A Brief History:
The Martin Ukulele
© Richard Johnston, 4/3/98

I researched this material for the Rodale Press book “Martin Guitars--An Illustrated Celebration of America’s Premier Guitarmaker.” Space restraints resulted in more than half of it being cut, so here is the more complete version.

Martin had first tried building ukuleles in 1907, but with little success. A few years later America had a severe case of Hawaiian music fever, prompting Martin to try once more at finding a way out of the economic rut that had plagued the company for decades. By the time Frank Henry made a second attempt at building ukes in 1915 the company probably had a chance to inspect a genuine Hawaiian instrument, such as those made by Manuel Nunes or Jonah Kumalae.

This time, instead of building spruce-topped baby-guitars as they had in 1907, Martin used thinner woods, an all-mahogany body (including top), and a minimum of very light bracing. Although the earliest examples were still a bit crude, the result was a good-sounding ukulele, and by January of 1916 Martin was selling hundreds, and then thousands, of instruments that were highly affordable and small enough to take anywhere.

Style 2

Unlike the guitar and mandolin, the little uke wasn't difficult to play--basic chords could usually be mastered in a couple of days even by those who had never played another stringed instrument. Magazine and sheet music covers lead Americans to believe that a front porch or lawn swing was almost uncivilized without a uke handy, while the back pages carried ads offering a “5 minute Ukulele course” for only a nickel plus a few cents postage.

The uke, like the later fads such as hula hoops and rollerblades, seemed to be everywhere. Though vaudeville hotshots like Cliff Edwards (Ukulele Ike) and Roy Smeck performed amazing musical gymnastics on the instrument, for most Americans the ukulele was easy fun on four strings. For those wishing more of a challenge, there was the Martin taropatch, an eight-string uke, and the tiple, with ten steel strings.

Style 3, circa 1930. See the closeups at the bottom of the page.

The first Martin ukuleles, all of mahogany, were offered in Styles 1, 2, and 3, with corresponding models in Hawaiian Koa wood added in 1920. The fancy pearl-bordered 5-K, which cost a whopping $50, was added to the line in 1922. But the vast majority of sales were of the plainer models such as the Style 1, which had plain binding and a minimum of decoration.

In the early 1920s an even simpler mahogany model without any binding, the Style 0, was offered for a mere $10. This model allowed Martin to compete more effectively with the cheaper mail-order ukes offered by companies like Sears and Montgomery Ward. Of all the Martin instruments that turn up in the corner of an attic or the top shelf of Grandma’s closet, an overwhelming majority are Style O ukes:

The public's ready acceptance of the couldn’t-be-plainer Style 0 indicated their approval of no-frills value with the Martin name, and the company would use the same formula on Style 17 guitar models when the Great Depression hit the country a decade later.

A tremendous number of ukuleles were sold in the fifteen years of the initial fad, and increasing demand prompted Martin to add a new wing to the North Street factory in 1925. Production peaked in 1926, with Martin making over 14,000 ukuleles that year alone, allowing the funding of a second story to the new wing of the factory in 1927. Uke sales then tapered off in 1928, before slowing to a trickle as the Depression deepened in the early 1930s.

Though the vastly improved Martin factory could almost be called “the house that ukes built”, the company’s preoccupation with meeting demand for ukuleles left them little time for anything else. Martin’s files contain numerous requests made in the mid-1920s for larger guitars or other special orders, all politely turned down with the explanation that the company was too back-ordered to take on new projects. Martin guitars were gradually being made stronger to withstand the tension of steel strings, but the company made no other efforts to modernize their by-now ancient designs until uke sales began to falter.

Ukulele sales didn’t amount to much in the late 1930s and early ‘40s, but ukes were given another boost when Hawaiian music became prominent again after World War II. This second surge in Martin's uke sales was partly due to Arthur Godfrey's celebrity, but more to the renewed popularity of Hawaiian music spurred by servicemen returning from the Pacific.

Circa 1950 style 3. The body and neck decorations are plainer than the earlier style 3 ukes.

Except for a few special orders Martin rarely builds ukuleles today, primarily because the vast numbers made earlier are sufficient to supply the current demand, and at lower prices than the cost of a new Martin uke. When sales of new ukuleles had slowed to a trickle in the 1960s, someone asked C.F. Martin III why he didn't drop them from the catalog. His reply was that sales of the little ukulele had supported the Martin company more than once, and so it deserved to stay. Such loyalty meant that Martin continued to offer high quality ukuleles long after every other American manufacturer had abandoned them altogether.

1930s style 3 fingerboard detail

1930s style 3 celluloid "shield" top inlay

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