Henry August Pollmann: the success, bankruptcy, and murder of a New York musical instrument dealer
By Dr. Sabine K. Klaus, Joe and Joella Utley Curator of Brass Instruments, and Arian Sheets, Curator of Stringed Instruments
Henry August Pollmann (1846–1913) was a German-born importer who provided a steady supply of all kinds of musical merchandise from his homeland to the United States. Pollmann trained with his father, brass instrument maker Heinrich August Pöllmann (1824–1903) in Markneukirchen, Germany’s center for musical instrument production. After immigrating to the United States in March 1872, Pollmann settled in New York City and initially partnered with the German brothers, Godfrey Robert and John Henry Martin as Martin, Pollmann & Co. By 1879, Pollmann operated his own independent import business on Maiden Lane.
Pollmann relied heavily on imports supplied by his relatives in Mark- neukirchen, including his younger brother Julius Max Pöllmann (1868–1940). Passport applications and re-entry records to the United States show that Pollmann regularly travelled to Europe. Initially, Pollmann focused on brasswind instruments, but by the mid-1880s his business had expanded and in 1886 he registered a trademark “for musical instruments, wind and string.” In 1893 he advertised in the Music Trade Review as importer and manufacturer of “Brass Band Instruments, String Band Instruments, Accordions, Strings &c. at 70 & 72 Franklin Street in New York.” Pollmann branded some of his imported instruments under the names Imperial (Kalbe), Royal and Novitat.
His large-scale business practices were based on substantial stocks. In 1895, August Pollmann was counted among those American firms who were “known for their go-aheadness” and he was a respected member of the Musical Merchandise Board of Trade, serving as its vice-president.
While governments often seek to shelter the industries and jobs of their own citizens against foreign competition through actions such as tariffs, legislation, and regulation, this is only one side of the story. Goods produced domestically may also become more expensive because of higher labor costs, while imported goods that were formerly affordable may also become more expensive. The long-lived Dingley Act (1897), for example, increased tariffs for imported musical instruments by 45%. Prior to the imposition of this and other tariffs, from the 1860s through 1890, the supply of musical instruments in the United States had heavily relied on European imports, in particular those from the Vogtland region of Germany, where labor costs were significantly lower.
Pollmann’s business was hit hard by the Dingly tariffs and signs of Pollmann’s declining fortune immediately started to appear. Between 1899 and 1904, Pollmann frequently appealed against tariffs, as documented in the Music Trade Review. In late August 1899, Poll- mann’s objection to the high import taxes for gut strings, for example, was overturned by the United States Board of General Appraisers. Pollmann’s appeal dragged on, and his initial confidence that he was “absolutely sure of winning our case,” slowly eroded and he was ultimately unsuccessful.
Pollmann’s business was irrevocably damaged by the tariffs, ultimately driving the firm into bankruptcy. In October 1904, the firm was incorpo- rated as August Pollmann Co. with August Pollmann as president and his sons Edwin and Arthur holding executive offices. This change of the firm’s legal status was attributed to a bankruptcy petition filed against Pollmann by several Markneukirchen dealers. On January 21, 1905, the Music Trade Review reported the filing of another petition against Pollmann by three more German creditors who claimed that he was insolvent and accused him of being overstocked. As a result, Pollmann downsized and moved to smaller premises. The bankruptcy proceedings dragged on for months and eventually the inevitable happened. Pollmann’s firm was liquidated in early December 1905. According to a large advertisement in the Music Trade Review issue of December 23, 1905, the bulk of Pollmann’s goods were bought by the New York musical merchandise importers, Buegeleisen & Jacobon. Pollmann was not selling brass instruments anymore by the time of his bankruptcy, but only strings, free-reeds, woodwinds, and percussion.
Following his bankruptcy, Pollmann briefly sold a line of orchestrions, street pianos, and both skating rink and merry-go-round organs. But he seems to have given up on the musical merchandise business entirely by 1910, after which he worked as a clerk in the Ferdinand Munch Brewery in Brooklyn.
August Pollmann’s sad end came on New Year’s Day, 1913, when he died, at the age of 66, from a fractured skull. He was found on the evening of New Year’s Eve, lying on the ground outside the brewery where he worked. Many presumed that he simply succumbed to the effects of a tragic fall. But his family suspected foul play because no money was found on him, although he had received a $10 gold piece from the president of the brewery that very day.
Pollmann’s obituary honored him as having been the head of one of the largest wholesale musical instrument firms in the United States.
The National Music Museum’s collections preserve a variety of Pollmann’s merchandise. The Utley Collection contains an early string-rotary valve cornet in E-flat, signed by Martin, Pollmann & Company and a baritone helicon signed by August Pollmann signed by August Pollmann. These three brass instruments span span a period from 1872 to ca. 1895 and were made and sold during the height of Pollmann’s career. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of firms like Pollmann’s to the American music market in the second half of the 19th century. Often called “jobbers” at that time or in modern terminology, wholesalers, these business figures played an important role in the distribution of commercially mass-produced instruments to retail stores across the country. They sourced musical products from suppliers both domestic and abroad, building close relationships with manufacturers and exporters, who were often their foreign counterparts in the wholesale trade. Since the 18th century, these American jobbers were frequently of German background, and they drew upon the manufacturing capabilities of the Saxon Vogtland and the Bohemian region of Egerland just across the Austro-Hungarian border. Violin-family instruments and brasswind were typically made in Bohemia, while other products like strings, woodwinds, and free reeds were sourced on the German side of the border.
These products of widely varying quality, commoditized into grades sold by the dozen, enabled American customers of varying means to purchase professionally made instruments at prices they could afford. Some products, such as guitars, mandolins, and banjos, came to be more frequently manufactured in the United States rather than imported, especially as larger and more technologically advanced factories sprang up on the East Coast and Chicago. New York City, where Pollmann worked, was particularly rich in stringed instrument making, and many of the suppliers quite happily sold unsigned instruments to large distributors like Pollmann. Sometimes it is possible to identify these manufacturers by distinctive construction characteristics, patents, or trade names, and other times it can prove more difficult.
Probably the most distinctive instrument offered by Pollmann, and the one best known today, was what he called the “mandoline-banjo”. In his circa 1885 catalog, several variants of this distinctive design appeared as “American mandolines” and the “Pollmann mandoline-banjo and guitars.” One American mandoline, with a birds-eye maple back was of traditional construction, but the other featured a flat rosewood back, con- ventional bent ribs, and a pin bridge like a guitar. The mandoline-banjo and mandoline-guitar were of similar shape, but with strings that attached at the bottom rib, passing over a floating bridge, their necks and stringing like that of a banjo and guitar respectively. These were an early example of the fad for hybrid stringed instruments, with the stringing of one instrument and the body of another, which soon flooded the American marketplace. Only the mandoline-banjo has survived in significant numbers and was promoted heavily in advertisements for years after its introduction.
There is no reference to a patent in the early catalog appearance of the “American mandolines,” but Antonio Bini of Brooklyn applied specifically for the mandoline-banjo variant in 1886, assigning it to August Pollmann. The invention was awarded U.S. Patent number 362,417 in 1887. As Bini stated, “The object of my invention is to provide a mandolin which is so constructed that a great number of tones can be produced, and the same played either in the same manner as a banjo or as a mandolin, combining thereby the advantages of both instruments in one.” Bini was the son of the first Italian luthier in New York, Joseph Bini, who immigrated in the 1840s and played guitar at P. T. Barnum’s American Museum. Antonio Bini was listed as a musical instrument or guitar maker in all census and directory listings from the 1870s through 1910, so it is likely that he was the manufacturer for these instruments on behalf of Pollmann, even though they were sold only under Pollmann’s name. The National Music Museum pre- serves several of these fascinating instruments, which allowed banjo players to capture the increasingly popular sound of the mandolin while employing the banjo technique that was familiar to them.
August Pollmann was a fascinating character, not only for his well-documented business struggles and ultimate demise, but also for how he inhabited the role of nineteenthcentury immigrant instrument distributor, balancing importation from the homeland with domestic production. The curious mandoline-banjo, while invented by Antonio Bini, was no doubt intended by Pollmann to differentiate his own company’s wares from those of his competitors in a challenging marketplace. Through the survival of his peculiar instruments, he is still known by stringed instrument players and collectors of musical oddities, while many other nineteenth century musical instrument wholesalers have slid completely into obscurity.