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Digging the Fifties | Part 9

The NMM is excited to bring to you this series of musical delights. Written by curator Ana Sofia Silva, "Digging the Fifties" takes readers through some unseen highlights of our collections, with intriguing stories, commentary, photos and more, celebrating our 50th Anniversary with 50 objects extraordinaire. Read more below to see how we're "Digging the Fifties!"

To view other Notes from this series, and download the full article, check out 


Digging the Fifties

A curatorial perspective on 50 objects from the NMM collections

By Ana Sofia Silva, Curator

The small Hawaiian ukulele had two peaks of popularity in the U.S. mainland. First, with the 1915 Panama–Pacific International Exposition, which led to the craze of Hawaiian music in the 1920s; and second, with Arthur Godfrey's TV shows that exposed the ukulele to millions of viewers in the 1950s. Read about two ukuleles from each time period (NMM 14950 and NMM 14150) as well as a North American version of the tiple guitar (NMM 03850) from about the same time period, which could be easily played by ukulele players. And discover how some of the instruments in the NMM collections can be examples of near-mint condition instruments, like a Ludwig castanet machine (NMM 04750), or stencil instruments, like an “A. Fontaine” flute (NMM 14750).

A brown ukulele on a white background.
Soprano ukulele, C. F. Martin & Co., Nazareth, PA, ca. 1923–1930. NMM 14950. Photo by Dara Lohnes-Davies.

And since C. F. Martin was introduced in a previous segment, it seems only appropriate that we include one example of instruments from this renowned company that made the cut from the group of pre-selected instruments for this article. This is a small soprano ukulele from ca. 1920s, NMM 14950, which is a Style 2 model made of mahogany. By this time, the C. F. Martin company was already located in Nazareth, Pennsylvania, and flourishing under the direction of third-generation Frank Henry Martin (1888–1945). Frank Henry had the ability to sense market trends in different musical tastes and adjust manufacturing accordingly. With the craze of Hawaiian music in the early 1900s, Americans fell in love with ukuleles and the Martin company followed suit in becoming one of the major ukulele manufacturers in the mainland. Part of that growth in demand and production was due to the making of fine instruments, which resulted from early experimentation in uke-making. The use of mahogany, for instance, allowed for the production of more robust instruments as opposed to the light ones made with native Hawaiian koa wood. The Style 2 was a standard mid-line model that featured celluloid binding. In terms of model design, the higher the style number, the fancier the instrument. This ukulele is part of the Geoffrey Robert Rezek (b. 1941) Collection at the NMM, which includes about sixty instruments that Rezek collected and donated over the years, as well as extensive archival materials that support ukulele-related education and research. More than an ukulele enthusiast and collector, Rezek is also a player and teacher with the belief that “the ukulele is a way of life.”


A beige ukulele on a white background.
Soprano ukulele, French American Reeds Manuf. Co., New York, NY, ca. 1952–1963. NMM 14150. Photo by Ana Sofia Silva.

The ukulele is a Hawaiian adaptation of a small Portuguese plucked string instrument called machete de braga or braguinha, which was introduced in Hawaii by Portuguese immigrants from the Madeira islands in the late 1870s. Soon, the beloved instrument became part of the Hawaiian culture. The ukulele had two peaks of popularity in the U.S. mainland. First, with the 1915 Panama–Pacific International Exposition that took place in San Francisco, California (which then led to the craze explained above). Second, with Arthur Godfrey's TV shows that exposed the ukulele to millions of viewers in the 1950s. American radio and television broadcaster and entertainer, Arthur Morton Leo Godfrey (1903–1983), was a ukulele player himself. When the famous guitar designer Mario Maccaferri (1900–1993) launched the line of plastic “Islander” ukuleles in 1949, Godfrey's enthusiastic endorsement of these led to another boost in production that reached millions of manufactured instruments.

A multicolor red and brown back of a ukulele on a white background.
Detail from back of ukulele NMM 14150. Photo by Bill Willroth Sr.,

Maccaferri combined his interests in musical instrument design with his expertise in plastic products he had been developing since the war times and the shortage of materials. NMM 14150 is one of those Islander Ukes designed by Maccaferri and made by the company he started in New York (French American Reeds Manufacturing Company, which later became Mastro Plastics Corporation) when he fled the war and moved his reed manufacturing business from Paris. By 1941, Maccaferri was investing in plastic injection molding machines for his company and began to establish his successful business in plastics. Despite the millions produced, there is some consensus that few early plastic ukuleles turn up today, as most probably these were seen as “toy” instruments and were easily discarded. The NMM is fortunate to have some examples that survived in near-mint condition because they came to the museum from the Arne B. Larson Estate, which included many stock instruments from the Larson family music store in Brookings, SD. This example is also a soprano ukulele size, made of Styron® plastic with a multi-color, marbleized back intended to simulate rosewood. This effect, a result of the unpredictable nature of mixing colors in the injection molding process (plastic pellets are heated, melted, and then injected with pressure into a mold), made each instrument unique in color patterns.

A small brown guitar-shaped instrument on a white background.
Tiple, Regal Musical Instrument Company, Chicago, IL, ca. 1925–1940. NMM 03850. Photo by Dara Lohnes-Davies.

And before moving on from the ukulele craze of the 1920s, there is one other instrument that also became popular during that time: a North American version of the tiple. Meaning “treble” in Spanish, the name “tiple” is used for many variations of instruments from the guitar family in Spain and other countries in Latin America. The ten-string tiple that was first designed by the Martin company in 1919 took inspiration from an original tiple brought from Argentina. Martin's redesign reduced the instrument's size and furnished it with steel strings tuned the same as a ukulele. As such, any ukulele player could play the tiple; a new instrument with a completely different and rich sound. Soon, other U.S. companies were making and marketing their own versions of tiples. NMM 03850, from the ABL collection, is one of such instruments made by the Regal Musical Instrument Company, in Chicago, one of the major manufacturers of fretted, plucked-string instruments in the first half of the 20th century that competed aggressively and catered to the mail-order market. The ten strings of this tiple were arranged in four courses (or groups) of two-, three-, three-, and two-strings.

This next instrument is another example of a near-mint condition object that Arne B. purchased new for his music store and came to the museum through the estate. NMM 04750 is a castanet machine usually known as “concert castanets” because these are primarily meant to be used in band or orchestral performances in a mounted device or stand. As such, the construction of these instruments is quite different from the more popular versions of handheld castanets associated with Spanish music and flamenco dance. This version of concert castanets is made with two halves of castanet cups assembled on a wooden block base.

A small black box with two castanets mounted on top, on a white background.
Concert castanets, Ludwig Drum Company, Chicago, IL, ca. 1963–1966. NMM 04750. Photo by Ana Sofia Silva.

Ludwig introduced their “concert castanets” as a “new product” in April 1963. The castanets were made of bakelite and were secured with an elastic cord to a brass wire attached to a black-painted, hardwood mounting block. This design allowed the performer to play the castanets with the fingers (or soft mallets) without mounting them on the hands, which usually would take too long, and have a better feeling and control during the performance. According to Albert (Al) Eugene Payson (b. 1934), a percussionist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra between 1958 and 1997, the Ludwig device allowed the performer to play all the fundamental rudiments, or characteristic sounds derived from the castanets, used by Spanish dancers, with the exception of the choque (“The Ludwig Drummer” Vol. 3, no. 2, November 1963). The choque sound (Spanish for “shock,” also known as “tchi” or “chi”) is made by hitting the hand castanets against each other, which obviously, was not possible to do with the concert castanets. From 1965 on, Ludwig changed the mounting block to clear rosewood, so the NMM example is representative of the first line of production.

A silver flute on a white background.
Flute, Italy, ca. 1950–1957. NMM 14750. Photo by Ana Sofia Silva.

One last example from the group of instruments from the Arne B. estate that were accessioned is a representative of the many stencil instruments that can be researched at the NMM. In the context of musical instruments, a “stencil instrument” is one marked with a tradename or the name of a distributor company (or both). Usually, “stencils” can be imported from countries with low-cost manufacturing or ordered from manufacturers that produce low-cost instruments. Sometimes, these could be supplied to various companies in a semi- or un-finished condition with the intent that the distributing company would complete and brand them. But mostly, these affordable options were meant to be exclusively distributed by dealers, which, in many instances, did not manufacture instruments at all, but still “wanted in” in the market competition. As such, attribution of specific makers in historic instruments is very difficult. NMM 14750 is a flute that bears the engraved tradename “A. Fontaine,” a “made in Italy” stamp, and a serial number 3926. According to the PGMI, that tradename was used by the Fred Gretsch Manufacturing Company, in Brooklyn, New York, for “clarinets, flutes, and woodwind accessories made in Paris.” This flute, however, was made in Italy. Gretsch started offering “A. Fontaine” wood and metal clarinets only at first, around 1930-40s. These, yes, from Paris manufacturers like Couesnon. At this time, Gretsch was only offering US-made flutes (under the tradenames Symphony, Commander, and American). In 1957, Gretsch discontinued “A. Fontaine” flute and piccolo models, and introduced the new line of I. M. Grassi flutes and piccolos made in Milan for them, along with a new Grassi flyer catalog. Ida Maria Grassi started making flutes and piccolos after WWII in a small garage in Via Dezza which soon gathered the attention of the American market and led her to open a factory in Cinisello Balsamo. Although one cannot determine with absolute certainty without further research, it is possible to consider that Grassi could have made the stencil flutes for Gretsch when she first started to export, perhaps under some initial form of partnership before Gretsch officially recognized Grassi as a supplier for their imports.


Stay tuned for one final post in this special curatorial series - Digging the Fifties!



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