Howe-Orme Cylinder-Top Mandolin
Elias Howe Company
Boston, Massachusetts, ca. 1900
Who were they? The names “Howe” and “Orme” are both quite common and occur surprisingly often in juxtaposition. For example, Gen. George Washington’s extant correspondence includes letters to a fellow soldier named Orme and to the much better-known British general, William Howe. The Utah Supreme Court has a Justice Orme as well as its Chief Justice, Howe. Sherlock Holmes knew the names as those of to two intersecting roads (one real and one fictional) in London:
At half-past twelve we found ourselves upon the steps of Mrs. Warren's house--a high, thin, yellow-brick edifice in Great Orme [Greater Ormond] Street, a narrow thoroughfare at the northeast side of the British Museum. Standing as it does near the corner of the street, it commands a view down Howe Street, with its more pretentious houses. Holmes pointed with a chuckle to one of these, a row of residential flats, which projected so that they could not fail to catch the eye. The Adventure of the Red Circle, by Arthur Conan Doyle
But the Howe-Orme pairing in which we are interested appears on a group of high-quality musical instruments manufactured by the Elias Howe Company, in Boston, MA, at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Patrick Sky, in the introduction to his reissue of Ryan’s Mammoth Collection (Sky, 1995; Mel Bay Publications), provides an extensive biography of Howe, from which many of the following facts about Howe's life were obtained.
The Elias Howe Co. according to Mugwumps publisher Michael I. Holmes (to whom I am very grateful for generously providing a number of critical details that appear here), was founded in 1840. But, by the time it was making mandolins, it was no longer run by Elias Howe, but by his sons, William Hills Howe and Edward Frank Howe. The company was, however, a continuation and extension of their father’s highly successful career in the music business.
Elias was one of several highly accomplished members of the extended Howe family that traces its American roots to John Howe of Sudbury Massachusetts. Our Elias Howe, Jr. Has occasionally been mistaken for his eponymous relative, Elias Howe, Jr., the inventor of the sewing machine and zipper. The sewing machine Elias was born a year earlier (1919) in Spencer, MA, somewhat west of our Elias’ Framingham, MA 1920 birthplace. Yet another illustrious (and musical) relative is Julia Ward Howe, who composed the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
Music publisher Elias Howe, Jr.
Being from a prominent family in 19th century New England didn’t guarantee affluence, and our Elias grew up among modest surroundings, as the saying goes. At one point, he made 2 cents a day working as a plowboy. But he was enterprising. After learning to play violin as a child, he began copying down the tunes he heard local fiddlers play. His book of tunes caught the attention of other fiddlers and eventually launched a highly successful music publishing career. It was music publishing that eventually made Howe a wealthy man, but it wasn’t a quick or easy process. At the age of 22, he was selling music in Providence, R. I., where he also did instrument (and umbrella!) repairs. The following year, he moved north to Boston to an old, historic area of the city (about a century later, referred to as Boston’s “Combat Zone,” the center of its adult entertainment businesses). That area, just east of Beacon Hill, was a center of musical publishing and instrument making in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Howe was involved in several musical publishing partnerships, one of note being with the Oliver Ditson Co.
By the onset of the Civil War, Howe was a prolific publisher of musical collections and instruction books and a manufacturer of military drums used by the U.S. Army. Because of his renown, he was offered the post of Director of Bands for the U. S. Army by Abraham Lincoln. Howe turned down the offer, continuing to publish music books, manufacture drums, and sell flagolets. His musical enterprise flourished.
Howe’s own first instrument was the fiddle and he maintained a lifelong interest in stringed instruments. His instruction books included editions on banjo and guitar, as well as his vast collections of fiddle tunes. In the 1880s, he and William B. Ryan published Ryan’s Mammoth Collection, a vast compendium of over 1,000 fiddle tunes, many of Irish origin. This work preceded Capt. O’Neill’s famous collection of Irish tunes by 4 decades. Howe became an avid collector of stringed instruments. Apparently, he pursued collecting with the same vigor evident in his business life and his personal collection became the largest in America.
He died in 1895, in Watertown, MA. His sons William and Edward took over the family business, incorporating it under their names in 1898, with William as president and Edward as treasurer. It ceased manufacturing and publishing activities in 1910 but continued to sell sheet music and instruments and to offer instrument repairs, until 1931. At the turn of the 20th century, the company sold violins, basses, “Superbo” banjos made by William Cole, and their own mandolin-family instruments.
The above example of Elias Howe Co. Letterhead from 1918 reveals some interesting facts. First, the Howe-Orme instrument line is prominently mentioned despite its apparent discontinuation several years earlier. The numbers (8-27-18 2500) in the upper left corner appear to indicate when the letterhead was printed and, if this interpretation is correct, would rule out the possibility that old letterhead from prior to 1910 was still being used. One possibility is that the instruments continued to be built longer than has been assumed. Another is that, although no longer built, the Howe-Orme line remained in inventory. A third (and perhaps remote) possibility is that the instruments had sufficient prestige to warrant their continued mention on company letterhead even after their discontinuation. Another fact is that, by 1918, the company had moved from its earlier location on Court St. southward a few blocks to Bosworth St., about 150 yards north of the Boston Common and Public Gardens (seen below around 1904). Yet another fact revealed by the letterhead is that an individual named A. F. Holmes was secretary of the company.
The instrument patents. The Howe-Orme instrument line comprised mandolins, tenor mandolas, octave mandolas, cello-mandolas, and guitars. Innovations appearing in Howe-Orme mandolins (and guitars) were awarded a series of five patents, all of which can be found here. (I'm indebted to Gregg Miner and Michael Holmes for steering me in the general direction of these patents. Some, they actually found before I did and others I found with the help of date information they provided.) Patents of several types are issued by the US Patent Office. The two types that concern us here are utility patents, which secure rights to some functional innovation, and design patents, which secure rights to stylistic innovations.
The earliest of the five patents, issued in 1893, was the first to describe the longitudinal hump, running from fingerboard end to tailpiece, that is characteristic of Howe-Orme instruments. This was only one of three innovations described in that patent but appears to be the only one actually to find its way into production. The "cylinder top" (my term, not theirs) design was described as applicable to both guitars and mandolins (see patents for a description of the other features introduced). The next Howe-Orme patent, issued in 1895, described a neck-to-body joint that allowed the neck to be adjusted for angle as well as removed entirely. Although this idea was described as applicable to the manufacture of several types of stringed instruments including mandolin, it seems to have been used only for guitars. The holders of these two early utility patents are James S. Back, who is listed as the inventor, and George Lewis Orme, who shares equal rights with Back. Both are listed as residing in Ottawa, Canada.
The next set of patents appeared, consecutively numbered, on August 24, 1897, the date listed on the label of Howe-Orme mandolins. These were design (as opposed to utility) patents that describe the appearance rather than the functional features of an invention. The first two of these 1897 patents were awarded to Edward F. Howe and describe two mandolins featuring the "cylinder top" design. The first is a more-or-less Neapolitan-style instrument with a bowl back and the second is the celebrated guitar-shaped model. The third design patent depicts a six-string guitar with the same longitudinal bulge featured on the mandolins. This patent, however, is assigned exclusively to James Back, with a George N. Orme (not George Lewis Orme -- perhaps his son?) listed as witness (but not as assignee) on the text page of the patent filing.
James S. Back: the "Idea Man?" The names appearing on the various patents suggest that James Back was the inventor of the "cylinder top" concept and viewed it primarily as a modification for guitar design. All of the patents issued to him use guitar illustrations to show his novel ideas. The texts, moreover, describe those ideas first and foremost as applicable to guitars and, seemingly as an afterthought to extend his claims of intellectual ownership, mention mandolins or other stringed instruments somewhat parenthetically. Thus, Back's primary interest clearly appears to have been guitars, although he acknowledged the potential application of his ideas to mandolins. Back appears to have worked either for (as acoustical engineer) or with (as partner) George L. Orme. Because the company only bears Orme's name, the former seems more likely. It wouldn't be that unusual for an acoustical engineer, even if not a full partner, to be a major player in the operations of a musical instrument company (e.g., Lloyd Loar at Gibson in the early 1920s). As primary (but equal) patent holder, Back's role seems to fit this scenario. It seems that Orme made use of his rights to Back's inventions by forming a partnership with Edward F. Howe, Elias's son. Howe, in turn, apparently took the initiative in applying Back's cylindrical bulge design to mandolins, as Howe holds the mandolin design patents. James Back must have been in some way connected with the Howe-Orme partnership, because his guitar design patent was filed together with Howe's mandolin patents, and by the same attorney (B. J. Noyes, who was Howe's attorney, not A. Harvey, who was Back's). The three design patents were clearly submitted as a package. Back appears to have been the creative team member with Howe and Orme providing funding, manufacturing, and marketing expertise to the enterprise. This fits with the fact that the Elias Howe Co. marketed products built by other manufacturers.
Back's role may have been roughly analogous to that of his contemporary, Boston's better-known David L. Day. Day's numerous and highly influential musical instrument innovations contributed substantially to the success of Fairbanks, and later Vega instruments. Day held the patent for Vega's cylinder back mandolin design, which followed Back's "cylinder top" design by 20 years!. Yet, the closest he came to being a named partner in a company was lending his initial to the B & D line of instruments produced by the Bacon Banjo Co. of Groton, Connecticut. However, Day exercised considerable control over day-to-day operations at several companies for which he was employed over the years. He virtually ran the Fairbanks Co. after A. C. Fairbanks retired from the firm. If James Back really was "the David L. Day of Howe-Orme," which seems plausible, then he gets far less credit than he deserves.
It's important, however, not to overstate the comparison. Day is responsible not only for the cylinder-back mandolin design, but also several notable banjo innovations including the Fairbanks Whyte Laydie and Tubaphone, and the Bacon Banjo Co. B & D Silver Bell. Thus, his impact is both more diverse and more enduring than Back's.George Lewis Orme and George N. Orme. Unfortunately, very little is known about the Ormes, or their business dealings, other than what has already been mentioned. George Lewis and George N. are clearly different individuals. The names appear on legal documents filed by attorneys who would have caught errors, such as an "N" appearing where an "L" should have. Also, George Lewis Orme customarily used his full middle name, rather than an initial, on patent documents. That George N. is the son of George Lewis is a plausible but unconfirmed speculation. Outside of the Foreman family, brothers rarely share the first name "George," or any other first name, for that matter. They could have been cousins or uncle-and-nephew, however.
Whatever his relationship to the other George, George Lewis Orme clearly was the man in charge of the Orme Company. He appears on the earlier documents and is listed as an owner of patent rights whereas George N. is listed in a later patent merely as a witness. The company built musical instruments, and perhaps other things, as well. According to Michael Holmes, Orme's company manufactured an instrument line sold under the “Echo” name. Presumably, the fact that “Echo” is an anagram of “E. H. Co.” [see below] is a coincidence.
Instrument Description. The Howe-Orme instruments, as the text and illustrations of the various patents suggest, have a characteristic cylindrical bulge on the top, running from the end of the fretboard to the tailpiece. This hump design is reminiscent of the cylinder-back Vega mandolins manufactured in the Boston area roughly a decade or two later. Other similarities with instruments from neighboring instrument builders in Boston are the tailpiece covers and the type of engraved position markers on the fingerboards of the high-end Howe-Ormes. These are essentially identical to those used by Vega and Fairbanks during the same general time period. The Howe-Orme mandolins differ from other Boston mandolins most noticeably in their guitar-shaped silhouette. The instruments also have a distinctive pickguard between the sound hole and bridge, featuring an elaborate E. H. Co. logo in mother-of-pearl. By 1910, the company had ceased production of Howe-Orme instruments, although it continued with other music-related activities such as retail sales until the early 1930s.
19th Century Howe-Orme mandolin ad.
Small but loyal following. These instruments have been largely overlooked by musicians and collectors but those who have discovered them very much appreciate their design craftsmanship, and tone. Musician/collector Gregg Miner, whose collection includes a Howe-Orme mandolin, observes,
“This little-known company has been virtually ignored by nearly all historians, perhaps because it disrupts long-held conventions on the history of the mandolin and mandolin orchestras.”
He goes on to explain that the Howe-Orme mandolins predated Gibson in two respects: (1) Howe-Ormes first featured a flat-back style as opposed to the bowl-back shape of European mandolins, an innovation often credited to Gibson. (2) They were the first family of mandolin-style instruments available in a range of sizes corresponding to the violin family. As we shall see later, they were clearly both suitable and intended for use in mandolin orchestras. (Vega and Washburn’s Leland division also produced mandolins in a full range of sizes but these appeared later than the Howe-Orme instruments. Mandolinist and music historian Paul Ruppa has noted that in addition to the Elias Howe Co., the F. O. Gutman, or FOG, company of Cleveland and the Waldo Co. also produced mandolas and mandocellos prior to 1900. So, although Howe beat Gibson, it may or may not have been the first company to offer a family of mandolin instruments.) West Coast luthier Rick Turner is an avid collector of Howe-Orme mandolins and guitars and builds a guitar adapted from a Howe-Orme design. Chris Scott, of the legendary Norman’s Rare Guitars in Hollywood and guitarist Martin Simpson both have been quoted as describing Howe-Orme guitars as among the best they have ever played. The October, 1997 issue of Guitar Player magazine featured a Howe-Orme guitar in its “Encore” section. The late Beatle George Harrison reportedly bought a Howe-Orme mandolin from McCabes Guitar Shop in Santa Monica in the mid-1990s. Clearly, these instruments have a loyal and knowledgeable, if small, following.
Mandolin or mandolinetto? Howe-Orme mandolins are often referred to as “mandolinettos” and that term has come into use to describe any guitar-shaped mandolin. Its origins are not clear. Gregg Miner (who has an outstanding Howe-Orme page) argues that the term was popularized by Sears Roebuck & Co. through its catalog, which apparently featured similarly-shaped instruments from other manufacturers who apparently called them “mandolinettos.” The term appears not to have been used by the Elias Howe Co. All of the patents refer to the instrument as a “mandolin.” This is consistent with an 1898 advertisement that also refers to the instruments as mandolins and mandolas and lists the latter in tenor, octave and cello sizes. So, despite its strong association with these instruments, the term “mandolinetto” appears not to be how the company originally referred to their instruments.
Styles. It appears that these instruments were built in several rather similar styles, all with the characteristic guitar shape and cylindrically arched spruce top. However, there are three headstock shapes, two sizes of pickguard, two different woods used for backs and sides, the presence or absence of binding, pearl or wood fingerboards, and either plain or fancy position markers.
The three headstocks are (1) paddle shaped (i.e., narrowest at the nut) with a concave top edge, (2) tapered with a single elliptical lobe at the end, and (3) tapered with a three-lobed crown-like end. The tapered headstocks were either plain or bound, with engraved pearl inlay.
The styles of tortoise pickguard are small, and perhaps undecorated, vs large with an elaborate mother-of-pearl “E H Co” logo. Although the logo itself appears essentially identical from instrument to instrument, the pearl scroll work surrounding the logo on the pickguard does not. At least several different types were used. It is quite possible that these pickguards, complete with inlays to Howe’s specifications, were ordered from Germany or elsewhere in Europe. Many decoratively inlayed pickguards gracing American instruments of the period (e.g., Martin bowl-back mandolins) were imported. In the case of both the large and small pickguards, they are located between the bridge and sound hole.
This Howe-Orme has a fingerboard covered in abalone.
According to Rick Turner (who has uncovered a Howe-Orme catalog from about 1900 and generously shared information from it with me), there were six different levels of trim. The back and sides of the lowest-grade model were mahogany; those of the better models (2-6), Brazilian rosewood. The 2nd level had a bound top; the 3rd level, bound top and back. Bound instruments had ivoroid binding and black-natural-black purfling on the top inside the binding. Level 4 added the three-lobed headstock. Rick noted that his Level 5 (and, I assume, the Level 6s, as well) had engraved tuners and tailpiece. The fifth and sixth levels, according to Rick, also add the full pearl or abalone fingerboard. On the the very top model, "landmark" fret locations on the pearl/abalone fingerboard are marked by engravings whereas the penultimate model features simple dots.
Position markers also varied on the wooden fingerboards. Depending on the model, they are either simple pearl dots or more elaborate engraved pearl markers in both circular and “football” shapes. Full binding and engraved markers seem to go hand-in-hand in the upper-middle range. At least on some models, the engraved position markers, as noted earlier, are identical to those found on contemporary higher-grade Vega bowl-back and cylinder-back mandolins and mandolas and on others, strongly reminiscent of Fairbanks banjo inlays. It is extremely likely that these various Boston manufacturers obtained their engraved pearl from the same source. Rick's observations support this idea:
"...there has to be a connection among the makers of the Boston instruments. Per Andenberg [an instrument builder in nearby Somerville, MA, for whom Vega founder Julius Nelson had worked] , for instance, keeps coming up as building Bay State and Tilton's Patent instruments. These guys must have worked around town in different shops & taken ideas with them. A friend of mine who is a piano technician says the Howe-Orme [guitar] neck adjustment bolts are identical to grand piano action adjusters of that time. I can just see one of the Howes yelling to the shop apprentice, 'Hey, run over to Chickering (or Mason & Hamlin) and get us a bucket of those bolts!'"
Similarities between Howe-Orme (left) and Vega (right)
fingerboard inlays are obvious in this side-by-side
The Howe-Orme inlays differ from those shown on my instrument
(below, right) and may signify that at a later date, the
Vega-style inlays were more common. The Vega instrument
shown above dates from after 1913, when the cylinder-backs
These images of Fairbanks banjo and Howe-Orme mandolin inlays likewise show a stylistic similarity. The topmost inlay on the banjo and bottom-most inlay on the Howe-Orme are quite similar. The banjo dates from roughly the turn of the century.
Various features may have existed in combinations other than those described above. Some of the variation evident in available specimens may also be due to specification changes from year-to-year within the same model. Then, as now, such changes were common and often used to justify price increases, to match or surpass a competitor’s features, or to attract a new market segment.
Scarcity and survival. Howe-Orme mandolins were produced for a relatively short time. Thus, the total number produced must have been fairly modest. Furthermore, they departed significantly from what most people of the time thought of as a mandolin, a factor that may have further limited sales. I’ve seen lots of vintage pictures of individuals and groups playing mandolin, but don’t ever recall seeing a Howe-Orme in any of them. Rick Turner's catalog, however, suggests that Howe-Orme tried to promote mandolins using some of the same strategies so successfully employed by Gibson. According to Rick:
"There is much reference to mandolin orchestra in the mando descriptions, and in the back there is reference to a book of arrangements as used by the Boston Mandolin Orchestra."
These efforts notwithstanding, they clearly didn’t become the dominant figure in the mandolin world. The years prior to WWI, in marked contrast to the period following that war, were a conservative period and innovation was not always warmly received. Nor were they the primary thrust of the Elias Howe Co. Banjos surpassed mandolins in popularity at the time that the Elias Howe Co. began making Howe-Orme mandolins, and the banjo line probably outsold mandolins by a considerable margin. Also, by the time these instruments appeared, Elias, the master marketer, was no longer around to promote them. All of these facts suggest that the number produced must have been fairly modest.
Howe-Orme instruments were associated with quality, as this 1903 advertisement for Denver's Knight-Campbell Music Co. suggests. Although lesser instruments started at as little as $3.50, the Howe-Orme mandolins and guitars were priced at "$18 to $75 and Upwards." The copy also suggests that the Howe-Ormes are the best models offered. Knight-Campbell was a large firm that, in addition to instrument sales, published sheet music and owned Denver radio station KFDL. It was founded by William W. Knight, seen below, flanked by photos of the store's impressive interior.
[ W. W. Knight and Knight-Campbell photo source: Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library]
While they are certainly scarce, a rather surprising number of Howe-Orme mandolins have survived. Survival usually implies two factors: (1) inherent quality in construction and (2) sufficient perceived value (musical, monetary, or both) to warrant preservation. Why were they built well enough and treated gently enough to last over a century? It is impossible to know for sure, but let’s speculate.
The turn-of-the-century Boston instrument manufacturing culture in which they were conceived seems to have upheld high standards. In their excellent 1999 book, America’s Instrument: The Banjo in the Nineteenth Century, Philip Gura and Jim Bollman describe the period as “the golden era of Boston banjo making,” (p. 191). In fact, it would be fair to extend that accolade well beyond the banjo. Highly regarded companies such as Vega, Cole, Fairbanks, Gatcomb, Haynes (Bay State), Thompson & Odell, and others were all manufacturing and/or selling mandolins within walking distance of the Elias Howe Co. Vega’s mandolins are well known and have already been mentioned. They remain favorites among classical mandolinists. William A. Cole, himself a mandolinist as well as banjo player, manufactured the Imperial mandolin. Fairbanks, though associated primarily with banjos, was a significant presence in the mandolin business. Likewise for Thompson & Odell. Gatcomb, in the premier issue of his Banjo & Guitar Gazette (reproduced in Gura & Bollman, 1999) actually devotes more space to the mandolin than to either the banjo or guitar; and Haynes listed mandolins first – above banjos, zithers and guitars – in its 1890's advertising. Although many of these companies made some student-level instruments, they also made superb professional quality models. This supports the arguments that (1) a thriving market existed in the Boston area for top-quality instruments and (2) that local standards for instrument manufacture were of the highest caliber. Given the context in which the Howe-Orme instruments arose, their high quality and durability is hardly surprising.
Why were they treated well enough to survive into the 21st century? Even harder to know. Initially, they were a substantial investment and were treated accordingly. According to the Knight-Campbell ad (above), the top Howe-Ormes (probably guitars) sold for upwards of $75 in 1903. This is comparable to what a Martin 0-42 guitar or Style 6 mandolin -- a couple of very nice instruments -- were selling for at the time. At some point, their monetary value must have been forgotten. No doubt, many perished. But their construction may be inherently more stable than that of multi-ribbed bowl-back mandolins with all those opportunities for seam separation. So it may have taken a lesser standard of “good treatment” for them to survive than other styles of instrument (e.g., bowl-backs) of comparable quality. Others may have survived because of their appearance. Their diminutive-guitar look is inherently engaging. So, perhaps, people just had a soft spot for the “cute little guitar-thing that used to belong to Grandpa.”
Date. This instrument is Howe-Orme mandolin serial number 395. It is difficult to estimate dates from serial numbers because so few of these numbers are known. What we do know is that the instruments were in production for roughly 13 years, between 1897 and 1910. Of the handful of serial numbers I have seen, the highest is in the mid-1400s. Assuming that this wasn't one of the last instruments made, it is reasonable to assume that the serial number sequence runs at least to 1500 or 2000. These values suggest an average of between roughly 116 and 154 instruments per year. Those figures, in turn, place serial number 395 in the third or fourth year of production, or roughly around the turn of the 20th century. If production figures prove to be higher, which is quite likely, the estimated date would be earlier. Comparison of specific features of this instrument with those of its contemporaries from other Boston manufacturers are inconclusive. Inlays, for example, appear consistent both with instruments dated to the 1890s and those dated to the early 1900s. Distinct changes in inlay detail did not appear on other builders' instruments until after the discontinuation of Howe-Orme production in 1910. For instance, inlays form the 1920s often are somewhat less ornate than the earlier examples.
This Fairbanks Regent mandolin (above, left), ascribed to the 1890s, is another Boston-built instrument roughly contemporary with the Howe-Orme (above, right). The pickguard uses the same type of grained ivoroid inlaid in tortoise shell, more easily visible in the details, below (Fairbanks, top, Howe-Orme, bottom).
Style. The style is difficult to determine with certainty because features vary both between and within models. Like style #3, this instrument features a bound top, back, and headstock and the simple single-lobed headstock. The engraved position markers on the fingerboard suggest that it might be a style #4. In some catalogs, that style is shown with a three-lobed headstock, but the style #3 is shown with dot position markers. This may simply reflect year-to-year variation. In any case, this instrument is one of the mid-grades, with respect to ornamentation.
Condition. When I received the instrument, I first noticed that it was really dirty and dull looking. A gentle but thorough cleaning removed the grime and restored the luster of the finish. The top has taken on a rich yellow-orange hue. There are a few battle scars but no top cracks. In some respect, the few darkened bruises on the top almost enhance the instrument's appearance, giving it a distinctly vintage look. None are structural problems, but appear to be from either pick wear or a long-ago bump of some sort. The canonical Howe-Orme "hump" is completely intact. The bracing provides a good deal of reinforcement for this otherwise delicate construction feature. I've seen several examples where, despite the sturdy original design, the hump has cracked at its lateral extremes, where it levels out before the top joins the sides. Happily, this instrument doesn't show any such problem. The pickguard is intact and quite striking. The script appears to be formed from ivoroid, edged with a very thin black line, and set into the tortoise shell. The fingerboard inlays are very attractive and in excellent condition. The bridge is carved ebony. In addition to its marked curve to follow the contour of the humped top, it is gracefully sculpted with scooped-out wings to either side of the string contact area and nicely defined regions for each pair of strings.
The back of the instrument revealed some superficial ridges in the rosewood that look to be slight surface cracks. They don't extend through the wood, however, and seem just to be slight grain separations on the surface. The rosewood on the back is very dark. The headstock is also in great shape, with its rosewood veneer and engraved inlays intact. The ebony fingerboard is in excellent condition, although there is visible wear on the lower frets. There are no cracks and all the inlays are present and in fine shape. They have a distinctly Bostonian appearance, resembling those on early banjos from Boston firms such as Cole and A. C. Fairbanks. They are less like the football-shaped Vega inlays seen on another Howe-Orme mandolin that is displayed in the image shown above. Those inlays seem to have appeared somewhat later (Vega cylinder back mandolins first appeared three years after Howe-Orme ceased production) than the style used on this mandolin. There is some minimal loss of ink in the engraved lines of inlays in lower positions, those that get the most wear. But, if anything, this wear is less than typical for instruments of this vintage and re-inking the few lines that have faded is a fairly simple job that I've done before on other instruments. The pearl inlay work on the neck and headstock, both the cutting and engraving, is quite impressive, although typical of the instruments made in Boston at this time. There were obviously some excellent craftspeople available to the instrument manufacturers operating in Boston at the turn of the 20th century.
Although the neck itself is intact and solid, the neck joint is misaligned. As I began to string the instrument (with extra-light classical strings), it became apparent that the neck angle was wrong, resulting in a very high action. I tuned one A-string to pitch just so that I could get some sense of the instrument's voice, but quickly made the decision that the instrument needed repair work to be functional.
A luthier who looked at it suspects that heat was the culprit. He said that the hide glue used in construction in that time period is susceptible to softening under conditions of prolonged heat and humidity. When this happens with the neck under string tension, the neck angle creeps forward. Typically, neck joints are steamed loose for repairs by pulling a fret above the joint, drilling a small hole through the fret slot into the joint, and inserting a needle through which steam is forced to loosen the hide glue's bond. Because these old frets are small, it is unlikely that replacing the fret would completely conceal the hole. So, it will probably be necessary to remove the heel cap carefully, using the exposed neck heel as a point of access for drilling a hole to insert the needle into the neck joint. After the neck has been re-aligned, the cap can be re-attached in its original position, thus covering the small hole. This sort of work needs to proceed slowly and with great caution so that there is minimal disruption to the mandolin, cosmetically or functionally. My hope and expectation is that this repair will result in an instrument that not only looks great but is structurally correct and fully playable.
Serial Numbers Registry
Your Help Needed
Rick Turner has suggested that developing a registry of Howe-Orme serial numbers would be useful. I agree. If you have or know of a Howe-Orme mandolin or guitar, please send me the following information:
1. Serial number
2. Size (e.g., mandolin, mandola, or other designation)
3. Description of features such as woods, binding, headstock shape, pick guard, fingerboard material, and type of position markers
4. Any information you might have indicating its date of manufacture
5. Anything else you consider relevant or of interest to Home-Orme owners or enthusiasts.
This information can be sent to me at: email@example.com
As I receive information, I'll update this page to include what I've learned.
Back to Mandolin Family page.
Contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Last update 3/2/03