) 2000
1905 (0.05) 2000
1922 (0.098) 2000
1941 (0.086) 2000
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