Exploring the archives: the new Julius Bellson / Gibson Company Archive at the NMM
If you are reading this, you probably like musical instruments. You might be a history buff, too. You may have even looked at a cool old instrument, like one of the NMM’s Gibson guitars, and thought, “wouldn’t it be fun to go back in time and see the place where it was made, maybe snoop around the papers on a few company executives’ desks?” Well, what if I told you that now you CAN?
Okay, maybe that is a slight exaggeration. But only by a little. The new Julius Bellson / Gibson Company Archive at the National Music Museum is the next best thing!
Julius Bellson was born Julius Balassone in Salerno, Italy, in 1905. His family immigrated to the United States in 1907 and settled in Illinois. In the 1930s, he worked as a composer, teacher, and musician in Minneapolis, alongside his brother, Albert Bellson, an influential music teacher and Gibson dealer. By 1935, Julius had moved to Kalamazoo to work for the Gibson Company in a variety of roles. He was listed in the Kalamazoo directory as a “tech advisor” in 1935, inspector in 1937, music compiler in 1939, clerk in 1942, industrial engineer in 1943, then was promoted to personnel manager in 1945. Between 1952 and 1953 he was advanced to a financial role as assistant treasurer. Bellson was best known, however, as Gibson’s company historian and author of The Gibson Story, a 96-page softcover book that was the first book about its history, published
in 1973. Indeed, it was one of the first books about a major American musical instrument company, a now-popular genre among instrument aficionados. Bellson collected a massive trove of materials about his employer over the years, from his own binders of memos to obsolete company documents and shipping ledgers. From these materials he crafted his history, but there is much more to be gleaned from these papers than Bellson was able to include. Upon his death, this cache was passed along to Dr. Robert (Bob) Woody, a dear friend and mandolin student of Bellson’s, until Dr. Woody’s 2021 donation of the materials for their permanent care at the National Music Museum.
Bellson’s trove of papers documents a broad range of Gibson history, from the very founding of the company to the research he assembled in writing his book about the company. While it is impossible to list the entire contents of multiple file cabinets here, there are some standout highlights sure to capture your imagination.
Documents relating to the founding of the company, lease, and purchase of land, and construction of the iconic Gibson factory. This includes Orville Gibson’s contract with the company, a certified copy of the Articles of Incorporation, and numerous business documents relating to the early finances of the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Mfg. Co.
Binders of music used by the Gibsonite ensemble, a touring mandolin group that promoted the company’s products.
Music and arrangements by Albert Bellson, Julius’ brother and a prominent Gibson teacher-dealer, whose students included prominent American mandolinists such as Peter Ostroushko. It was Julius’ music arranging and work with his brother in Minneapolis that originally brought him to the attention of Guy Hart, CEO of Gibson, and led to his hiring by the company in 1935.
Numerous rare and unique company publications including catalogs, price lists, magazines, and correspondence. See left for image of The Sounding Board Salesman, 1917, showing a “Gibsonite” ensemble. Among these are an extraordinarily rare binder of promotional materials for Kalamazoo Playthings and Kel Kroydon, a brief Gibson venture during the Great Depression that used factory resources to produce wood toys during times when instrument production was slow from 1931-1933 see toys offered for sale (below).
Company shipping ledgers from the years 1921 and 1935. These ledgers documented instruments and other products shipped or returned from various customers and vendors. They offer a valuable window into Gibson production and clientele. A page from a 1935 shipping ledger (see right) shows the 1935 shipping of the new Super 400, top-of-the-line archtop to Gibson-endorser and big-band star Alvino Rey.
Most tantalizingly, the archive also includes several binders of inter-company memos documenting the period leading into WWII, including production information and changes, sales data, and company work policies. Things did not always go to plan, and there is some juicy gossip among these thin leaves of paper! Let me conclude with a big “whoops” – the time Gibson messed up a modification of Les Paul’s archtop guitar to mount a pickup. Les Paul, who later lent his name to the company’s most famous electric guitar, remained angry about this incident decades later, and here it is, from the Gibson side, transcribed below from a donated memo book:
OFFICE MEMO Jan. 30, 1941 Subject: Repair Service on Les Paul’s Inst. On August 23, 1940, Les Paul’s instrument was sent to this factory with certain instructions. It was finally shipped back to New York Band on January 24th, 1941. Someone should have seen to it that something was done about this instrument – and regardless of whose fault it was, I want to caution everyone to guard against anything like this happening again, not only in the case of Les Paul, but in all similar cases. Les Paul is possibly the greatest electric Spanish guitar player in New York. He is very fussy and demands a lot of service. We must see to it that Les Paul is satisfied, if it is at all humanly possible. I hope that everyone will read this over carefully so that a thing like this will never happen again LAWRENCE NEAL
Rich primary source archives like this are vital to understanding the American music industry and the instruments it produced. The Bellson / Gibson Archive joins the illustrious list of companies whose records are already preserved in the NMM’s archives including Holton, Leblanc and Conn (especially the Earle Kent Research Department Archive). These materials provide an amazing level of insight into history and are at the heart of the NMM’s research and educational mission. We look forward to the many fascinating discoveries that lie ahead. Many thanks to the generous donor of this archive, Dr. Robert (Bob) Henley Woody, a long-time friend and student of Julius Bellson, for carefully preserving these valuable materials and entrusting the NMM with their long-term care.
Originally published in the National Music Museum Newsletter Volume 46, Number 2 – Summer 2022
Written by Arian Sheets, Curator of Stringed Instruments